UPPER AMAZON OF BRAZIL DURING THE BURNING SEASON
Years ago I joined Marcos and Marlui, a Brazilian couple
who were documenting the destruction of the Brazilian jungle
near the Bolivian border. We traveled to the heart of the
Amazon, to Rondonia, one of Brazil's 26 states. The
jungle was on fire. Tens of thousands of fires were
started during the dry season of August and September.
Colonists who had cut down the forest on their land had
waited until the dry season in order to burn the fallen
trees. The fires cleared the land so the colonists
could grow cacao and coffee, crops that often deplete the
delicate jungle soil in only a few years.
Everywhere there was a wonderful
recklessness in Rondonia. I met and interviewed rubber
tappers, Indians, cowboys, gold miners, and colonists.
I felt I was living in a time and place that in my own country
had come and gone a hundred years before. In the following
three dispatches, I hope to share a little of what I saw
there. I'd like to start with what the place looked like
as a whole, then move on to some stories about gold miners,
rubber tappers, colonists and Indians.
#1 INTO THE DUST
For two months, Marcos, a photographer,
Marlui, a singer, and I traveled roads and rivers together.
We drove a Jeep through heavy dust and smoke, but we also
took old diesel-powered river boats up uncharted rivers
along the Bolivian-Brazil border. We ate piranha and wild
pig. We found some jungle untouched where the howler monkeys
roared. Always we found human drama. "Darn it, Peter,
no one up north really knows what's going on down here.
Just look at this. The Amazon is on fire!"
Ahead, the rust-red line of the dirt
road moved into smoke. We slowed but didn't stop. Marcos
had to lean out the window to see the road, because there
was so much dust and smoke everywhere. Our nostrils were
clogged with fine purple-red powder. It did little good
to close the vents and the windows. This dust entered
and spread through the Jeep like a cancer. Our cameras and
recording equipment were layered. Our hair was as stiff
as frozen grass.
At six a.m. we were heading toward the
Bolivian border from the Rondonian capital of Porto Velho.
We'd left the Wild West city of dirt streets and bars and
sprawling houses, and now we followed the highway (dirt
and not paved yet) northwest along the Madeira River, "Wood"
River, so called because of all the wood that floats down
its turbulent current. For the past few years, colonists
had flooded into the territory, clearing their land with
axes, chain saws, tractors and chemicals, but mostly by
fire they destroyed the forest, which is called "mata"
in Portuguese. One colonist said to us, "The only good
forest is no forest." I wondered why he thought this,
and then I realized he had come from the poor coast of northeastern
Brazil, and now he wanted to get rich by growing cacao.
But he could grow nothing on his land until the dense jungle
was gone. This was his big opportunity to get out of poverty.
And only the forest stood in his way, or so he thought.
I had come to Brazil thinking I'd find
jungle stereotypes: rain, emerald green, hot rich flashes
of red or blue from the macaw, a beautiful tropical bird.
But I found instead a bloated sun rising like a bruised
tomato over cut and scraggly and singed and smoldering forest.
Like a drunken insect we weaved from one side of the road
to the other, to avoid ruts the size of cars. Brightly painted
trucks hauling chickens and coffee raced past us, kicking
up so much dust, we had to stop until some of it settled
and we could see again. Marcos kept his head out the window.
His eyes were running with dusty tears. And I wondered if
maybe he was crying not from the dust in his eyes but because
he hated to see so much destruction to the rain forest of
Brazil. It was painful for all of us to see so much jungle
going up in smoke.
#2 GOLD MINERS ON THE MADEIRA RIVER
A gold mining area in Brazil is called a "garimpo."
Marcos, Marlui, and I wanted to see
Tamborete, the "city of rafts," the largest of
the Rondonian garimpos on the Madeira River. Five thousand
gold prospectors, called "garimpeiros," camped
at Tamborete. Five hundred rafts were anchored in the middle
of the Madeira while the garimpeiros pumped air down to
divers who sucked gold off the bottom of the river with
big suction hoses.
It was muggy and hazy. We
rode an aluminum boat with an outboard motor upriver into
the rapids of Hell's Furnace. We passed over strong whirlpools
and through narrow channels in the rocks. The boat rocked
and kicked back and forth like a bronco in the white water.
Our pilot wore a bright orange lifejacket but had none to
offer us. Marlui was a little nervous because she did not
know how to swim.
One gold miner in our boat
with ragged clothes and sandals had come to the Amazon from
the hot, dry coast of Brazil in order to get rich. His name
was simply "Diabo," Devil. The only teeth in his
mouth were gold, and they gleamed when the sun hit them.
The dangers in garimpos were
great. In Tamborete ten men had been murdered last month,
and the fever that comes from the sickness called malaria
Before we reached Tamborete,
for miles along the high banks of the river we found huts
and crude lean-tos and men with spades and shovels poking
at the wet gravel. Some wore wide-brimmed hats against the
brutal sun; others wore faded green army caps with little
visors. Most had beards and serious faces.
We had come at a bad time.
Spirits were low, tension high. The river had risen suddenly
in the night with the rains that fell last week upriver
in Bolivia. So now the men panning for gold might have to
wait days or even weeks for the river to drop, so they could
get to the best gold-bearing gravel.
A few miles upriver we came
finally to Tamborete. Suddenly we were among the crude rafts,
called "balsas" in Portuguese. Lashed together
with their yellow and blue plastic awnings, they shimmered
in the sunlight like one long mirage. The rafts were loud
with divers and compressors. Most of the divers had an air
hose for their mouth. They had no scuba gear. They dove
with a larger hose to suck up the gold-laden gravel from
the bottom of the river. One of these rafts could dredge
as much as fifty grams of gold in a seven-hour period, fifteen
kilos a month. In four months, the partners on a raft could
take sixty kilos of gold from the river. Marcos photographed
the men onboard the balsas. The muck was sifted through
a large sieve called a snake, and the gold flakes were separated
from the coarser sand.
A black man from the coast
told us he had come to the Amazon to get rich. He had long
fingernails, meticulously groomed, clean like pearl. His
hair was wild and bushy. He said proudly, "I am a diver."
He said he dove fifty feet down, completely in the dark.
He said many divers were getting killed out there in the
river. Some had no wet suits. Most had little experience.
"Down there," he said as he pointed to the water,
"you can't see two feet in front of you, it's so dark.
With all these balsas above you, the air lines tangle up,
but the worst danger of all is when another diver cuts your
air hose because he thinks you have found gold, and he wants
to get there first."
It is difficult to describe
the blast of sunlight on the Madeira River at midday. It
was almost volcanic. And the pesky "pium," little
black, biting flies devoured any bare skin they could find,
ankles, neck, arms. The pium left little red welts that
itched constantly and left scabs that bled at night.
On shore, from a thousand
hammocks strung around hundreds of fires, the men talked
and sang songs and slept until it was their turn to join
their partners on their raft. We met a one-legged diver
named Lazarus. We were told he was the best diver in the
whole city of rafts. On land he needed crutches to get around,
but in the water he was like a fish. He could stay down
longer than any diver in the garimpo. Lazarus had a neatly
trimmed black beard and shiny eyes. He was only twenty-six
years old, but was perhaps the most dignified man I have
ever met. Every movement he made was precise. Even his gold
necklace gleamed with precision.
Lazarus' crutches leaned
against his chest as he talked about his work. He said,
"When you first enter the water, it is yellow. But
very quickly the water gets cloudy and cold and then black
and blacker as you drop down. And then you can't see anything.
You work alone in the pitch blackness. When the lines get
tangled, some men panic and even die because they try to
surface too fast. Some divers sing to keep themselves company.
And the current is strong. Only one line holds you from
going down to your death."
Lazarus told us he was a
watchmaker back home in the city of Ceara on the coast of
Brazil. Unlike most of the garimpeiros we met in Rondonia,
Lazarus had all his original teeth. They were good white
teeth that shone brightly when he smiled. Lazarus made us
feel the excitement and the enchantment of the garimpeiro's
life. But while we talked to him, a large group of men came
up from the shore carrying the body of a diver. He was cold
and white and limp. Someone tried to revive him, but he
was already dead.
That's the way it was on a garimpo
on the Madeira River. You might get rich, but there was
danger in doing so. After the gold buyers flew into the
jungle in tiny airplanes to buy gold, most of the garimpeiros
would take their big earnings to a city like Manaus or Porto
Velho. They'd party for days, and soon their earnings would
be spent. Poor again, they headed back to the garimpo and
take their chances.
#3 THE RIVER, THE TURTLE, AND THE
The dirt highway that ran
west through Rondonia ended in a small town on the Bolivian
border. Here we hired a riverboat pilot named
Moreno to take us upriver to the untouched jungle.
When we first spotted Moreno,
he was dragging a burlap bag full of travel gear--a mosquito
net, an old blanket, a change of pants, and a radio. He
was short and dark-skinned. He also never stopped smiling.
Moreno had grown up on the Bolivian side of the river, so
his Spanish was better than his Portuguese.
The river was about a half
mile wide and very low during the dry season. When we ran
close to the shore, the flapping of our diesel engine rapped
off the jungle walls like the sound of a furious beaver
slapping his tail against the water. The loud engine startled
the parakeets which rose into the hazy sky by the hundreds.
The river grew calm at dusk,
like brown glass. One evening, Moreno, who had been at the
wheel for ten hours, shone his flashlight on shore. He was
looking for the little place he had grown up, a place called
Suddenly through mist and
a multitude of moths, we saw three slim dug-out canoes on
long tethers tied to stakes way above on the bank. (The
river could rise fifteen feet in a single night when the
rain came down from the foothills of the Bolivian Andes.)
Moreno shouted into the mist. Voices shouted back from above.
Happy children scampered down to see us. Moreno, smiling
broadly of course, said goodnight. He would sleep in his
sister's house tonight. With his blanket and his net and
his radio, with all the children around him, he disappeared
into the mist. We dove for our mosquito nets.
Next morning, a hundred saffron-yellow
butterflies convened on a thin sliver of white beach around
the boat. We climbed the river banks to find Moreno. At
the top, the village was beautiful. Orange and lemon trees
had been planted around well-tended yards. Mangos, cacao,
Moreno showed us the village
school. It was a modest, mud-walled building high above
the river, centrally located in the village. The people
of Barranco Colorado were proud of it. Moreno said there
were three teachers. None of them had any education beyond
the high school level.
Moreno now led us into the
smoky darkness of one of the huts and introduced us to his
sister, brother-in-law, and cousins. We stepped into the
back yard. There were many chickens pecking the ground and
two proud roosters. We all stood around a cousin who had
captured a large turtle he'd found in the jungle the day
before. Moreno's sister stood next to me, her sky-blue dress
was stained with flecks of blood.
The turtle on its back was
the size of a small table. Its legs were kicking, its neck
straining as if it wanted to get away from its shell. We
watched Moreno's cousin cut off its head. This took a long
time. When the head came off, Moreno's sister cupped the
blood in a wood bowl. She would use the blood in her cooking
later in the day. Her dress was stained even more now.
The cousin severed the stomach
plate of the turtle and cleaned the rest of the animal in
a barrel of water. The legs were still kicking. I could
hardly watch. The cousin saw me turn my head and said, "Just
reflexes." He held the turtle's heart in his hands.
It was beating fast.
In the afternoon, we left
Barranco Colorado. The diesel engine flapped wildly against
the banana trees. Moreno was happy. We carried Moreno's
sister's turtle stew in a bucket. Moreno and I gorged ourselves
like gluttons on the warm, greasy, but hardly tender chunks
With mouth full, and a huge
smile, Moreno turned to me and said, "Ah, Peter, but
you have tasted nothing until you eat the eggs of the turtles!"
After the stew, when we pulled
over for the night, from inside his mosquito net, Moreno
told us a story about his village. On a small creek nearby,
called an igarape, his aunt used to wash her clothes. One
day some villagers found her talking to a snake. It was
a large male anaconda. Later they found her walking waist-deep
straight into the river. Two men tried to grab her. They
dove in to get her, but she yelled for them to leave her
alone. "I'll be all right," she said. This snake,
she told them, was "enchanted." It would not hurt
her. They must leave her alone.
Some days later Moreno's
aunt disappeared on the igarape, and everyone knew she had
turn into a snake, because, after that day, the people of
Barranco Colorado would always see not one, but two large
anacondas exactly in the place where the aunt had always
washed her clothes. The two snakes would swim together along
the banks of the igarape. They swam in unison, they were