As the Brazilian “miracle” began to lose ground in the early 1970s, the generals looked to large-scale capitalist development projects in the Amazon as their salvation. These massive projects created the greatest or potentially greatest ecological damage. Several huge dams flooded millions of acres of forest.
Mining polluted the waters, and deforestation destroyed the ecological balance of the forest, creating fires that added carbon to the atmosphere and increasing the greenhouse effect. These projects emphasized the maximum extraction of profit from the forest without any concern for the people or the ecological damage. For example, one of the proposed projects was to create the world’s larges rice plantation: another involved the manufacture of wood pulp on a massive scale. A charcoal project would have required 1,680,000 acres of eucalyptus plantations. Public colonization for the small farmer gave way to corporate colonization for the rich.
At present, farmers in the Amazon struggle to ship their crops to market. This is one of the key factors limiting deforestation. But the government wants to complete a 1,000 mile road which is cutting straight through the Amazon. As one driver states; "you will be able to get everything out so the rainforest will be totally destroyed".
The Continuing Drama
The forest people are struggling today to stop many of these projects. In 1980, the military dictatorship of Ernesto Geisel was under attack. The “miracle” was not happening. The standard of living of the average person had fallen, while inflation was rampant and the value of the Brazilian currency had declined rapidly. Brazil’s debt soared, and the “miracle” still needed billions in foreign capital to fuel its huge projects. The dictatorship was followed by a return to democracy, but the struggle for the Amazon rainforest is still being waged.
See Susanna Hecht and Alexander Cockburn, The Fate of the Forest: Developers,
Destroyers and Defenders of the Amazon
Amazon, 1990: Chico’s Legacy
The government of Brazil founds four large extractive reserves. Taken together they are the size of the state of Massachusetts. One of them is called the Chico Mendes Reserve.
In the Amazon today, the invasion of 1492 is being re-enacted. The Brazilian rain-forest, or Amazon jungle, is the last remaining territory in the Western Hemisphere that has not been totally invaded by white Europeans.
Treasure, Imagined and Real
Amazon River Basin
It’s not that Europeans haven’t tried to take over the Amazon. Inspired by the legends of El Dorado, the magnificent City of Gold, conquistadores from Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, France, and Britain all lusted for the lush riches.
No one ever found the City of Gold, but the Amazon itself is a world treasure. It contains billions of dollars of mahogany and cedar, eight to sixteen billion tons of iron ore deposits, gold, bauxite (essential in making aluminum), limestone, nickel, copper, manganese and seventy-eight percent of the world’s supply of niobium. By 1988, approximately eight to ten percent of the rainforests of the Amazon had been cleared. The fate of the rest of the forest is the modern-day counterpart of the invasion of 1492 and the resistance to it.
There were many attempts to invade the forest, enslave the indigenous, and extract its bounty for profit. The familiar pattern of white disease, greed and inhumanity occurred in the Amazon as well as everywhere else in the hemisphere. Only two hundred thousand Amazonian indigenous have survived from an estimated total of six to twelve million present in 1492.
The Carajas and Others
For example, the Caraja tribe, living close to the Amazon River, experienced smallpox epidemics in 1812 and 1817 after contact with white men. The French explorers described the Caraja as excellent crafts-people, fine weavers of cotton, and artisans with feathers. They had a beautiful and expressive ritual life and they had made agricultural areas out of the jungle, a feat which defies modern techniques. In the early nineteenth century there were fifty-seven thousand Caraja. By 1991 they were reduced to one thousand who now serve as tourist guides and sell their crafts at airports.
The Brazilian anthropologist Darcy Ribeiro found that eighty indigenous tribes had been destroyed between 1900 and 1957. Many of the surviving tribes were on the verge of extinction. In 1967, a government investigation found that tribes were being massacred through dynamite, machine guns, and poisoned sugar, and deliberately infested with smallpox, tuberculosis and measles germs.
And yet the forest and the people have survived to a greater degree than any other region or people in the hemisphere, due to a traditions of indigenous and worker resistance, as well as the massive burgeoning jungle, so full of life and growth, which has defied human destruction.