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Last Updated: Thursday, 26 May, 2005, 10:24 GMT 11:24 UK
Appetite for Amazon destruction

By Sue Branford
BBC, Brazil

Earlier this month, the Brazilian government announced that almost one-fifth of the entire Amazon had now been cleared by deforestation.

Map of Brazil showing the Amazon rainforest
It is a strange sensation returning to a place you have not visited for 30 years.

And it is even stranger if everything has changed out of all recognition.

I first went to the Amazon basin in 1974. At that time it was a real Wild West.

The generals then ruling Brazil had decided, in what later proved to be a dangerous simplification, that the Amazon basin was empty.

There were trees so huge that it would have taken ten men with outstretched arms to encircle their trunks
It was time, they said, to occupy it. So they set about building a network of roads and encouraging loggers and cattle companies to move in.

So there I was in 1974, on one of my first journalist assignments, finding out what was going on.

I had never been to the Amazon before and I was overwhelmed by it all.

Natural beauty

Deforestation in the Amazon rainforest
In 2004, 26,000 sq km of forest were cleared in the Amazon
The beauty of the forest was breathtaking. There were trees so huge that it would have taken 10 men with outstretched arms to encircle their trunks.

Turtles basked in the sun on the white sand dunes that lined the rivers. But, along with this natural beauty, was man-made conflict.

When the loggers and cattle companies arrived, they found peasant families living in parts of the forest.

As well as fishing, hunting and collecting Brazil nuts, they were clearing small plots of land to grow food.

The companies sent in gunmen to deal with them.

Day after day, I met traumatised peasants who had been forcibly evicted. On one occasion I saw a group of disoriented, emaciated Amerindians, begging for food by the side of the road.

Ice-cream bar

The owner, an eccentric Italian, had somehow managed to bring an ice-cream maker into this remote region
For a few days, I travelled in a lorry along one of the half-finished roads.

One afternoon, after hours of dense forest, we stopped at a tiny hamlet. It was called Redencao (Redemption).

And there among the wooden shacks, with their roofs made of palm leaves, was a bar selling ice cream.

The owner, an eccentric Italian, had somehow managed to bring an ice-cream maker into this remote region.

The machine was fuelled by diesel, which was in short supply, so it often lay idle. But we were in luck.

Six or seven rough-looking men, some with revolvers tucked into their waists, were standing at the bar, licking ice cream.

We joined them. And we chatted about the violence. "Nearly every week someone here is killed," said the Italian.

A few minutes later a shot rang out. I saw a man lying on the ground, about 20 yards from the bar.

Hesitantly, I moved towards him, but the lorry driver stopped me.

"Ah-ah," he said. "Vamos embora!" We are off. In a trice, we were back in the lorry and on our way.


Demand for meat in other countries is fuelling deforestation
Passengers are still complaining about the ruts in the road but that is about all that is the same.

The forest has disappeared, except for a few fragments.

In its place are cattle and, increasingly, soyabeans, which are exported as animal fodder.

The town itself now has a population of 80,000. It has got paved roads, electricity, cinemas, shops, schools, hospitals.

The Italian ice cream maker shut down his bar and retired just a few years ago.

Brazilian dream

More people are still arriving. They are driven by the Brazilian dream of building a new life on the agricultural frontier. It often ends in disaster.

I spoke to Regivaldo, a 22-year-old man, who had been lured by the promise of high wages to travel deep in the forest to clear land for a rancher.

He and others had been left stranded without food or proper accommodation for more than six months.

Eventually they had escaped by repairing a leaky canoe.

And now, and this did not happen 30 years ago, they were suing the landowner for violating the labour legislation.

Economic pressure

By destroying [the forest], we are accelerating global warming and disrupting the world's climate
So what do I make of it all?

This extraordinary transformation of the region? I have mixed feelings.

I sympathise with many of the Brazilians who are only seeking a better life. But I also feel anger and despair.

Each year we learn more about the importance of the Amazon forest.

We know that, by destroying it, we are accelerating global warming and disrupting the world's climate.

Yet we, in the developed world, go on eating more and more meat.

And this in turn encourages Brazil, which is burdened with a heavy foreign debt, to export more beef and more soybeans.

It makes no sense at all to let market forces destroy a precious ecosystem that we all need for our survival and yet somehow we are letting it happen.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 26 May 2005, at 1100 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Country profile: Brazil
11 Mar 05 |  Country profiles
Amazon destruction accelerating
19 May 05 |  Americas
Amazon tribe faces 'annihilation'
17 May 05 |  Americas


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