Plan to colonize, cultivate the Amazon falters

October 06, 1991|By New York Times News Service

ARIQUEMES, BRAZIL ONB — ARIQUEMES, Brazil -- Fifteen years ago, Maria Luisa de Oliveira Dias hiked down a jungle trail to claim a 250-acre wood lot under an ambitious plan to colonize the Amazon.

Today, she wishes she had never left her home in southern Brazil. Plantings of corn and rice withered in the sandy soil. Rubber trees never produced latex. And coffee prices are so low that income this year for her family of four adults will be less than $1,000.

A decade after the World Bank helped pave a road through a stretch of wilderness that became Rondonia state, Brazil's most ambitious Amazon colonization plan has failed.

"People are abandoning the countryside," Francisco Jose Silveira Pereira, the state environmental secretary, said in the state capital, Porto Velho. "In 1980, Rondonia was 70 percent rural. Today, it is 60 percent urban."

In the 1970s and 1980s, government promises of free land lured more than 100,000 farm families from overcrowded areas of southern Brazil, the nation's breadbasket. In the ensuing land rush, about one-quarter of Rondonia was stripped of trees, and imported disease decimated the Indian population, which dropped from 35,000 in 1965 to 6,000 today.

But countering government predictions, only 9 percent of this Colorado-sized state proved capable of sustaining agriculture. Today, Mr. Pereira estimated, about 60 percent of the cleared area is being lost to brush and secondary growth forest.

"For the first time, you drive around the colonization areas and see abandoned farms and 'for sale' signs," said John O. Browder, a regional planning professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, who has been studying one municipality, Rolim de Moura, for the last decade. "Overgrown fields are now the dominant feature of the rural landscape."

Wim Groenveld, a Dutch ecologist who runs an environmental study center in Porto Velho, said, "There are not many new roads opening up, not many new settlements. The newcomers have seen it is not worthwhile." Indeed, as the annual burning season now begins in the western Amazon, the acrid wood scent hanging in the air comes largely from landowners' burning brush to keep fields open for pastureland.

From the open door of a helicopter flying near Porto Velho, a wall of fire and smoke could be seen advancing across a field cluttered with bushes and scrub trees.

"That's all second growth," said Alberto Paraguassu, state coordinator of a federal Amazon fire-prevention program.

Indeed, world concern over Amazon deforestation has reached here, accelerating an end to Rondonia's frenetic, frontier atmosphere.

Citing environmental pollution, Rondonia's new governor, Osvaldo Piana, shut down mining operations in two areas in August: gold mining by 300 barges on a 125-mile section of the Madeira River near Porto Velho, and tin mining here at Bom Futuro, the world's largest tin mine.

"The government doesn't let us cut the timber," Jose Scarmocin, a tin-mine operator, complained, echoing a growing frustration with environmental controls. "Now we can't work the mine. What can we do?"

Logging continues in areas where Indian leaders have sold timber rights, largely in reserves of the Surui and of the Cinta Larga. But the state government is installing a satellite monitoring system to detect invasions of Indian lands. To help analysts of satellite photographs, boundary lines that cross forest are to be demarcated by clearings spaced every mile.

"The Surui are addicted to timber sales," said Mr. Pereira, whose environmental responsibilities include Indian affairs. "But the Uru-eu-wau-wau ask us to get the white man out of their area."

Contributing to grumbling by some white settlers, the 700 survivors of the Uru-eu-wau-wau tribe are winning legal recognition of rights to a 7,075-square-mile reserve.

"Today, agriculture in the state is practically bankrupt, and in the mining sector, there is total anarchy with mines abruptly closed," the state's largest newspaper, O Estadao, complained in a front-page editorial. "Now we are suffering from this plague of the 'untouchable Amazon forest.' "

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