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Disenchanted forest

When 25 school students and volunteers visited the Brazilian Amazon rainforest in August, they found things were not quite as they had been led to expect. Neil Ross tells their story

'I wanted to go because I was concerned about the destruction of the environment. The rainforest to me meant everything. But it wasn't what I expected. There were people my age scraping a living collecting rubber from trees for a pittance, a dead industry in Brazil. We met Indians from reserves who wanted transport and roads. We met subsistence farmers who wanted to leave the forest but felt they didn't have the education to get city jobs. I think the bottom has fallen out of my world.'

This was Sam, a 19-year old would-be UN soldier who had never before considered the rainforest a home for the 30 000 rubber tappers, 400 000 subsistence farmers or the 20 million inhabitants of Brazil who use it as a resource. Why should he have?

In British schools the rainforest is taught largely as an environmental matter, under the headings of sustainability and conservation. In so far as the people living there are considered, they too are considered in need of preservation. But as the participants on our trip to Brazil discovered, the rainforest is neither a zoo nor a museum.

Expectations of a luscious tropical landscape destroyed by evil loggers, cattle ranchers and wanton developers, were soon dashed. 'In Rondonia, travelling on a tractor and trailer, we passed through an area of burning', said Ray, aged 17. 'This was the height of the "burning season" and we'd been warned to wear masks. Our parents were fearful of us getting trapped by a blaze; we'd seen the TV images, the devastation. Up close it looked bad, but casting your eye beyond a few burnt tree stumps in an open field, it looked like a tiny black spot in the miles and miles of green. Our guide, Enoch from EMATER [the Brazilian Institute for Agricultural Assistance and Rural Extension], explained that most of the burning is to clear the ground to get a grass crop, to fight the regrowth and to run a few cattle on poor terrain. This made sense.

'I don't know if I thought people just went there and burned down vast lumps of forest for the hell of it, but I had never thought how else you clear a field when you haven't got machinery, when you can get more money running a few cattle than picking up nuts. What do you do when you can't get the fertiliser to keep small areas of pasture lush?'

Staying in the forest was an experience - but hardly a soft vacation spot. We stayed in a centre known as CAEX near Xapuri, in the state of Acre. It consisted of crude huts with hooks for hammocks, a meeting and cooking place with clay ovens and some showers put in by a non-governmental organisation (NGO). At night we froze; we radioed nuns in Xapuri who rallied round to get us blankets. After a day following rubber tappers and subsistence farmers we decided to move out. Seventeen-year old Talyena, smug because she was the only one to bring a sleeping bag to the tropics, was shown how to tap rubber and grind manioc.

Juao, a rubber tapper trying to make a living grinding manioc with a stone-age wheel contraption, explained to Talyena that 'the NGOs only come here and tell us about saving the forest but not to see how we live'. Talyena was furious. 'I'd like to have a few words with the people who dish out development around here', she said. Pedro, who helps run the CAEX centre, felt some people had a romantic view of the forest, believing that the lives of rubber tappers should not change. But why shouldn't the tappers have a TV and a car to get to the city?

We visited many NGOs: SOS Amazonas, the Chico Mendes Foundation, the Church Land Commission. Danny, aged 17, felt that these organisations clearly did want to help forest dwellers. 'The problem is', he commented, 'they all felt that living in the forest was it, a way of life to be saved. To be honest I feel sorry for the rubber tappers'.

Heading on to an Indian reserve, the home of the Gaviao tribe, we were shown a traditional woven-palm communal home but told by our guide from FUNAI (the Federal Government Indian Assistance Foundation) that the Gaviao don't live in these any more. They prefer the farmer-style huts with water tanks on the top. The chief, Joao Tipiabi Gaviao, was very excited about a scheme to create a lake stocked with 16 000 fish so that they could go into business. This was not quite what we expected, but the chief was unequivocally positive. 'Today we are working just as the white man', he said. 'Sometimes the youngest Indians learn to work with chainsaws to cut down trees - a difficult task.'

Was it so bizarre that Indians should want decent agriculture and a better life? Perhaps we are just so used to hearing about the threat to Indian tribes and culture and assume they don't want development. The Gaviao were clear about what they wanted and were not afraid to say so. They also wound us up. We were offered what they said was masticated and fermented yam to drink, and they thought it was hilarious that some of the group drank it. They showed off a chained-up monkey, saying they were fattening it up to eat.

In Acre we met representatives from four different Indian tribes - Jaminawa, Kaxinawa, Katukina and Manchineri - who were attending a Portuguese language session at an educational centre. Ania, aged 18, asked what they felt their biggest problems were. 'Our biggest problem is transport', replied the Jaminawa chief. 'We have no way of getting our produce to markets further away and little money for fuel to even get to the nearest town. The only way to get to a hospital in an emergency is by aeroplane - you radio in the morning and if you are lucky the plane arrives at three o'clock in the afternoon, which can be too late. To get here took one month by canoe, sometimes pulling it when there is no water and I get burnt by river insects, then it takes another month to get home again.'

Ray was stunned. 'We thought they'd talk about the white man, ranchers, intrusions and protecting their culture, but no. They want transport and roads and to learn Portuguese so they can talk to each other, trade and not get ripped off.' A development worker in the centre told us that most of the Indians don't understand their own mother tongue and only the old people speak it. The younger ones think it is gibberish.

The Indians' desire to become more mobile was just the start of a journey full of surprises. We covered 10 000 kilometres in all, flying for hours over green forest broken only by snaking rivers and patches of savannah. Eventually a city would loom up. Manhaus, in the heart of the state of Amazonas, was like another world: upbeat, with fantastic architecture, a river beach, a thriving port, and very commercial in the midst of the forest. The capital, Brasilia, was astonishing: a planned city, built out of the forest in four years flat.

Belem in the north-east was quite a contrast. We stayed in an experimental environmental education centre called Escola Bosque. School students there were being taught the need to develop an eco-tourist industry, where the locals can tell visiting environmentalists about the natural life. This was considered to be the way to lift the region out of poverty. We debated the pros and cons, but all felt this strategy was doomed to failure. Unlike Manhaus or Brasilia we couldn't imagine tourists coming to impoverished Belem without massive investment in hotels, etc. However much natural beauty there is, it didn't seem feasible that a few student eco-tourists would lift the place out of a rut.

From the rainforest to Rio, nothing was as we had expected on the outward journey to Brazil. The school students in our group discovered that so much of what they had learned at home is myth, and they are now passionate about telling people what they really found in the rainforest. We have made a film of our journey, Where Do People Fit In?, which deserves to be shown.

Neil Ross is now studying development economics at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London

Reproduced from LM issue 116, December 1998/January 1999



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