In the Amazon, Where 'Only Outsiders Like Going into the Forest'

Despite intense opposition, the massive Belo Monte hydroelectric dam (seen here) is proceeding forward. Some estimates suggest that upward of 25,000 people have been employed on the project this year, and many residents of nearby Altamira say their town was not prepared for the impacts that have followed the sudden population boom.

Jeff Tollefson is reporting from the Brazilian Amazon for eight weeks and exploring Brazil's efforts to protect the world's largest rainforestand the earth's climate.

I was recently stranded on the wrong side of the Xingu River in a town called Senador José Porfirio. The funny thing is that I was the last to know. The three of us—myself, Pedro dos Santos, an activist representing rural settlers, and Francisco Moreira, one such rural settler—were chatting in Pedro's yard as the sun went down. I was wondering what it would be like to travel an hour up-river in complete darkness, and then I noticed how relaxed Pedro and Francisco seemed, as if nobody was going anywhere. Including me.

Pedro laughed. 

"In the Amazon, you know when you are going to leave, but you never know when you are going to get back," he said.

My opportunity to catch the last water taxi—and a connecting shuttle back to my hotel in Altamira, a primary hub along the Transamazonian Highway south of the main river—had gotten lost in translation. And although I didn't know it at the time, this would be only the first in a series of minor events that would force me to slow down and take in the local culture in a region I had been exploring for five weeks. 

After confirming that I had cash for a cheap hotel and some food, I was pleased with my night in Senador, a quiet town roughly 90 miles upstream from the Amazon. Its seclusion has apparently delayed the arrival of the drugs and violence that plague many such towns. But jobs are disappearing as sawmills shut down and ranches halt their expansion. At night, dogs doze on brick pavers in the middle of the main road. 

After a traditional dinner of catfish, rice, beans, tomatoes and a spiced manioc-flower concoction known as "farofa," I found a bench where I could write. I heard frogs in surround sound, laughter from a local bar, and then the theme song from Mission Impossible, which was playing on a small TV above several benches and hammocks in a nearby shelter. I fetched some ice cream and settled in with my journal and Tom Cruise, speaking Portuguese in an oddly deep voice.

At times like this, I have to remind myself that I'm in the Amazon. We tend to think about jungle, but the Brazilian portion of the basin alone is home to some 25 million people. For the vast majority of these modern settlers, life takes place near, but not inside, the forest. Most live in towns and cities and seek out the stuff of modern life, Tom Cruise included. Here as elsewhere, "nature" is becoming more and more of an abstract concept as development pushes the wild into the distance.

The next day I caught the 6 a.m. taxi, a long boat that seated about 20 people, and watched the glassy river shimmer to life as we cut a fresh path to Vitória do Xingu. Everything seemed fine until I learned that the road into Altamira was blocked by people protesting the nearby Belo Monte hydroelectric dam, a massively intrusive project that will someday rank as the third largest hydroelectric dam on earth. 

Altamira has become a hub of development due to Belo Monte, which encountered intense but futile opposition among local indigenous tribes and environmentalists. Recent reports suggest that 25,000 workers have been busy building the dam. Many live in Altamira, where subdivisions full of little square houses are popping up on open land around the town. I never did get an official figure, but one local scientist estimated Altamira's population at about 70,000 today. City residents have complained about rising costs for housing and food, and a spike in drugs, violence and prostitution.

People navigate a blockade by the horse-cart drivers of Altamira, who briefly shut down the highway to Belo Monte.

For 30 miles my bus ride through undulating cattle pastures toward Altamira was uneventful. But then I encountered an obstacle course of horses and carts that blocked all motorized traffic. The horse-cart drivers were complaining that increased traffic from the dam construction was pushing their traditional delivery services off the road.

I passed a second blockade of smoking tires and then continued afoot, passing through a corridor of commercial and residential shacks, propped precariously on stilts above wetlands. I strolled through a quiet riverfront park, offering a rare view of the forest on far shore, and then shifted to the dirt road that led to my hotel on the other side of town. Everywhere I looked I saw both construction and destruction. New houses and buildings with fresh paint and fine detailing are going up alongside colorful shacks and crumbling structures. Altamira is a work in progress. 

People make their way across a second barrier, consisting of burning rubber and human protesters, along the road to the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam last month.

By this time, my plan to visit to a trio of rural settlements was shot, so I cleaned up and walked back into town. In fairly short order, I encountered an upscale shopping district, chock full of stores selling cloths, furniture and electronics. I perused the area and then sat down with a soft-serve ice-cream cone (chocolate and passion fruit) and watched Brazilians, young and old, black, brown, white and everything in between, do their thing.

Street vendors engaged in endless conversations, occasionally pausing to prod a potential customer. An upscale clothing merchant washed down the tiled sidewalk in front of her store, continuing a daily battle against the dust kicked up by the constant drone of motorcycles and trucks in a city with mostly dirt roads. Speakers attached to telephone poles belted out music and advertisements, providing white noise that I appreciated only after a truck blasting propaganda from a stack of concert speakers passed by. 

Thinking about the forest that I knew was out there somewhere, I visited a local sporting goods store the next day. Inside I found all manner of machetes, fishing rods and equipment geared toward the beach: full-size barbecues, coolers and a variety of floatation devices. There were also rifles and birdcages—the kind you'd see in someone's living room, not the kind a scientist might carry into the field.

I asked about backcountry hiking and camping, and the young women working sales gave me a funny look. "People would normally go to the beaches," said Janaina Leopoldo, who recently moved to Altamira from central Brazil. The customers she sees heading into the forest tend to be scientists, or maybe hunters.

"There are a lot of animals and insects," added Denise Araxujo Ribeiro, who was born and raised in Altamira. She looked at me with a suspicious smile. "Only outsiders like going into the forest."

Down the street I paused at a storefront to look at a real-estate advertisement for a newly subdivided ranch roughly 9 miles out of town. The next thing I knew the door opened, and a plump fellow by the name of Hamilton Correia invited me inside and showed me a table of prices. He highlighted a 1-acre lot for $16,700, or 3.5-acre lot with stream access for $70,700. 

"If you buy it now, it will double in value in two years," he promised. "Altamira is growing."

On the way out Correia invited me to lunch, which I politely declined. I sat down at a nice restaurant for some fish—tambaqui, a bold, Amazonian delight—and then returned to my ice-cream stand. Ice cream is as ubiquitous as fruit in the Amazon, and I confess that I consume at least one serving virtually each day, often of the rapidly melting soft-serve variety, which goes for under $1. Said tradition fulfilled, I headed back to the hotel.

The following day I was preparing to visit the same trio of rural settlements, but once again, fate intervened. I came down with a fever and found myself short of breath with a deep cough. I figured it was the flu that I had seen going around, but rather than take any risks, I opted to visit a doctor. I also paid to stay out of Brazil's public health system, which is notoriously slow—and often frightening—in poor areas. There must have been 40 people in the waiting room, but in a couple hours I left with a prescription for antibiotics. I found a pharmacy, flagged down a motorcycle taxi and then bedded down for a day.

Four days later, feeling better and having at last finished my work in Altamira, I was ready to go to Novo Progresso, a hotspot for deforestation located several hundred miles southwest. I went to the airport to investigate my options with a local airline and wound up with a two-day layover in Santarém, which has become a new frontier for soybeans thanks in part to a new export facility.

My final leg into Novo Progresso carried two passengers, including me in the cockpit. When the pilot announced he was returning to the airport because the plane's dashboard controls weren't functioning, I was hardly surprised. By this time I had come to realize that Pedro was wrong: In the Amazon, sometimes you don't even know when you are going to leave.

As we circled around we flew over a new port on the Tapajós River, one of many planned facilities that will likely pull the soybean frontier further north into the Amazon. Several long-haul transport trucks were lined up at its gate. I was preparing for yet another waylay, when my pilot tapped me on the shoulder, pointed at the dashboard and gave me the thumbs up. Instead of setting down, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I was at last headed south.

Coming Soon: I was a week late, but Novo Progresso, a battleground community that has yet to sign its truce with the federal government, was waiting for me. In Brazil, the story never ends.

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