From paradise to inferno
Novo Progresso, Brazil
By Nacho Doce
The Amazon? Nobody can truly understand what it is without spending months or years immersed in it, to see the forest and witness the destruction. Spectacular and heartrending at the same time, it is the focus of great controversy that affects the world as much as it does Brazil.
It took us five trips spread over the past year to achieve a better understanding, but what I have recorded is just a brief moment in this immensity of rainforest and deforested land, with the forces working to annihilate what’s left.
It was time to show the crime being committed against the Amazon.
The only way to begin was to make contacts. I met environmentalist Juan Doblas while visiting a hydroelectric dam on the Tapajós River. Through Juan I met a sociologist named Cirino, and through Cirino I met a farmer named Derivaldo. Cirino and Derivaldo are not their real names; they asked to remain anonymous because both live under constant threat. The word is that there is a $20,000 bounty for Derivaldo’s head, offered by Amazon loggers who want him dead for protecting the forest.
If $20,000 sounds like a lot for an enemy’s head, just compare it to the value of the dearest tree in the rainforest today – the ipê or lapacho. Loggers will pay a “ribeirinho”, or forest dweller, $75 to find and cut an average ipê. But once cut, dragged to a sawmill, and sawn into boards, that single tree will be sold, before even leaving the forest, for upwards of $50,000 to be exported overseas.
Derivaldo picked me up from a hostel one afternoon on a motorbike.
“Are you the one?” he asked.
“I am. You know what I need?” I answered.
“Yes. Jump on.”
We rode along the Trans-Amazonian Highway for about 20 kms (12 miles), and stopped at a bar. He ordered something called “3 Religiosas” (3 religious).
“What is that?” I asked.
“3 cachaças,” he said. Cachaça is Brazil’s national distilled drink made from sugar cane.
“What for?” I asked.
“Nacho, you think I’m going to ride in the bush in search of trucks and logs without my 3 Religiosas?”
I could have predicted that response, but it made me realize the danger there was in charging into the depths of this rainforest. It started to rain heavily, but I was traveling light on the back of the bike, with one camera and one 24mm lens. After a while we found two trucks, but the going was tough. Our motorbike’s wheels slid from side to side in the mud, and I had to hide my camera from the view of the truckers. Suddenly we crashed to the ground and my lens hood broke, but I already had some pictures. I knew they weren’t enough, but at least I had something.
Derivaldo suggested we go to his house to rest a few hours, and I asked him if we could continue searching, that I needed more pictures. He told me not to worry. So after sleeping in hammocks with raindrops rolling off the roof onto my head, Derivaldo woke me up at 6am and said, “Let’s go get ‘em.” The only thing I knew was that truckers work only at night, and it was already morning.
The road was just a mud trail after the long rainy night. As we approached a curve, Derivaldo told me over his shoulder, “Get your camera ready.” We came out of the curve and there in front of us, stuck in the mud, were three loaded logging trucks. I shot a few discreet photos of them and as we continued on Derivaldo said, “Don’t worry. They didn’t suspect anything.”
I cursed him. “You knew all along they wouldn’t be able to pass that place!” We laughed at that intense experience, me and my guide who can’t give his real name. When I thanked him some days later via email, he responded, “Someone has to denounce those scoundrels.”
When flying over the Amazon forest my impression was of a beautiful immensity, even though I knew that below the treetop canopy, loggers were sawing away. My sight was absorbed by the green vastness.
I reached the Amazon’s version of the Bermuda Triangle, as I call the region between the towns of Novo Progresso (New Progress), Castelo Dos Sonhos (Castle of Dreams), and Morais Almeida, the most lawless places I’ve ever seen. If the real Bermuda Triangle is also known as the Devil’s Triangle, then that name also describes the Amazon equivalent, with the only difference being that it’s not planes and ships that disappear, but people.
My colleague, Ricardo Moraes, who spent nearly a week on raids with Ibama and Army soldiers for this same story, had a similar impression of the town where he stayed, Nova Esperanca de Piria. Ricardo’s vast experience covering Rio de Janeiro’s favelas and drug war is a prelude to what he felt in this Amazon town, which he described as “a city without law, more dangerous than any favela in Rio.”
I traveled by land and air with agents Americo Meirelles and Rodrigo Dutra of Ibama, Brazil’s environmental police force. Their mission is to locate loggers and wildcat miners, all of whom attack the forest for different reasons. It occurred to me early on that the people we would find sawing and digging were really not to blame for their crime against nature. They were born there, the former with chainsaws in their hands and the latter with shovels. But the people who paid them to commit these criminal acts were nowhere near. Who are they? Where do they live? What are their positions in society?
This is an ongoing criminal investigation, with a crime scene that just grows and grows.
We patrolled in a jeep listening for the sound of chainsaws in the forest, when suddenly our driver accelerated at breakneck speed. He braked and the police jumped out and ran into the forest. I ran behind them and tripped when my foot got tangled. I got up in time to see them capture three young chainsaw operators with looks of fright and disbelief at having been captured.
Americo turned to me and said, “Nacho, don’t move,” and I stood there paralyzed. We began to hear and then see trees falling around us, almost close enough to fall on our heads. They had been cut with a chainsaw and left to tip over.
As we continued the patrol we came across a tractor called a skidder, chained to a tree trunk it was ready to drag across the jungle floor towards a truck. When I approached the log it appeared so fresh and alive that I could almost sense it crying.
I hiked with Rodrigo several miles through the forest, one of my greatest experiences ever, listening to birds singing, breathing in that rich air, and looking at the trees that were so tall they blocked out the sky. They were so grand that the sight of them chopped down pained me in a way I can’t describe.
One day we discovered three garimpos, or open-pit wildcat mines, grouped together, with people living in the most dehumanizing of conditions. One man was prostrated in a hammock complaining of chest pains while dirty children roamed the camps.
The agents set fire to the pumps and machines used by the miners, to destroy them. One of the miners, a former prisoner, sat in tears next to his drying laundry, mumbling out loud, “What do I do now that I can’t work…”
Rodrigo spoke to the man in charge of the garimpo, who impressed me by his level of politeness and apparent culture. Later, when I commented that to Rodrigo, he warned me, “That is exactly the type of person who will shoot you in the back when you turn around, and he’ll bury you where nobody will ever find you.”
As we planned, the dry season was our time to photograph the burning of the forest that was slashed earlier in the year. But this year was like no other in recent memory – the rains never stopped enough to allow the brush to thoroughly dry out. The owner of one hotel where we stayed said that she hadn’t seen so much rain in her 34 years in the Amazon. Climate change seemed to be happening now.
I haven’t even mentioned the native Amazon peoples because the ecological problem goes beyond what is happening to them, such as assassinations, the loss of their ancestral lands, and the displacement of entire tribes. The commercial value of the trees for loggers and the land for agriculture is small compared to what the subsoil contains in minerals. Both Juan and Cirino consider this as the next disaster that will happen when the great mining companies move in to exploit these resources. Where will all the people go, and by people I mean Indians, settlers, wildcat miners, loggers, and farmers.
Juan Doblas wrote to me, “No laws, police, or helicopters will save this jungle and its inhabitants if there isn’t a radical change in the way of thinking and governing in Brazil and the world. The power has been in the same hands in Brazil for the past 400 years. Brazil never experienced a May 1968 revolution, nor agrarian reform. Now they want to take over the jungle, and only a revolution can stop them. Let’s pray for one.”
Cirino Lobo dos Anjos added, “Surely there is no solution for the Amazon, but any commitment to halting the many excesses must include the recognition of land rights for the people of the forest and their empowerment over that land. And that would not only be a measure of social justice but it would also have the immediate effect of halting the accelerated destruction that we see today.”
The Amazon comprises over 50% of the world’s tropical forests, and even without the 20% that has already been destroyed, it still produces about one-fifth of the world’s oxygen. Hannah Arendt wrote that only a madman could have predicted the Holocaust, but the signs of the Amazon’s destruction are right in front of us.
The world needs to see castles of living trees, not brick castles, from north to south in this incredible land.
(Editor’s note: Corrected on November 11 to clarify the number and circumstance of detention of illegal loggers)