Belém to Brasília highway

They started work more than fifty years ago. Today many people consider it a kind of mistake, maybe even a ecological disaster.  After travelling along the road, I don’t agree.  This is Brazil’s Route 66, a highway of dreams. The Brazilians at that time, led by President Juscelino Kubitschek, wanted to open up the empty land in the interior of Brazil. That is why he built Brasília and why he built the road to connect the new city of Brasília with the older city of Belém and with all the places in between.You can see a stretch of the road above

It was heroic work, cutting through what people at the time called jungle. Today we have a more politically correct term – rain forest.  The people who did the work were pioneers, like those of the American west.  They came to settle their country and seek a new life.  It was hard and dangerous.  Many people died in the process.  Others are still there and they and their descendants are still there.

I learned that once the Amazon forest was cut, the soil would soon turn to rock and sand, unproductive.  My observation is that this is not true. The soils are fertile and things grow wonderfully. 

The land next to the Belém to Brasília highway has had three main and overlapping cycles. The first involved clearing the land and using the forest resources. This is very much like what happened in Wisconsin and Michigan in the 1850s and 1860s.   It was disruptive, with forests being destroyed.  Immigrants cleared the land and tried to establish farming. As with Wisconsin or Michigan, the success of the farmers was mixed.  In some places, the soils and topography supported farming; other not so much.

The second stage consisted mostly of unsustainable cattle ranching. Ranchers put large numbers of cattle on the newly established pastures.  There were not many animals per hectare. It was profitable for some, but very inefficient.  This was the nadir stage. Things had been destroyed and degraded but not yet begun to renew.  his was like Wisconsin in 1871, during the great Peshtigo fire that may have killed as many as 2500 people or the big blowout fire of 1910 that destroyed three million acres in Idaho, Montana and Washington and helped establish the need for the U.S Forest Service.  

Cattle raising in the way they were doing was indeed unsustainable and that which is unsustainable will not be sustained.  The region is now entering a third stage.  This is the stage of readjustment and sustainability.   As I have written elsewhere, sustainable does not mean natural.   The ancient forests are gone, as are the ancient forests of Wisconsin.  They will never return as they were, but that does not mean that the new systems are not sustainable. Above you can see an oil palm plantation newly established on a degraded pasture.

Cattle ranching remains an important part of the local economy, but it is becoming more efficient, with fewer hectares required to grow beef.   Some of the degraded pasture is now available for crops and re-afforestation.  This is exactly what happened in the U.S. a century ago.  Paper and wood products mills are now mostly using fiber from planted trees, which I will talk about in subsequent posts.  In the area around Paragominas, they grow soy.  This is a triumph of the Brazilian USDA equivalent, EMBRAPA, which developed soy that growing in this tropical environment.  A little farther north, where it rains more, they grow oil palm.  You can see in my picture that oil palm is being planted in degraded pasture.

It is interesting what they have learned about micro-climates.  The area around Paragominas has less rain than a hundred miles north.  It still rains a lot, but less. Agriculture is sophisticated here, because they can plan for the rain. They have a regular rainy and dry season, like Brasília, but the dry season is not as dry and the wet season is even wetter.

Having my feet on this Amazonia ground gave me a different perception.  It was also useful to come back thirty years later and see what had been done. I understand that there could be wildly different lesson learned.   The natural forest is gone over much of the land. We can mourn the loss.  On the other hand, it looks like it was been replaced with a sustainable system that supports human aspirations and endeavor.

I cannot help thinking back to my own home-place, with all its myths and realities. I grew to full adulthood in the forests of northern Wisconsin and that shaped my outlook. There are no “virgin” forests in Wisconsin. It was all cut over in the middle of the 19th Century and usually cut over and burned a few times after. Yet the forest is magnificent and sustainable.  In many places you find stone walls and other evidence of old farms in the middle of old growth forests.  Obviously, the people who tried to farm these thin soils gave up and moved away. But there is a human presence throughout in forestry, farming and cities. People live in and with nature. It is good.  

This is what I see and wish for my Brazilian friends. They will look back at the extractive period in the same way we did. They will lament the loss, but appreciate the sacrifices and heroism of those who went before. This is the lesson good people will teach their children. They do already.  I felt at home in the “tamed” Amazon in ways I never have in the “natural” parts. Human endeavor need not be destructive but it will lead to change, sometimes for the better.

One more thing about sustainable. Nothing lasts forever, not anything natural or man-made. We can strive for predictable and favorable change. 

Belém: Teatro da Paz & the BNC

We visited the Teatro da Paz in Belém to see if it would work for a visit by the Battery Dance Company, which we hope to bring to Belém in April.  It does.  This will be a great venue for the dancers.  Now my only worry is that they will really come.  I am reasonably sure that they will, but it depends on a decision by ECA.  

The Teatro is similar to the Amazonas Theater in Manaus, but it was built about twenty years earlier.  It is in the same tradition of bringing opera to the Amazon.  Both are beautiful theaters and both are a bit of a folly. They tried so hard to be part of the cultured world of the time.  Well, I suppose it was like building a stadium might be today. They figured that every important town needed one.

You can see the view from the stage of the theater in the top picture.  The others are the curtains and the rehearsal area.

We visited the BNC in Belém in time to see the investiture of the new president.  The Belém BNC is well established and prosperous.  They have six branches, including one in Santarem, which is very far away up the Amazon.  I wonder if they could open a branch in Macapá, which is actually a bit closer, although in a different state.

The BNC has a really great facility with its own theater, which you see above and an exhibit space, which you see below.  BNCs face serious completion from schools that just teach English and English is the way they make their money.  But BNCs are much more.  They do the educational advising, sponsor art and give lots of free scholarships.  I am trying to support BNCs in any way we can for that reason.

Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi

We visted the Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi mostly just to keep contact.  We sometimes have short fuse offers of exchange programs and it is important to have connection before you need them.  The museum is also a place to get some background on local history and environment. 

The museum is named after Emílio Goeldi, a Swiss anthropologist who organized the collections and did a lot of anthropological studies in Pará and what became the state of Amapá.  We talked about the native people of the area.  Ancient people of Amapá produced the urns you see above.  They contained to bones of the dead.  The people who made them are now extinct and not much is known about them, but the urns and related items were used to show the continuity of cultures of Pará and Amapá. 

The region was more healthful in pre-Columbian times before the introduction of malaria & yellow fever and could support a larger population using simple agriculture, hunting, gathering and fishing.  I mentioned “1493,” the book I have been reading.  The author says that malaria had a decisive impact on the history of the Americas. Among other things, it transformed the Amazon from a relatively healthy place to live, in terms of diseases, to a very unhealthy one.  The author speculates that malaria came over from Africa with slaves.  African populations have some immunity to malaria; natives of the Americas did not.

Much of the archeological and anthropological research in Pará and Amapá was carried out by German or Swiss-German scientist and German influence in general was strong in this region. As you look at the exhibits, it is one German after another. There was a darker side to this in the 1930s. The Nazis encouraged anthropological research as an adjunct to their general race-based theories. I remembered that from my studies in anthropology so many years ago after I was reminded when one of our Brazilian friends mentioned that one of the anthropologists left Brazil to serve as an officer in the Wehrmacht.  

Also part of the museum is a zoo and botanical gardens. It is in many ways the old – and IMO good – model of an integrated scholarship. The zoo is mostly a rescue of animals, i.e. they don’t go out and capture them for the zoo. They had lots of sloths and some anteaters. Evidently these slow-moving animals are often victims of traffic accidents.

Beautiful Belém

Belém is the kind of place I expected it should be. When I was in Manaus, I didn’t especially feel like I was in the Amazon. It was like another big city. In Belém, in contrast, you can actually  see the Amazon. 

I will be writing more about what we did in Belém.  We were very busy.  But I am also very busy today, so writing the history will have to wait.  In the meantime here are a few pictures.  You will notice at the top that his is just really pretty.  As usual, the picture doesn’t capture all the beauty. The reddish dust you see on the path are pedals from flowers falling from the trees. 

Above is a local poet Ruy Guilherme Paranatinga Barata.  It is a nice memorial to get to sit for eternity in a beautiful garden.  

Belém First Contact

Flying into Belém you see a kind of water world.  The Amazon splits into many rivers, with lots of islands. Streets are lined with very big mango trees, some planted a century ago.  I was told that that drivers here have to buy special mango insurance, since the heavy fruit so often fall on cars, denting the hoods. But the trees are beautiful & worth the trouble.  They make the city feel much more comfortable and lower the overall temperature.  

Since we (Justen and I) got into town late, we didn’t have time to do too much. BTW, my picture is not good because of the late hour. It was dark. But those trees were really impressive and I wanted to get a picture for today’s post.  We did find time to visit the offices of one of the major media firms, that owns newspapers, webpages and RBA (Rede Brasil Amazônia de Televisão)  Rede Bandeirantes in Belém.  We spoke to the boss, who is a good contact of some of my Embassy colleagues, but who I had never met.  He was a very nice guy who spoke to us in English, explaining that he had family in Charlotte, NC and had lots of connections with the U.S.  

He explained that Pará was getting more prosperous.  The initial impetus was the vast mineral wealth.  Vale (Compania Vale do Rio Doce) has mountains of iron, enough to supply the world for decades,  and Alcoa has similar amounts of bauxite. There is also the wealth from forestry and agriculture.  But Pará has now moved beyond simple resource based economics.  At first this was because services had by necessity followed firms like Vale or Alcoa, but now the economics is self-sustaining.  

A small but important help to Belém would be regular direct flights to Miami. Belém is closer to Florida than it is to some other parts of Brazil in terms of easy of access.  This may soon happen, as firms add flights in response to growing demand.

We talked about educations, a subject always important in Brazil and making sure Pará was included in initiatives, since all the economic growth will require a more sophisticated labor force.  Not everyone is as aware of the opportunities as might be desired, nor are people aware how easy it is to study in the U.S.  We discussed doing webchats on the study in the U.S. and the Science w/o borders program. The beauty of the web format is that we can do it from Brasília or anywhere else and still tap into the network in Pará. This is something worth following and perhaps using in other places.  The Amazônia site gets about two million visitors a month.   

We had supper with five alumni YA and English immersion students.  These are all smart kids.  The older ones are completing their university studies.  We talked in about the program and about things in general. One of the participants was planning to apply to Science w/o Borders and another said that he would after we explained it to him. He had been unaware of the opportunity.  

I have never met a YA who was not wildly enthusiastic about the experience.  Their challenge is staying in touch with colleagues, which they all want to do.  This is something we should be more active in helping. These networks will prove extremely valuable to participants.   As they move up in Brazilian society, and they certainly will, they can network with participants from all over Brazil.  It is a great program and we need to make sure it keeps on paying dividends.