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Photo Credit:  EcoHealth Alliance

With the Amazon on Fire, an Early Visitor Recalls the Scorched Acreage That Was Once Earth’s Greatest Forest

An abridged version of this article appears in the December print edition of The Washington Spectator.

Wildfires raging in the Amazon . . . deliberately set by farmers illegally deforesting land for cattle ranching . . . have hit a record number this year. . . . The surge marks an 83 percent increase over the same period of 2018 . . . and is the highest since records began in 2013.
—The New York Times front page, Aug. 20, 2019

In my land, the land of my ancestors, destruction threatens because huge fires continue to spread, turning the Amazon rain forest into ashes. The current situation is disastrous.
—Raoni Metuktire, leader of the Kayapó, speech to President Macron on the occasion of G-7 economic summit in Biarritz, France, August 2019

The increase in deforestation and burning . . . has made Brazil a global outcast in an area where the country was previously a protagonist. This threatens the Amazon, the largest heritage of Brazilians, the well-being of the population, and the global climate.
—Joint declaration of 62 Brazilian civil society organizations at the G-7 summit

August 1981
Territory of Mato Grosso, southern Amazon region, Brazil

That month, when I was staying at Tombador, was when it really started: the burning. Thousands of square miles—and not just in the southern Amazon. It was happening to the north, in Venezuela and Colombia, and to the west, in Bolivia and Peru. Clear the jungle, plant the grass, bring on the cattle. Meat for a hungry world. Riches and prosperity for Brazil, hamburgers for India and Japan.

And it wasn’t only the Amazon. Borneo’s forests were burning, and Cameroon’s, Malaysia’s, Ivory Coast’s. You might say it was the beginning of the epoch of the burnings. In the four decades since then, the planet has lost a third of its tropical rain forest cover. The equivalent to all of the United States east of the Mississippi. That vast area—once a source of oxygen in the basic cycle of terrestrial life and a sponge that soaked up carbon dioxide in the other leg of that cycle, once the living cover that shielded the land from the equatorial sun’s fierce bombardment, once the mat of plant matter that spewed water vapor into the air so it could fall again as rain—all this is gone in one human generation.

Tuesday, 6:00 a.m.
En route by small plane to Fazenda* Tombador on the left bank of the Rio do Sangue, municipality of Juara.

The four of us leave Cuiabá, situated on the southern edge of the Amazon watershed, and fly northward over the unbroken forest. The sight of this vast expanse of nature always triggers in me a sense of awe, and it is what has brought me—as a filmmaker clinging to the conviction that through my work I can effect change—into this little plane above the great forest. On this particular day, the air grows progressively more hazy and tinged with brown as we go. Then, 40 miles from Tombador, right in our path, a tall column looms high in the otherwise cloudless sky. From afar, it looks like a cloud of water vapor. But as we get closer, we see its foot is rooted on the ground, not above it; its hue is yellow, not white; and the land downwind is chalky gray, not green. It is a queimada, a burn.

When we get closer, Ricardo, the pilot, circles the plume. The rest of us—Pepe, Tombador’s owner; Grimaldi, his lawyer; and I—stare down. The burning land is part of a clearing. The fire is creeping across it, but its movement is too slow to be detected. In the part that the fire has not yet reached, one can see that the trees have been recently cut. They lie scattered about, and their leaves have turned a deep reddish brown. It seems incredible that a dense cloud of particulate matter billowing 15,000 feet into the air was generated from nothing more than this thin layer of felled vegetation.

In the distance, as our eyes follow the Rio do Sangue downriver, we can see Tombador’s clearing, 10 miles away. Beyond Tombador there is only one other clearing, a small one, then nothing, just high virgin rain forest, all the way down to the main stream of the Amazon, some 600 miles to the north. The burning land below us was once part of Tombador, but five years ago Pepe sold it to its present owner, a construction magnate from Paraná, the state to the south of São Paulo. “A pushy parvenu,” is Pepe’s assessment whenever his name comes up. I’ve been told—openly by some, obliquely by others—that the magnate bested Pepe in the deal, which perhaps explains Pepe’s contempt. The magnate bought two-thirds of Tombador’s original land. Then he lumbered the entire extent, removing the commercially valuable timber—which, it was rumored, he sold for many times what he had paid Pepe for the land—but without cutting so much of the cover that he would be in violation of the laws against clear-cutting. Now he has begun felling the remaining trees on the portion that he is allowed to convert to pasture. This is his first such clearing. It starts at the riverbank and runs inland in a ragged swath for about half a mile.

“Look how messy it is,” says Pepe. “It goes right down to the water.” There is a prohibition against cutting trees within a certain distance of a river, which, I reflect silently, Tombador’s own clearing violates as well. From the air, the neighbor’s clearing appears to be about equal in size to the one now being made ready to burn at Tombador, itself an area of about two square kilometers. This year, 1981, the estimates are that the burning of the world’s rain forests amount to 10,000 times that. Ten thousand such scenes. Ten thousand such clouds of ash.

We fly on to Tombador. When we touch down, it is evident that things have changed since I was last there, a few months earlier. The hangar, an elegant arch of aluminum-roofed mahogany, is finished. More cows are in the pastures. A rented earthmover, a D-6 Caterpillar, has been brought in. It came with its own operator, a strange small man with thick glasses. His wife, a large jolly person, has replaced the last cook.

The unskilled labor crew is also new. Pepe sacked the old one en masse the last time I was up here. “I don’t like the looks of them,” was all that he said. There were eight or 10 of them under the informal lead of a blonde woman named Neide, who ran the kitchen. They were all ordered to leave that same day, and as they straggled away through the pastures toward the sawmill and the road beyond, mute and helpless, carrying bundles of their meagre belongings, they seemed to embody the vast chasm that separates the fazendeiros (landowners) from the empregados (laborers) in this part of the world. Pepe locked up the sede (headquarters, office) that night when we went to sleep as a precaution, but the only suggestion of possible reprisal the next morning was that his recently planted Imperial palm shoots had been cut. The likely culprit was eventually judged to be a stray mule.

Now, as we leave the plane and walk off the airstrip through a relentless heat, ash falling like snow, Graudo, the manager, comes running up. A quick, sturdy, middle-aged Afro-Brazilian man, Graudo has an efficient manner and friendly compliance to authority that have earned him his place as Pepe’s favorite manager, overseeing his most prized property. The talk is of the neighbor’s burn. Its column of smoke towers over us. The air smells curiously like a barbecue. “This morning their foreman came over looking for help,” says Graudo. I am on the verge of suggesting that we go over to give him some. But Pepe forestalls this impulse. “I hope you didn’t give him any,” he replies.

“For the love of God, no!” Graudo declares. Their meanness surprises me. I had thought that the code here honored friendship and cooperation—even if the owners happened to be rivals. Now I see it is more complicated.

Graudo tells us that the foreman begged desperately for him to bring Tombador’s earthmover so that a firebreak could be cut. But Graudo put him off, telling him he would like to, but the “Cat” was broken.

“Well done,” says Pepe.

The poor foreman rushed off in a frenzy. “Everyone,” Graudo adds, “smelled drink on him.”

Just then, the cook’s son, a barefoot 10-year-old, runs up, shouting, “Lunch is ready!” and we all head toward the sede. On the way, Grimaldi asks Graudo:

“How bad is it?”

“They could lose the whole thing,” is his sobering reply.

By now I have learned that a burn is not just a burn. It can be early or late. It can be clean or not. And much rides on the result. If the cut vegetation is fired when it is still too moist, it will not burn thoroughly, seeds will survive; and then with the return of the rains, the half-burnt land, its soil saturated with nutrients from the ash, will quickly cover itself in vines. The resulting tangle is worse by far than virgin jungle and is considered lost. This is why the neighbor’s foreman was so agitated. It is only the middle of the dry season, and the trees that his crews felled were still too green to burn thoroughly. It was too early. But burning too late would be just as bad. Wait too long, and the rains will return. Then the wood will be wet, and again the burn will be ruined.

Either way, there is nothing worse for the land-clearer than a bad burn. In the case of Pepe’s neighbor, it looks like he is going to lose the derubada (felling)—amounting to a season’s labor for two gangs of 15 men each—and the progress of his fazenda will be set back a year.

Graudo says, “No one likes the foreman.”

“Nor the owner,” Pepe adds quickly. All agree that the fire was arson, set on purpose, because if it had been an accident it could have been stopped in the beginning, before it got out of hand. I’m curious to see the burn, so just before we enter the sede, I catch up to Pepe and ask if we can go over there.

“No,” he answers tartly, “we’d be considered snooping.” This rings untrue. And sure enough, a few moments later, with everyone speculating on the cause of the burn, the real reason comes out.

“They’ve had nothing but trouble with the people there,” Graudo says. I imagine he’s playing to Pepe’s enmity. But then he adds, “Neide’s crew really riled things up.” Now I understand: Neide, whom Pepe fired from here, found work for herself and her band at the neighbor’s—and Pepe has no wish to encounter them there.

We enter the sede, wash off the grit from the smoke and the ride in the Cessna, and sit to eat. I look around: Pepe, at the head of the massive table hewn from his own forests, piled with meat from his own pastures, fish from his own waters; Grimaldi, the lawyer, his silver-haired chamberlain; Graudo, captain of his recruits, and below them, the surveyor, the accountant, the road-cutter, the pilot and me.

At the table they are talking: Neide and her people. “A band of gypsies.” She disrupted things. Her brothers were lazy, too. Graudo admits he was charmed by her. Expelled from here, she led her little band through the forest, two nights in the jungle. When they arrived at the neighbor’s fazenda, the foreman hired them on the spot to speed the lagging derubada.

Within a few weeks, there was already trouble. Neide’s boyfriend took offense at the attentions of another man. Knives were drawn. A line was scratched in the dirt. Someone crossed it and fell dead in the ensuing duel.

“Everyone saw it,” Graudo adds.

As we drain our iced lemonades, from out in the pastures comes the lowing of cows.

Wednesday, 6 a.m.

After breakfast, Pepe orders the new Imperial palm shoots that he brought up in the plane to be planted in a row parallel to the river. They grow slowly but become huge: a majestic sight for his children’s children’s children. Then we wipe the dew off the cracked plastic seats of a mufflerless jeep—Pepe, Grimaldi, Graudo, and me—and pile in to drive out to inspect Tombador’s new derubada.

Here in the southern Amazon, the forest is cleared by cutting and burning it. The under-story is felled (the rosada, or reddening) and left to dry, opening up the forest floor. Then the trees themselves are cut (the derubada) and allowed to dry in place during the four-month winter dry season, from June to September. Then everything is burned (the queimada), raising the towering clouds of smoke and ash that satellite photography has lately made so notorious.

We start off, the jeep sputtering down the airstrip that serves as the road for as far as it goes. I look back: there is Tombador’s little cluster of low white buildings, already insignificant against the immense forest and the overarching sky, and beyond them, the corrals and the head cowboy’s shack, its walls hung with cowhides stretched on circular frames of saplings and looking like so many hex signs.

At the end of the runway, we leave the pounding sun for the limpid shade of the second growth (mostly gangly Cecropias and arching bamboos with four-inch pseudothorns), and finally gain the jungle. Here, the ground does not look much different from a wood lot in England or the eastern United States. Logged several years ago for its mahogany and veneer woods, it is now rather thin and airy.

After going for perhaps half an hour, the road suddenly bursts into an extensive clearing. This is last year’s derubada. It is in the shape of a fat “L,” almost a mile long on each of the outside legs. About 10 months have passed since it was burned—poorly, it turns out—and some of it has come back in vines.

But there is not one live tree, only tens of thousands of charred, shattered trunks, (the way I imagine) as in the photographs of Shiloh, or Verdun. I wade through the waist-high bunches of grass, planted by air, that are supposed to become fodder for cattle. Graudo and Pepe discuss the necessity of saturating the vines with broad-leaf herbicides, after which they’ll turn cows onto the new grass, so that their hooves can spread the root masses before they become too tough.

I mount a stump to get a better view. I have seen this sight before, all this forest turned to pasture. But since boyhood I have been imbued with the romance of cattle—and in my head, I try to take up my host’s arguments: “People have to eat.” “A man is worth more than a tree.” “If someone’s going to do it, it ought to be me; at least I’ve got a conscience.” But it doesn’t help.

The derubada is roughly 500 acres, or three-quarters of a square mile, in area. The plan for Tombador is to clear a plot this size each year until a quarter of the total forest cover—the maximum allowable under Brazilian law—has been removed. That maximum at Tombador, 10,000 acres, if put into pasture, could support 5,000 cows; if cultivated for soybean feed for the cattle, perhaps three times that many. Fifteen thousand head: meat for a year for 50,000 human mouths.

It never fails: go out to the frontier, grab as much land as you can, and hold on. Pepe’s father did it in the 1940s on what was then the frontier, in Paraná State, beyond São Paulo. Now the frontier has galloped 1,000 miles farther north, and the son will do it here.

At Tombador, the family has 42,000 acres, most of it high virgin jungle. At a fazenda named Agrotrans, 80 miles to the east, they have another 44,000. And 150 miles to the north, they have a tract they call Colniza. It is 1.2 million acres.

A million acres is an area of 1,600 square miles. All of greater Los Angeles. Twice Mexico City. Four times London. On any modest world map, Pepe’s family’s holdings would be visible. The island of Manhattan, 70 times smaller, would not.

Later that morning

We all make our way on foot to the new derubada, adjacent to the one from last year. We walk through—over, under, and around—the recently felled trees and brush toward the distant thump of ax blows. Drawing nearer, we hear a sound like cicadas that rises to a crescendo and then falls. Soon we see it is the machadeiros, or woodcutters, filing their iron axes with whetstones, which they do incessantly. They stop for a moment and stare at us, then resume their work, as if impelled by some instinctive agenda calling them to denude the earth.

Labor contractors, known as empreiteiros, recruit the machadeiros—mostly from the coastal cities a great distance away. Organized into gangs of 15 to 20 men each, they are set down in the middle of the jungle, where they stay for five or six months, living in crude huts and working from dawn to dusk in the breathless air of the close jungle, amid heat and insects.

The work is heavy and dangerous. Many contract malaria. Snakebite is common. So are accidents with their heavy axes and poleaxlike bush hooks. Infections are rampant, and heat exhaustion disables many. They endure their labors until the annual rains drive them out of the jungle to the frontier towns on its periphery, where they live in boarding houses and idle away their salaries in bars and brothels—there being few jobs they can find during the wet season.

These machadeiros bake in the sun that burns relentlessly on any spot where the forest has been felled. Gleaming with sweat and grime, scarred with the welts of a thousand bites, stained by the clouds of chord tobacco smoke that they blow in the air to drive off the insects, they are lean from their unvarying diet of rice and black beans, pork rind, strong coffee and oily tapir meat.

Their eyes are flashing, their movements sure and fluid. They don’t know who we are. They were hired as a gang. They only know that their bosses carry guns and we are their bosses’ bosses.

With their heavy straight-handled axes, they cut a two-foot-thick tree as we watch. It brings down a tangle of others with it, as intended. We move on and watch a larger tree being cut. It falls with finality, shaking the ground all around where we stand. A few hoots go up from other cutters off in the woods after the crash.

Then we pass through their camp: rows of plastic-covered lean-tos, sour-smelling hammocks, and plastic refuse. Graudo tells us that he had supplied the men with denatured alcohol as the simplest remedy for minor skin injuries but found that they were drinking the stuff. He then mixed insect repellent with it, and told them so.

“But they’re drinking it anyway,” he says.

Derubada work inevitably seems to fall behind schedule, and so the contractors drive the gangs mercilessly, often at the point of a gun. “Last week,” Graudo comments, “one of the bosses whacked a woodcutter behind the ear with a machete. It cut his head right open. You could see the bone.” No one seemed surprised.

We work our way back through the derubada clumsily—we are not of the woods. Pepe mandates a small copse at the summit of a slight rise as a scenic overlook, and orders the trees left unmolested there.

When we reach the jeep again, Grimaldi seems relieved and breaks into a chorus of “High Noon,” from the old Gary Cooper movie, which he must have learned back in his exchange-student days in the States. He and I sing, “Do not forsake me, oh my darling . . .” all the way back to the sede.

Thursday, 11 a.m. Town of Juara

In this era, each fazenda had its own short-wave radio. These sets, the size of suitcases, powered by direct current, sharing a common transmission band and assigned times of use, were their owners’ link to the outside world. It was a thin, worn link that worked some days, others not. There was static, aggravated by the weather, and interference from other users. The batteries held their charge fitfully. Rarely was contact made between the intended callers in less than a half-hour. Fifteen minutes was a lucky day. And once made, it was fleeting. The other party would fade in and out. In those weirdly modulating signals, you could feel all the hundreds of miles stretching across the plains and savannas, fields and farms, pastures and swamps of the backlands. A good operator had to have patience and brevity in equal measure. You spoke clearly and quickly, and listened hard.

Yesterday, Pepe was on the radio here, calling the secretary in the company office back in São Paulo, 1,800 miles to the south. The secretary then relayed Pepe’s message to Helio, the manager of Fazenda Agrotrans, 40 miles from where we sit. The message: Meet in Juara today.

Juara is the nearest town to Tombador. Agrotrans is the same distance away but in another direction. Helio, whom I have not met, is the counterpart to Graudo here at Tombador. Juara has a few thousand inhabitants and is eight years old, the same age as Tombador and two years younger than Agrotrans, making it a typical frontier town of the Mato Grosso.

Ricardo flies us over in the little Cessna. The air is murky and smells of ash. We’re there in 15 or 20 minutes. He circles the town to alert a taxi, then lands on the dirt runway. The taxi appears, and we drive the few miles into town for our rendezvous.

As we go, we pass small farmsteads interspersed with patches of mangled jungle that belong to the colóns, the dirt farmers: subsistence emigrants who have come here, mostly from the huge Brazilian cities down south, with little more than the clothes on their backs and dreams of a better future. Each plot is a variant on the same theme: a simple cabin, usually made of heavy, unpainted planks, with one or two rooms and no porches; an outhouse nearby; a yard with a few pigs and chickens; a hand-dug well with rope and bucket; a vegetable garden with papaya, citrus, guava, and a few mango trees; all surrounded by small fields of coffee and manioc, planted and tended by hand among the stumps and roots of the burnt but uncleared jungle. The bulk of the territory’s population lives on these farms. And although their aggregate production is only a fraction of the great fazendas’, these small homesteads support many more owners.

We reach Juara’s main street. It runs straight and wide down a gentle slope for 10 or 15 blocks. The roadbed is dirt and rutted four feet deep in some places; several large piles of cobblestones nearby promise to change this. Walk around the corner of the main street, and the shops end. Go a few blocks farther, and you are back among the farmsteads.

Yet the town is full of movement. People bustle along the sidewalks; weathered vehicles, mostly pickups but also bicycles, tractors, and horse-drawn carts, rumble up and down the main street. There is a sense of mission here, even urgency. Young men, most of whom appear to be farmers, scurry among the various dry-goods storefronts. The fazendeiros and businessmen are in pressed jeans, but the more usual costume is short shorts, a thin collared shirt open to the navel, flip-flops, and any hat: cowboy, baseball, even the occasional panama. Most are unshaven. All carry little wrist purses containing one’s essential documents in this bureaucratic land. Laborers are often in tank trunks, nothing more.

Women, a decided minority, wear frock dresses or blouses with shorts. Children wear T-shirts and shorts. Shirts are generally loud colors and many bear insignias or slogans. Loudspeakers at a corner hardware store hawk washing machines. They’re a model with wringers that catch fingers and have been out of circulation in most parts of the world for half a century. But this is a frontier. Here everything is new, everything is the best you can do. Boots, soled with old tires, are sold in bins. Dresses are made from bolts of gingham. Goods lie in piles on the floors of the stores: seed corn, scythes, sacking, hoe heads, meat grinders, potatoes, aluminum wash basins, thread.

Away from the main street, many of the buildings are shacks, but near the center they are more likely to be sprawling, one-story structures of cinder block, plastered inside and out, with tile or tin roofs. The floors in the restaurants and stores are concrete, but the ceilings are solid mahogany, milled tongue-in-groove—reflecting the abundance and low cost of this noble wood.

In one of these wood-ceilinged restaurants, Pepe has arranged to meet Helio. The menu here is the same as in the others—beef, rice, chicken, manioc (boiled, grated, roasted, or fried), and beans—but Pepe favors it for its cold beers. It is a cavernous room with four small tables, all unoccupied, and a tiny arched window through which plates are passed from the kitchen. The concrete floor is painted dark red, the walls a bright yellow. They are bare, except for a few calendars put out by Japanese chain-saw manufacturers and a strange, graceful object of rich maroon wood festooned with a knot of brilliant feathers.

We sit. Waiters, still boys, scurry over with beers. Then a man appears in the doorway.

“Helio,” says Pepe, without standing.

He is very small. His frame is willowy, his legs spindly and turned inward. As he removes his battered straw hat and walks toward us, he exudes dignity and self-possession. He greets us warmly but properly. He accepts a beer.

He must be in his late fifties. A sharp horizontal line runs across the middle of his forehead, white above, red below. He has only a few long gray hairs lying straight back across his pate. He wears thick glasses, behind which his blue eyes float like a pair of moonstones. But there is something in them that conveys depth. I take him for a seeker.

The boys bring plates of food. Helio talks earnestly. He cannot stay, but we should enjoy the meal. He must return because he has a ride waiting that’ll take him three-quarters of the way back. He’ll walk the last 10 miles. The jeep? Still not working. The rear axle snapped last year. He has been here since yesterday. Doesn’t want to spend another night away, because the cows are being rounded up for the annual branding. His foreman tries hard, but he doesn’t have the touch when it comes to moving them through the chute. Why won’t Pepe just take him in the plane, I wonder to myself. It’s a 15-minute flight.

A boy removes our empty beer bottles. “Another, stupefyingly cold,” Pepe tells him. Now he and Graudo give Helio the news. First the killing at the neighbor’s, then the runaway burn.

“Bad luck for the neighbor,” Helio answers, removing his spectacles as he considers his words. Then, smiling and looking back and forth from Pepe to Graudo, he launches into a brief account —which I realize is more a course of instruction for Graudo, who I sense has never conducted one before—on how to achieve a good burn.

“Use every man you can put out there. There must be some wind. Keep them upwind, though, or you’ll lose somebody. Each prepares as large a pile of combustible matter as he can. Hundred-meter intervals. Everyone lights at once. You want to create a partial vacuum. The fire will suck in air below. It will act like a furnace. Many, many times hotter than a normal bonfire.”

Graudo listens carefully, gratefully. Now Pepe asks Helio something about grass seed for the newly opened pastures at Tombador.

“The cows’ll fatten better on the Colonial. It’s greasier,” Helio says, meaning it has a higher fat content.

I leave them to their discussion and walk over to peer at the wooden object hanging on the wall. It is a bow— the simplest kind, a longbow—that forms a single arc when drawn. The wood is extremely hard and dense. It is six feet long, almost straight, its stave a slightly bulging triangle in cross section. The bowstring is palm fiber, twisted and bleached; its long, unused tail is wound around the upper half of the bow—a feature, characteristic of Amazonian aboriginal archery, that allows for the knotting point to be readily adjusted. A little pom of iridescent feathers adorns the stave. I hunt up the restaurant’s owner to ask where he got it, but he can’t recall.

“Wild Indians,” he declares, “from before all this—,” he waves his arm to encompass the restaurant, the town, “long, long ago.”

All of eight years, I think to myself. I hold the bow. It is as heavy as a piece of iron. Great strength would be needed to draw it. I hold an end to my nose and sight down its length: The lines are utterly true. How would someone have made such a precise and elegant object? It would hardly be easy for an expert woodworker with all the tools of the industrial world to make something as fine.

Even more striking than its precision is the bow’s humanity. True, it is a weapon and a valued tool with which someone plied a living as well. But hours, weeks, months went into its making, more than were necessary for it to function properly. The bow was clearly an object of pride and beauty for its owner. And for years, maybe decades, it was in use. The tuft of feathers is a trophy case, cataloging curiosities and triumphs.

The body of the bow is dense heartwood taken from the core of a large tree. Splitting the raw staves from the massive and resistant parent trunk must have been a huge effort in itself, involving many hands working patiently and systematically with wedges of stone and wood, mallets to drive them, and other staves to pry them away. But how was such a tree ever felled? Later I would learn it was with stone-headed axes, which themselves took months to make, probably after firing or ringing the tree to kill it, then chipping away at it with the none-too-sharp axes. Honing the stave into the bow would have been done by using animal teeth—rodent incisors or pig canines—as cutting blades and rocks as files. All was done slowly, in its own time.

There are no arrows with this bow. But I have seen them since, and they amaze me even more. More than the bow, they must be integrally and geometrically perfect. “Straight as an arrow” is the minimum specification. But while Amazonian longbows are models of simplicity, the arrows are more elaborate. The foreshaft, to which the head of wood, or split cane, or palm splinters, or bone, or stone, or shell is hafted, can be asymmetrical (I have seen ones with crooks in them), but they must be heavier than the shafts. Rushes and canes are the preferred shafts, sought at long distances and in trade. On the tail end of the shaft, two split feathers are stitched with surgical precision in a mild spiral to guide the flight. These are usually pieces cut from the wing feathers of large birds—parrots, hawks, owls, eagles, vultures. Other feathers, small and brilliant, adorn the joint where the head and foreshaft meet. The shafts and heads are often marked with beautiful and intricate designs—the maker’s mark. Sometimes the binding fibers are worked into patterns as well. I have counted 15 different materials—threads, resins, waxes, pigments—used in the manufacture of a single arrow, and there were likely others I missed.

I reflect I am sitting in a town that is the age of a child, built by the advance members of a spreading civilization with an unconstrained hunger for resources, which originated half a world away and has been developing at varying rates continuously since before the Pyramids were raised along the Nile. And yet here on the wall is an object belonging to an entirely different civilization, one clearly capable of brilliant material production, whose members occupied this region up to a decade ago. They had probably lived in this forest for centuries or even millennia; they showed great talent for manual work and a refined aesthetic sense. And now they are gone with barely a trace.

I return to the table just as everyone is standing to leave. It has been resolved that Fazenda Tombador will avail itself of the reserve of grass seed Helio has been storing at Agrotrans and that we are to fly the plane over to Agrotrans to pick it up. At least Helio won’t have to walk home, I tell myself as we step outside into the afternoon sun.

Thursday, 4 p.m.
Fazenda Agrotrans, at the confluence of the Arinos and Peixes Rivers, Juara, Mato Grosso

The state of things at Pepe’s two fazendas could not be more at variance: At Tombador, the dining table is a single, massive plank of fine hardwood, 40 inches wide and 14 feet long. Here at Agrotrans, plastic cloth is tacked over warped boards. At Tombador, the mahogany deck chairs are modelled at Pepe’s order on the classic Adirondack style; here, the chairs are molded plastic and steel tubing. There, kerosene lanterns cast their soft light; here, the electric bulbs are bare. There, the hammocks are hand-woven cotton; here, straight acrylic.

On the walls of Agrotrans’s sede hang a few calendars from seed and fertilizer firms and a headless snake skeleton, cartilage and all, eight feet long and as big around as a human thigh, frozen in death into an S. Also a flyswatter, a cattle prod, a set of horse spurs, a few battered wide-brimmed straw hats, a mud wasp nest that reminds me of a pre-Columbian mask, and a hand-lettered cardboard sign reading, how good it is to live in the country, under which a subversive hand has scrawled, depends on the place. There is also the freshly tanned skin of a huge jaguar, spanning most of one wall. When we enter, the first thing Pepe does is take it down and roll it up: “Macho” (“a male”), is all he says as he hands it to Ricardo to be stowed in the plane. Helio declares that it has killed more than a dozen calves and required a hired hunter to ambush and eliminate it after he tried and failed. And if he is pained to see his trophy confiscated, he shows no sign of it. A few weeks later, I will spot it under Pepe’s coffee table in his atelier in São Paulo.

Beyond the sede, other buildings stand in a row: three bunkhouses; a cookhouse; and the last and largest, a sort of shed, dirt-floored, that serves as a barn and machine shop; all a faded, peeling white. A few scattered outbuildings—generator shack and water tower among them— complete the compound.

Surrounding all this, and separated from it by another fence, are the pastures—roughly 6,000 acres at this time. They extend in a rectangle over a piece of ground that rolls gently into a shallow trough and up again on the other side, a distance of perhaps three miles. Their circular corral, easily 40 yards across, can be made out on the far rise. Right now, the pastures are a dull olive, it being the end of the short but severe dry season. In the distance, blending in with the landscape, are the whitish zebu cattle, whose lowing sometimes reaches us. Beyond the pastures, and ringing them on all sides, is the jungle wall, dark green, looking exactly like the side-on view of a piece of heavy pile carpet. They don’t even bother to fence it. This is the face of a frontier.

Pastures, Fazenda Agrotrans

I am alone, on foot. The sky is white. The sun is somewhere in it. The ground is hard, with many bare patches. The grass, parched and wilted, in shaggy bunches six feet tall, is interspersed with rough weedy brush, often with thorns or hairy, felt-like leaves that the cattle avoid. Many logs, gray, burnt, half-rotted, lie fallen. Earthen pillars, five or six feet high, house the termites that eat the logs. Tall, pencil-thin palms stand erect, like inverted paintbrushes. And everywhere, right up to where the cleared land meets the untouched jungle, is the predominant feature of this scene: the standing, dead skeletons of huge trees.

These are the giants of the forest—the climax growth: 100, 130, 150 feet high—that were left where they stood when the land was cleared. By felling only the lesser trees, along with the brush and vines, Helio’s men got them all in the end, big and small, with the fires. They are all bleached and dead now. At Tombador, the large trees were taken for lumber. But here, they were never cut commercially. Perhaps here they weren’t the species that yielded good wood. More likely, they were simply too massive to handle: 12 feet in diameter and twice the specific gravity of Douglas Fir.

At Tombador, after the large trees were lumbered, the smaller ones left standing were eventually brought down by the ax. There, only their charred stumps remained after the burnings: neat and easier to plant under. Here, standing death is everywhere. Everyone calls it a “sad” fazenda. They talk of the many human deaths when they opened it up, a decade ago. They point to the graveyard, almost invisible in the weeds. The unremembered, mostly woodcutters. Snakebite. Fights. Malaria. Indians. Drink. But it is the trees that say death now.

There are cattle all around me. Tall, gray, horned, humped. They are skittish and stand in little groups at a distance, watching me, erect, alert, wild. The leaders, mostly older females, break away and trot closer, then trot back. Now I hear a sharp clack. Over a rise, 50 yards away, two bulls are fighting. A cave painting. Horns locked, heads down, muscles straining. Panting. Two, three minutes pass. The cows watch, grazing desultorily. Sometimes one of the bulls throws the other back and, horns still locked, they go thrashing through the brush.

Eventually, one of the combatants gets pushed back a few steps too many. Only a few, but it’s over. Heads shake. Horns disengage. The loser stares, blinking at the winner, then turns, ears low, and trots off, showing the whites of his eyes as he looks back over his shoulder in fear or shame. The victor stands—head high, eyeing his rival into the distance—then bellows the cows into line and moves off with them.

I climb a rock outcropping in the middle of the pastures. It is a signal feature here, visible for miles, the size and shape of a Mayan pyramid. It rises to treetop level—only now, of course, there are no trees. But a half-mile away, beyond the blanched skeletons, the termite mounds, the semi-wild cattle, and the overgrazed weeds, stands the jungle, green and intact, stretching to the horizon.

The din coming from it drifts over the intervening space. Not a drone exactly, nor a hum. More a scream. One can distinguish certain individual calls—a bird, a frog, a cicada—but the whole of this sound is something much greater than the parts. It is the sound of a vast community, a dense existence of animal and vegetable life intertwined. Thousands, tens of thousands, billions of organisms. All living, working, resting, loving, eating together. Nature fashions life to fit any environment: steep or flat, cold or hot, watery or solid. But where else does the primordial scream reach such a pitch? Not in the desert, not in the ocean. Not in the composting, deciduous woods of my Pennsylvania childhood, which stand five months a year without a leaf. The Amazon forest, I reflect, is nature’s greatest city.

Thursday, 8 p.m. Fazenda Tombador

We have flown to Agrotrans, fetched the grass seed, and returned. We have washed and dined. The burn at the neighbor’s is casting a ghastly glow in the night sky; the air is acrid, and now Pepe’s curiosity gets the better of him. “Come on,” he says to me, and we walk down to the river, board the launch, and head upstream for a look.

As we approach, the sense of catastrophe is overwhelming. The glow from the tremendous quantity of burning matter can be seen for miles. This burning is unnatural here, in the green forest. The water is still and black; so are the woods on either side. We draw close to the shore. Smoke hangs like fog in the air. A few trees stand on the bank, free of any brush or limbs or vines. Leaning on one of them, silhouetted against the glow, is a human form, passive and unmoving. We hail him to no effect. Even after we land and tie up, he does not move.

We climb the bank and come to the sede. Its scattered, poorly built sheds stand unaccountably intact. No wind can be felt, and the temperature of the air is normal. Curiously, smoke is not prevalent—I can hardly even smell it, but the air in the distance is charged with it. Pigs are rooting nearby, unconcerned. Frogs raise a strange and eerie chorus. In the distance, burning trees crack with a sound like the whap of an ax on a hollow bole.

We walk, with the man following, up a road perhaps 200 to 300 yards into the burning area. Ash lies everywhere, six inches deep on the ground. Trees stand, some 40 or 50 feet high, still burning. There are piles of embers throughout, including one forming a mound six feet high and 200 feet around, which I gather from the remains was a dump of mahogany logs waiting for shipment.

The man begins to talk. An old chain saw, he claims, spilled gas on him and the ground, and the fuel immediately burst into flame, scalding the skin of his stomach and catching the woods on fire. Another man came, and they put the fire out, but the rest of the gang came and began it anew, “in revolt.” They were all brought here by the same bosses who are overseeing the woodcutters at Tombador, the same armed bosses who are disliked and avoided there and who gripe to Graudo for more money. Apparently they are the ones here who, by their harsh treatment of their men, have provoked this disaster.

There doesn’t seem to be anyone else around. Neide and her people must have moved on again. But Pepe seems worried that he’ll be recognized. So we wish the burned woodcutter well, board the launch, and flee.

We speed back over the still waters, the night sky glowing at our backs. Soon Tombador’s low white buildings come into view, sitting quietly on the rise above the river. A dim light shines in a window. I feel relief to have escaped that scene of destruction—though it changes nothing. That piece of forest—and all the life in it—is gone. And from what I hear of the headlong development in Juara and a thousand other new towns, from what I see of the clearing work going on every time I fly up here from Cuiabá, I know it will only get worse.

We tie up the boat and climb the gentle slope toward the sede. The grass is slippery with dew. The peepers’ songs, lost before to the outboard’s drone, now mingle with the low voices of people getting ready for sleep. On the porch of the sede, we settle into the hammocks strung there. A lullaby floats across from the building where the kitchen people stay. It is an ancient melody that must have come with the Portuguese colonists many centuries ago. I know its notes, because the housekeeper in São Paulo sings it to our little son. I wonder, is he sleeping too—alone with his mother, their nearest relatives a continent away? I want to hold him and his fresh life in the midst of all this destruction.

Pepe, too, is silent, perhaps reflecting on similar things. Or perhaps his thoughts are on his fazendas: one deep in the jungle, just sitting there, untouched. And two others, Agrotrans and here, being cleared and waiting for the burning to begin. “It might as well be me,” I can hear him saying in my head, “at least I’ve got a conscience.”

*landholding or ranch

John Perkins is a writer and filmmaker who spent 10 years in Brazil. He is currently developing a documentary series on how certain isolated societies have survived their transition to the modern world.

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