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Doug Gunzelmann

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A Land Without Men for Men Without Land: Travels Through the Amazon

Posted: 04/04/10 05:25 PM ET

On my 29th birthday, I set out on my first ever bicycle expedition. The first time I had ever been to Brazil I landed in Belem at the mouth of the Amazon River with a used mountain bike I had bought on eBay six weeks prior. My Portuguese vocabulary consisted of about 50 words, and the weight of the equatorial jungle heat made it difficult to think straight. I was going to cycle the Transamazonica highway alone, over 3,000 miles across the continent joining with the new Trans-Oceanic highway in Peru, to explore the deforestation of the Amazon Basin firsthand. This brutal trek shaped the way I think about Amazonia, deforestation, and how people fit into the picture of global environmental conservation.

The Transamazonica highway, also referred to as BR-230, was built through the Amazon jungle in the early 1970s to open the area for "development." The TransAm has been cycled to the extent of my trip only four or five times since it was hacked across Brazil. First, and most impressively, was by Louise Southerland, a 100 lb. nurse from New Zealand riding a 5 speed steel Raleigh over forty years ago. Her adventure, chronicled in the book The Impossible Ride, describes the frontier of Brazil, which to this day, has very little law enforcement (meaning zero outside of cities) where gold miners still have shootouts in the jungle and pay for rum with gold dust.

The intention behind building the TransAm was to open the vast expanse of the Amazon interior to provide "Land without men for men without land," and create a trucking route west. Settlers were given plots of land to develop for their own sustenance through farming and ranching but ultimately this horribly expensive project was a failure. The route dead-ends in a small town called Labrea, however it's possible to cross the continent via connecting roads. To this day, the highway is surfaced almost entirely of dirt, is poorly maintained, and serves as a transport corridor for local communities and an access route for loggers and illegal miners. Some sections are experiencing a major revamp to accommodate increasing agriculture in the region with the increasing global demand for soy beans.

My planning for this trip consisted mostly of searching for articles on the area and zooming in on Google maps, which meant my planning was incredibly shoddy. The TransAm seemed to be nothing more than a giant mistake, nearly lawless, all but forgotten by the government that started the project, and now filled with morally reprehensible souls willing to kill for quick profit from the wood and resources found in the jungle. How easy it would be to point fingers and draw plans to curb deforestation if this was the simple case.

I successfully crossed the entire continent with nearly 2,000 miles on unpaved tracks through the world's greatest jungle. I saw the fazendas, or cattle ranches, that fill the treeless plots lining roadways all through out the Amazon. They look like hairy brown veins when you zoom in with Google maps. Everyday for the 6 weeks I was in the Amazon Basin I heard chainsaws, saw and smelled the fires of the quimadas as new land was gained from the jungle, and met many garimpos, or miners, who worked deep in remote corners of the forests looking for gold or semi-precious stones. It was all happening every day across the entire width of the jungle along the TransAm and Trans-Oceanic highway.

Before my trip, when I thought of the environment issues facing the Amazon, I failed to account for the cities, villages, and families that have existed here for lifetimes. People I spoke with at home in the U.S. were always surprised that this wasn't empty land save for a few loggers. One day I rode for 12 hours in 100+ degree heat and was taken into the home of a family living along the road. I had no place to sleep that night and no food or water. They gave me water to clean myself and drink, a freshly cooked dinner, and a bed to sleep in. The next morning breakfast was waiting before I left and they refused to take any money in return for their hospitality. The Dona of the household just asked that I said hello to her sons as they worked on the fazenda outside of town. This openness and hospitality is what I remember most about the people living in the Amazon.

The narrow cross section of South America I was exposed to on my ride showed me three major environmental issues concerning the Amazon, its resources, and the people living there. First is the creation of dams for hydroelectric power. The Tucurui dam is one of the largest in the Amazon Basin and will be joined by a dam in the Xingu river area around Altamira. The dam will of course result in flooded jungle which will displace the people and animals that live along these waterways as well as disrupt the livelihood of those living down stream of the dam. I witnessed protests for water rights and against the construction of these dams in Belem and Altamira.

Then there are the roadways themselves which are a major issue in this part of the world. Roadways, like the Transamazonica or the TranOceanic highway, offer access to these remote areas and the potential for exploitation of the jungle and people. However, the people I came to depend on for my own safety and well being also depend on these roads for transportation of their goods and themselves. These roads allow Brazil, Peru, and other countries of South America to move their goods to ocean ports to sell on the world market. For instance, parts of the Transamazonica between Santarem and Cuiaba have been widened and paved since I rode them a few months ago, to transport truck loads of soybeans. Roads will bring destruction, no question about it, but the dilemma is how to sustainably meet Brazil's right to compete on the global market and keep the Amazon from being mowed down.

Finally there is the popular deforestation issue which is easily observed on nearly all of the Transamazonica. I spent nights with the men and woman responsible for some of this destruction as well as beers and meals with people who now depend on the cleared land for a living. It's a complicated problem for me to come to terms with now. There needs to be a resolution that preserves the jungle yet allows these people to at least maintain their livelihoods and better yet to prosper. Brazilians have every right to work towards a higher quality of life and are competing on a global market to accomplish this, as are Americans, Europeans, me, and you.

I have now come face to face with deforestation, and it's not a surly bare-chested man walking around with a chainsaw kicking dogs. The people living in the Amazon along these roadways have been here for generations --before I was even born. They have very little material wealth, lead honest lives, and work extremely hard to provide for each other. When I left Brazil I was most struck by the openness and overall generosity of the culture. Never have an entire people left such a positive impression on me as that of the Brazilians I met across the relatively poor Amazonian states.

Deforestation as it has occurred in many parts of Brazil is not in anyone's long-term interest. The government is aware of this, much of the international community is aware of this, and the population of the Amazon itself is by and large very aware of this. However, so many of these people are backed against a wall. Due to poverty, isolation, and a general lack of alternatives they do what they must to make a living, which often times is to the detriment of the environment. This is the plight of many developing nations.

I spent an evening with a pig farmer, Resu, who literally didn't have a pot to pee in (we dug holes behind his one room shack for our toilet). We ate a dinner of rice and beans that I am guessing had been reheated on the same fire for days. He tended about 40 pigs and lived on the cleared land of a fazenda that he didn't own but depended on to survive. Resu is in his mid-30s, unmarried and uneducated. He left the city to provide for himself on this isolated farm in hopes of saving enough to find a wife and start a family. For food he sometimes eats his pigs or hunts wild game, including some rare animals, in the jungle about 100 yards back from the roadway. How do I tell Resu not to kill the animals of the Amazon? How do I tell him that the fazenda he depends on is part of the bleeding scar of the basin? I came to realize that the problem and solution is a little more complicated than I previously grasped.

I left the Amazon with more questions than answers as is often the case when one becomes so embedded in something. When I read about debates to stop the paving of the roadways of the Amazon I wonder what that means for the people I met? Do I have any right to voice my opinion about deforestation just because I can? Who is really causing the damage, them or me? I live in a country that has benefited from the degradation of others for generations. Brazil is competing in a cutthroat global economy with the United States and other world powers to provide for its people. At this point, I can't gauge who's really winning, and who has already lost.