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Going to the Amazon is always brilliant fun and I particularly love Manaus because it is so unlike any other place I’ve ever been.

Manaus houses built on stilts at the side of the River Amazon (Solimões)

It’s a concrete jungle of almost 2 million people stuck there right in the middle of a real jungle. Just getting there is a four-hour flight from São Paulo.

From a small outpost that got rich on rubber at the end of the 19th century, Manaus has grown and grown and grown and it keeps on expanding into the rainforest as if on some quixotic attempt to dominate nature.

I went there last month to write a piece on distance learning which you can see here.

Manuas to me is summed up in that constant battle between man and nature.

A few years ago I visited a factory in Manaus’s free trade zone that made cell phones. The factory had been built on the edge of town and you could see the thick expanse of trees over the wall that surrounded the property.

The struggle between concrete and forest had made its mark. The factory had a room filled with wild animals the employees had found inside the grounds. On each shelf there were bottles filled with snakes, scorpions, spiders and other frightening creatures.

Man had taken over their patch and they had died trying to take it back.

It’s the same in the city itself. The jungle is constantly fighting to win back space. Every vacant lot quickly becomes overgrown with trees and flora. Even the spaces between paving stones sprout with grass.

That’s Manaus.

 

Cover of Monte Reel's book

I just finished reading “The Last of the Tribe,” Monte Reel’s fantastic book about the lone member of an indian tribe struggling to avoid encroaching white settlers in the western Amazon.

The book reads like a mystery, a travelogue and a short history of Brazil’s chequered indigenous ‘conquests’ all rolled into one.

It tells the story of how Funai, the country’s National Indigenous Foundation, tried to contact the man when they thought he was in danger. The group believed the indian – known as the Indian of the Hole because of the mysterious holes he dug inside his jungle huts – belonged to a larger tribe who were killed off by invaders.

It’s a great and easy read and packed not just with anecdotes about isolated indians and jungle life, but also about the constant conflict between the indigenous natives and the Brazilians of European descent who quite frankly think they’re savages who are holding the country back.

I’d thoroughly recommend it to anyone who is interested in knowing more about Brazil’s isolated indians.

Speaking of which, Peruvian cocaine traffickers seeking to carve new routes into Brazil through land set aside for an isolated tribe called the Xinane recently forced Funai explorers from their jungle base. (As I write about here today in the Christian Science Monitor.)

The traffickers ransacked the base and Brazilian federal police were flown in to retake control.

But there’s still no sign of the indians. The hope is that they sought refuge deeper into the forest, and that they weren’t killed. But right now there’s no knowing.

Here’s an incredible story from the Amazon about zombie ants whose bodies are taken over by a fungus that forces them to attach themselves to certain leaves before the fungus comes exploding out their heads and reproduces.

The story, published here in the NY Daily News quotes a report in LiveScience.com and says:

“Scientists have discovered species of fungi that infect ants, taking control of their muscles, forcing them to wander the jungle floor in search of a perfect place for the fungus to propagate. That perfect place is the underside of certain leaves. When the fungus finds a leaf, it forces the ant to bite down on the leaf’s main vein, locking it into position.”

The fungus “can literally burst out of the ant’s head to begin the growth of the spore-releasing stalk,” said David Hughes, a study researcher from Pennyslvania State University.

Hughes said the final bite takes place around noon, meaning the fungal parasite is synchronised with the sun. That ensures the fungus has a long cool night ahead of it during which it bursts out the ant’s head and allows the spore-releasing stalk to grow.

Amazing. Just when you thought you’d heard it all…

Back to work after a couple of weeks holiday in Chile and my return was made more welcome thanks to today’s good news for the Amazon and for Brazil’s environmentalists.

Data released today shows deforestation in the Amazon region hit a record low for the second consecutive year. Deforestation fell 14 percent in the 12 months to July, according to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE).

An estimated 6,450 square kilometers of forests were cut down, the lowest yearly rate since annual monitoring began in 1988.

Annual Deforestation Rates in the Amazon

Year Rate (km2)
2000 18,226
2001 18,165
2002 21,523
2003 25,396
2004 27,772
2005 19,014
2006 14,196
2007 11,633
2008 12,911
2009 7,464
2010 6,450

Source: National Institute for Space Research (INPE)

It’s good news for all and bolsters Brazil position exactly as the world is negotiating at the 16th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP16) in Cancun, Mexico.

The government said of today’s figures:

“The successive drops in Amazon deforestation rates are a result of the Plan for Amazon Deforestation Prevention and Control (PPCDAM), an integrated set of integrated government policies that combine enhanced satellite monitoring and enforcement operations with land tenure regularization, alongside initiatives to encourage sustainable activities in the region. With the support of 13 government agencies, PPCDAM was instrumental in helping to reduce deforestation in the Amazon by 76.8 percent from 2004 to 2010.”

“In 2009, Brazil voluntarily passed into law a commitment to cut its projected greenhouse gas emissions between 36.1 and 38.9 percent by 2020. Deforestation reduction is a critical part of Brazil’s strategy to reduce national emissions; official calculations estimate that meeting deforestation reduction targets could reduce Brazil’s greenhouse gas emissions by up to 24.7 percent. In October 2010, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva announced that Brazil’s 80 percent Amazon deforestation reduction target would be met by 2016, four years earlier than planned.”

 

Imazon just released a great new report with hundreds of statistics about the logging industry in the Amazon.

The report covers the furniture industry, the carbon markets, sustainable logging and a host of related topics. It is available for download here.

Here are a few interesting facts in the report:

– There are nine Brazilian states in the Amazon. The most deforested in Maranhao, with 42 percent gone; the most pristine is Amapá, which has lost just 1.4 percent of its tree cover.

– The population of the Amazon went from 8.2 million in 1970 to 17 million in 1991 to 24 million today.

– Almost half (44 percent) of the Amazon is protected, at least nominally, as either indigenous reserves or conservation units.

– Logging brought in an estimated $2.5 billion in 2009.

– The logging industry provides direct or indirect jobs to 200,000 people. That’s down from 350,000 in 1998.

– Between 2008 and 2010, Para planted 254 million trees. Most of them were eucalyptus.

 

Survival International, the British charity that defends indigenous people worldwide, is marking tomorrow’s Columbus Day by naming the five companies that  most violate tribal peoples’ rights.

Three of the five companies named to the ‘Hall of Shame’ are active in Latin America.

“These companies really do symbolize everything Columbus signifies today – the quest for money and profit at the expense of people who simply want to be left in peace, on their own land,” Survival International’s Director Stephen Corry said.

“Surely, 518 years after Columbus’s arrival in the Americas and the decimation of the indigenous inhabitants, it’s time we treated the world’s tribal peoples with a little respect?”

The five companies and the reasons for their choice are listed below. This Survival International page has more complete links explaining the projects involved.

– GDF Suez. Part-owned by the French government, energy giant GDF Suez is heavily involved in the construction of the Jirau dam, which will be the largest dam in Brazil. The company is proceeding with work on the dam despite warnings from Survival and others that uncontacted indians live near the area affected by the dam.

– Perenco/ Repsol. Anglo-French oil company Perenco, and Spanish-Argentine oil giant Repsol-YPF are exploiting the territory of uncontacted Indians in northern Peru. Both are operating in an area where uncontacted indians live. Perenco’s suggestions to its workers if they are attacked included, ‘Scare and repel them, or tell them to go home’.

– Samling. This Malaysian logging company is destroying the forests of the hunter-gatherer Penan tribe in Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo. Many Penan have been arrested and imprisoned for mounting blockades against the company. James Ho, Chief Operating Officer of Samling, has said, ‘The Penan have no rights to the forest.’

– Wilderness Safaris. This tour operator recently opened a luxury safari lodge in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, Botswana. The lodge boasts a bar and swimming pool, whilst the Bushmen on whose land the lodge sits are banned by the government from accessing food or water. Andy Payne, Wilderness Safaris’ CEO, responded to criticism of his lodge by saying, ‘Any Bushman who wants a glass of water can have one.’

– Yaguarete Pora. Brazilian ranching company Yaguarete Pora is intent on clearing a large area of forest in the Paraguayan Chaco, even though uncontacted Ayoreo Indians are known to live there. Other members of the tribe have been claiming title to the area since 1993. Yaguarete was fined by the government for concealing the Indians’ existence, but is intent on resuming the destruction.

Survival added that Vedanta Resources would have been on this list, but their application to open a controversial bauxite mine on tribal land in Orissa, India, was turned down by the government in August.

You always know how busy or important a minister is by his willingness to take your calls. (Unless you are The New York Times or The Economist, or one of the other top publications, as I referred to in this earlier post.)

I managed to snag an interview with the Energy Minister by phone earlier this month for this Christian Science Monitor piece. I was surprised he had the time but then I realized this is a guy who’s been in office only a few weeks.

His predecessor resigned to run for some other office in October, as is common in election years in Brazil, and the new man is essentially a stopgap. Appearing in the press is probably not a bad move for him.

The real issue here, though, is the incredibly irritating one of hierarchy in Brazil. When you call a Brazilian ministry, organization, company, or whatever, more often than not the only person authorised to speak to the press is the top man. Even if you just want some basic quotes and information. In Brazil, there is nothing in between an interview with the head honcho or information grabbed from the official web site.

It’s absurd because more often than not any mid-level official can answer questions and in many cases they can answer them better than their superior. The important thing is that the person knows what he is talking about and can be quoted

But this is a hierarchical nation and the big cheese is the big cheese. He wants you to know he is the big cheese.

The answer to this of course is to hire press officers who know the company they represent and are authorised to speak on their behalf. A good example is Embraer, who have the most knowledgeable and efficient press officers I’ve ever had the pleasure of dealing with.

But the vast majority of assessores de imprensa, as they are known in Brazil, are outside hires and serve only as a bridge between reporter and organization. They don’t know anything about their employers.

The result is that companies get no press at all. Which might be exactly what they want.

I’ve been busy working on a whole load of small stuff over the last 10 days and haven’t had much time to post anything.

I went to the Brazilian Steel Congress, which was fascinating in it’s own way, and I’ve filed short pieces about railways, airports and Sao Paulo’s troubles as a megalopolis.

The only piece to have been published so far was this on about the Belo Monte dam project.

The dam tender got loads of publicity – thanks largely to Avatar director James Cameron – and I think it will remain in the news.

A lot depends on how much pressure the dam’s opponents put on authorities. If they block roads, picket entrances, take hostages, etc. – all things Indians have done in the past when protesting government decisions – things could get interesting.

Indigenous leaders wrote an open letter last week to Lula, criticizing him for saying he has the Indians’ best interests at heart and asking for the project to be shelved.

Here’s the letter below. For those who read Portuguese, O Globo’s Miriam Leitão has written a lot of great stuff on the subject of the dam that is available on her blog here.

Nós, indígenas do Xingu, não queremos Belo Monte

O presidente Lula disse essa semana que ele se preocupa com os índios e com a Amazônia, e que não quer ONGs internacionais falando contra Belo Monte. Nós não somos ONGs internacionais.

Nós, indígenas das Aldeias Bacajá, Mrotidjam, Kararaô, Terra-Wanga, Boa Vista Km 17, Tukamã, Kapoto, Moikarako, Aykre, Kiketrum, Potikro, Tukaia, Mentutire, Omekrankum, Cakamkubem e Pokaimone, já sofremos muitas invasões e ameaças. Quando os portugueses chegaram no Brasil, nós índios já existíamos, e muitos morreram e perderam enormes territórios, perdemos muitos dos direitos que tínhamos, muitos perderam parte de suas culturas e outros povos sumiram completamente.

Nosso açougue é o mato, nosso mercado é o rio. Não queremos mais que mexam nos rios do Xingu e nem ameacem mais nossas aldeias e nossas crianças, que vão crescer  com nossa cultura.

Não aceitamos a hidrelétrica de Belo Monte, pois entendemos que só vai trazer mais destruição para nossa região. Não estamos pensando só no local onde querem construir a barragem, mas em toda a destruição que a barragem pode trazer: mais empresas, mais fazendas, mais invasões de terra, mais conflitos  e mais barragem depois. Do jeito que o homem branco está fazendo, tudo será destruído muito rápido. Nós perguntamos: o que mais o governo quer? Pra que mais energia com tanta destruição?

Já fizemos muitas reuniões e grandes encontros contra Belo Monte, como em 1989 e 2008 em Altamira-PA, e em 2009 no Piaraçu, nos quais muitas das lideranças daqui estiveram presentes. Já falamos pessoalmente para o presidente Lula que não queremos essa barragem, e ele nos prometeu que essa usina não seria enfiada goela abaixo. Já falamos também com a Eletronorte e Eletrobrás, com a FUNAI e com o IBAMA. Já alertamos o governo que se essa barragem acontecer, vai ter guerra. O Governo não entendeu nosso recado e desafiou os povos indígenas de novo, falando que vai construir a barragem de qualquer jeito. Quando o presidente Lula fala isso, mostra que pouco está se importando com o que os povos indígenas falam, e que não conhece os nossos direitos. Um exemplo dessa falta de respeito
é marcar o leilão de Belo Monte na semana dos povos indígenas.

Por isso nós, povos indígenas da região do Xingu, convidamos de novo o James Cameron e sua equipe, representantes do Movimento Xingu Vivo para Sempre (como o movimento de mulheres, ISA e CIMI, Amazon Watch e outras organizações). Queremos que nos ajudem a levar o nosso recado para o Mundo inteiro e para os brasileiros, que ainda não conhecem e que não sabem o que está acontecendo no Xingu. Fizemos esse convite porque vemos que tem gente de muitos lugares do Brasil e estrangeiros que querem ajudar a proteger os povos indígenas e os territórios de nossos povos. Essas pessoas são muito bem vindas entre nós.

Nós estamos aqui brigando pelo nosso povo, pelas nossas terras, pelas nossas florestas, pelos nossos rios, pelos nossos filhos e em honra aos nossos antepassados. Lutamos também pelo futuro do mundo, pois sabemos que essas florestas trazem benefícios não só para os índios mas para o povo do Brasil e do mundo inteiro. Sabemos também que sem essas florestas, muitos povos irão sofrer muito mais, pois já estão sofrendo com o que já foi destruído até agora. Pois tudo está ligado, como o sangue que une uma família.

O mundo tem que saber o que está acontecendo aqui, perceber que destruindo as florestas e povos indígenas, estarão destruindo o mundo inteiro. Por isso não queremos Belo Monte. Belo Monte representa a destruição de nosso povo.

Para encerrar, dizemos que estamos prontos, fortes, duros para lutar, e lembramos de um pedaço de uma carta que um parente indígena americano falou para o presidente deles muito tempo atrás:

“Só quando o homem branco destruir a floresta, matar todos os peixes, matar todos os animais e acabar com todos os rios, é que vão perceber que ninguém come dinheiro”.

Indígenas das Aldeias Bacajá, Mrotidjam, Kararaô, Terra-Wanga, Boa Vista Km 17, Tukamã, Kapoto, Moikarako, Aykre, Kiketrum, Potikro, Tukaia, Mentutire, Omekrankum, Cakamkubem e Pokaimone.

There’s a good side and a bad side to being at the World Economic Forum on Latin America.

I am here in Cartagena working for the forum as a summary writer. I write up short reports about the roundtable discussions. I wrote this about an Amazonian debate and this about Latin America’s growing ties to Asia.

The interesting bit is being party to the debates. The participants are the movers and shakers of the Americas, the top people in business and government. Many of the debates are private and off the record and so there are occasional juicy tidbits to be had.

But my role here is strictly not as a journalist, so I can’t write about any of it, much less corner any of those involved. It’s frustrating as there are a load of people I’d like to talk to and whom their press officers never let journalists get near.

I am missing a golden chance. But such is the nature of the beast.

As my dad always said, it’s better to be luck than good and that goes for journalism, too.

You can work as hard as is humanly possible but if you can’t get the right person on the phone at the right time all your work, contacts and knowledge can count for nothing.

I got lucky on Thursday when I wrote this story for Time magazine about the killing of Pedro Alcântara de Souza, a land reform activist in the Amazonian state of Pará.

I managed to get the police officer who heard the initial deposition on the phone and I got some good background on violence in the state from the man who writes the annual study on the country’s most bloody municipalities. In my contacts book I found the name of a priest who worked on land conflicts in Pará and he spoke of the recurring issues there.

On another day – and there have been many – the police won’t talk and you can’t get through to the right person to get the background you need. Phones ring and ring and ring and web sites don’t load.

It’s a constant struggle dealing with the public sector because so people who work there just don’t care. And it’s a hassle with the private sector because companies all have press officers whose job is to stop journalists getting information.

This time I was lucky.

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