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Talkin’ bout a Revolution

I was dreaming that I was cruising, rather majestically, down the Yangtze, the sun was beating down on me and the beer was, by Chinese standards agreeably cold, when a sudden explosion bought me back to the land of the living.

It was 6am and I was somewhere between Fortaleza and Belem, this thought alone seemed to cover the whole range of geographical possibilities. The driver slammed on the air breaks and bought the shiny yellow bus to a grinding halt. The six of us who made up the entire contingent of the passengers sleepily followed the driver off the bus and into the early morning mist. Belem Bus We were, quite honestly, in the middle of nowhere. The road stretched behind and in front of me into oblivion. The early morning mist was just beginning to be burnt off by the first rays of the sun and only the grumbles and mutterings of the driver disturbed this primeval calm.

Even from my limited experience with cars I could see that the tire was indeed shredded and quite beyond repair. So, we all piled back into the bus and let the driver drive another 20kms to test this hypothesis extensively. Indeed, it was as I had guessed shredded (large bits of rubber strewn across the highway seemed a bit of a give-away for me) and after a bone-grinding hour we once more came to a halt.

As our driver began to dig around in the cabin for the jack and spanners he complained bitterly to me about having driven coaches for 25 years and that this was the first time this had ever happened. I didn’t tell him this kind of thing happens reasonably often to me for fear of walking the rest of the way and I let him have his moan.

I left the driver and the other passengers fiddling with the jack and getting covered in oil and mud from the spare tyre whilst I walked back down the road to take some pictures. As I snapped away I imagined myself to be some heroic figure, alone in the Brazilian rain forest, armed only with my trusty penknife and my wits. I imagined the stories I could tell when I got back to Europe, about naked Indian women, exotic fruits, dangerous trips to forbidden frontiers in dugout canoes and the wild animals I had seen. I liked the ideal of naked Indian women especially. All this embellishing of my personality swiftly ended when a snake slithered out of the undergrowth and across the road. I ran screaming back to the bus, much to the amusement of the driver, who was now covered in oil, and complaining about his new white shirt. So much for the brave travel writer.

The Amazon. Even the word has a romantic sound to it. It is perhaps one of the most evocative words in the English Language (after, of course, naked Indian women.) It is an area that everyone seems to have an opinion about, whilst few people can claim first hand knowledge. I had been into the jungle just once before, a few years ago when I took a gloriously drunken boat ride out of Manaus. I was returning this time for other reasons, and I thought I should at least try and make a token effort of getting to the heart of the enigmatic area.

When we think of the Amazon we normally think of vast tracts of virgin forest, and a lack of development. This is not always the case and there is evidence that the Amazon basin had been densely populated when the Europeans arrived. Scientists now believe that the Indians had learnt not only how to survive in the hostile environment but how to cultivate it. Charles Clement, researcher at the government’s Amazon research institute, INPA, says the Indians domesticated a large number of wild plants (one of them was the pineapple) to make them more productive. But the arrival of the Europeans led to the ruin of the Indians, and the rainforest reverted to wild.

Perhaps one of the first Europeans to visit the area was mercenary and adventurer Francisco de Orelana who crossed the entire Amazon basin in search of a fabled golden city. Instead of gold he discovered a tribe of bare breasted women that he described as ‘the tribe of women alone’, the legendary Amazons after whom the forest is named. The thought of bare breasted women was enough to send me off on another adventure, and perhaps, I thought, I could find some gold knocking around whilst I was there as well.

European naturalists who travelled to Brazil in the 18th and 19th centuries marvelled at the exuberance of the rainforest, which they saw as an empty paradise created by God without the intervention of man. Baron von Humboldt, one of the first European naturalists to visit the Amazon basin, wrote home to Germany in 1799: “What an extravagant country we are in. Amazing plants, electric eels, armadillos, monkeys, parrots . . . we have been running around like fools. For the first three days we could not settle on anything.”

Even Charles Darwin spoke of his “rapture” as he wandered by himself through the forest: “I collected a great number of brilliantly coloured flowers, enough to make a florist go mad . . . the air is deliciously cool and soft.”

The “empty” Amazon also attracted adventurers in search of El Dorado, like the ill-fated British colonel Percy Fawcett, who disappeared in 1925 while looking for a lost city, or, more recently, the thousands of wildcat prospectors who overran the Yanomami reserve in their frenzied hunt for gold. The turn of the century rubber boom made fortunes for a few, but for 30,000 Indians used as slave labour it all too often meant death, although it was the technology they had developed which produced the latex.

One hundred years later, Asian logging companies have joined the Americans and the Europeans in stripping the forest of mahogany and other hardwoods, and researchers from major pharmaceutical companies, eager to find the ingredients for new miracle drugs in Amazon plants, target the knowledge of indigenous communities, where shamans are the repositories of centuries of plant knowledge. Strange stories began to percolate slowly into the press about stolen DNA, scared sites being disturbed and the illegal selling of native blood. It read more like pulp fiction then hard news and tugged at my scientific curiosity.

In the heady mix of intrigue, empty rhetoric and outright lies that make up Brazilian politics the Amazon region has become a topic of considerable lobbying power. Successive Brazilian governments have seen the rainforest’s unplanned exuberance as a challenge and tried to discipline it with roads and settlements, subsidising the burning of the forest to make way for cattle ranches; turning its giant rivers into waterways for huge grain barges: installing a free trade zone to swell the Amazon capital of Manaus with a sprawling circle of shantytowns, peopled by migrants from riverside villages.

While the G7 countries have put millions of pounds into Brazil to protect indigenous lands in the Amazon rainforest, inside Brazil a powerful lobby of mining and logging companies is seeking to overturn this protection. In congress, rightwing representatives are calling for the reduction of Indian reserves, while a senator from the Amazon state of Roraima has presented a bill to provide amnesty for goldminers who have committed crimes while “exercising their profession in indigenous or environmental conservation areas”. This would include the goldminers found guilty of genocide after murdering 18 Yanomami Indians. The rest of the world can only watch and shake their heads as vast tracts of forest disappear each year.

Unfortunately, the government of social democrat president Fernando Henrique Cardoso is so weakened by the recent financial crisis and the infamous Central Bank scandal that, in order to secure support from the rightwing “Amazon bloc” in congress, he seems prepared to renege on his commitment to demarcate and defend Indian lands.

It is not only the Brazilian right wing the indigenous people are up against. The UK rightwing think tank, IEA, has just published a booklet called The Myth of the Noble Eco-Savage, claiming that if left to their own devices, native peoples destroy the environment – while if collective land rights are replaced by private property, conservation thrives.

It would appear that difficult times are a head, and this was another reason to visit the area now, to see for myself this ecologically important region before too much damage had been done. I also had more personal reasons for going off on my own again.

I had become increasingly sucked into Brazilian politics and it was beginning to take its toll on me. My normally calm academic life had been turned into a maelstrom of strikes, political meetings and empty rhetoric of both sides trying to calm the embittered professors who were threatening to strike again against their difficult working conditions and lack of pay. I wanted to work, to teach and to do my research, but the political powers that be, were manoeuvring me more and more away from my lab and into the political arena. Everything I did had to be seen in the light of a political gesture and was accordingly assessed. A more profound person might have found all this terrible exciting, but for me it was just a bore, and well beyond my comprehension. The tension most days was palatable. In Sao Paulo, a world away, the police opened fire with tear gas and rubber bullets. ‘PROTEST’ and ‘REVOLUTION’ screamed the newspapers.

One day my normal bus ride to university was diverted due to a protest which had blocked the main street, and access to my favourite restaurant. This set the tone for the next month and the normally calm streets of Fortaleza were thick with talk of urban uprising, civil unrest and intrigue. The landless people who had occupied the streets, setting up their camp outside the police station – which I thought was a nice touch, seemed nice enough and I spent an afternoon chatting with them about their issues and ideals.

They told me that events had been building up nicely since a Brazilian court acquitted three senior military policemen of the massacre of 19 peasants – despite the jury’s belief that the men were responsible for one of the most violent episodes in the country’s recent history.

Television cameras had unfortunately captured the police officers firing into a crowd of poor rural workers, led by the Landless Movement (MST), who were demonstrating on a road at Eldorado do Carajas, a small town in the northern state of Para. The MST, which has been dubbed, amongst other things, Marxist revolutionaries, and is one of the largest and most effective grassroots movements in the world, responsible for securing land titles for about a million peasants, took this in the spirit it was intended and organised their own protests. In Fortaleza this took the form of camping across the main road and spending the day facing down the nervous looking police.

The jury of seven men told the judge that while they were convinced Colonel Mario Pantoja, Major Jose Maria Oliveira and Captain Raimundo Almendra were guilty; there was not enough evidence to convict them. The police officers were in charge of the troops who shot into the crowd of 2,500 landless farm workers to break up a peaceful demonstration.

Joao Pedro Stedile, leader of the Landless movement (MST), said the acquittal shamed the country. “The judge will have blood on his hands if more peasants are killed in Para,” he said, “He has declared impunity for those who commit crimes in the countryside.”

After the verdict hundreds of MST supporters chanted “murderers, murderers”, then charged through Belem (the capital of Para) throwing stones at police. The police responded with plastic bullets and brutality which to me seemed both heavy handed and politically naïve.

The whole situation seemed to be a tangled web of lies, exaggerated reporting and hyperbole. After making a nuisance of myself for a few weeks and asking everyone about this, and hearing 100 different stories, I decided that if I was ever to understand the situation, and if my life was to get back to normal, I would have to travel to the state where all this happened and try to learn some more. Perhaps, I thought, that if I went there and talked to the people and see the way they live then I would understand.

Belem was now only a few hours away and I was beginning to feel a little tense. Would I find a city at war, people roaming the streets with stones and gun totting police, and more importantly, would I find a nice bar close to my hotel? I was less worried about the police than not finding a bar as I have a healthy respect for uniformed men with guns, and besides I had already witnessed my first shooting in Brazil, and didn’t think things could get much worse.

The shooting had happened outside my apartment building a few days before I left for Belem. It was close to midnight and I was leaning out my bedroom window watching the street below when a lone motorcyclist pulled up and emptied 6 shots into a guy on the other side of the street who crumpled in slow motion onto the street and began bleeding in a hideous manner which looked nothing like any film I have ever seen. The motorcyclist sped off long before the police arrived leaving only a man dying on the street and 6 empty cartridge cases. The police arrived and calmly interviewed a few people, called an ambulance and flirted a little with some of the girls who had spilled out the nearby restaurants to watch. It was just another night in Brazil, but for me it changed a lot of my ideas and slowly over the next few days my confidence began to drain away. 

I was therefore more than a little nervous of being alone in Belem. My guidebook didn’t actually say ‘come to Belem and die’, it stopped just short of that, but it has to be the second most paranoid piece of travel literature I have ever read (the first being anything by the tourist office in Salvador which has a unique sales pitch which is somewhere along the lines of ‘Salvador – a great place to get your throat cut’). My sense of dread increased as I wandered down the quiet side street to my hotel through piles of discarded hypodermic needles and the throb of construction workers sledgehammers. In a way, when I eventually found it, I was quite disappointed that the hotel had a roof and four walls. It seemed to spoil the mood somewhat.

No sooner, had I dropped my bag in reception of the quaint little hotel Le Massilia, the jovial French owner Franck bounded out, wrung my hand and welcomed me (in French) like a long lost brother. His enthusiasm was infectious (as was his accent) and he dragged me off to see my spotlessly clean room complete with hot shower, air conditioning and TV. The fridge, Franck was pleased to point out to me, was stocked with the finest French wines and vintage champagnes. ‘Zee English’, he smiled wiping a bottle of Krug lovingly, ‘zee are like the French you know, zee wine, zee moonlight, zee romance of the jungle’, and then noticing that I was actually alone, ‘never mind, I have a video of zee world cup final instead if you are bored.’

Shortly later I was pounding the streets soaking up the late afternoon sun. No one bothered to give me a second look as I went striding round the city. It seemed calm, content and surprisingly clean. The streets bustled with markets, hawkers and colour. On one street corner a group of beautiful school girls stood gossiping about a forthcoming physics test, on another a beautiful Indian woman was showing her baby to some friends whilst the traffic police, in their worn combat boots and yellow hats, looked on peacefully. It seemed as far away from a centre of intrigue and chaos as I could have imagined. Everyone I spoke to, from the coconut seller, to the shopkeepers to the schoolgirls seemed content and happy.

I jumped into a taxi to go to the old fort. I have never met a taxi driver anywhere in the world was does not have a strong political opinion and thought I could get some juicy political gossip whilst stuck in traffic.

‘So, you want to go to the old town? It’s a bit passed its prime I am afraid’

‘Tell me about the people without land and their movement’

‘I guess, if they gave it a lick of paint it might be o.k.’

‘So what do you think about the police and the troubles, what does it really mean?’

‘You know, I think its terrible about the paint, its not even a big job…’

‘ And the political future for the region’.

At this the driver turned to face me, which was a little worrying as we were hurtling the wrong way down a one way street at the time, ‘do you think red or green would look better for that building’. I gave up…

The next morning, after a huge breakfast I was wandering round the famous Mercado Ver-o-Peso, which is one of the most colourful markets in South America. The name comes form the Portuguese who used to watch the weight (ver o peso) in order to impose taxes. I wandered deeper and deeper into the market, past the exotic fruits, the small stalls selling sizzling food whose spicy aroma made my taste buds drawl and my sphincter twitch, past the medicinal plants, past the stalls selling all manner of fetishes and towards the river itself. I climbed onto the railings and let the chaos and smells of the market drift out of my consciousness.

I have a deep fascination for rivers. I can spend hours pouring over maps following their progress, wandering how it would be to travel on them, to know their twist and turns intimately and leisurely cruise their lengths between exotic ports of call with nothing to do but lay in my hammock and make witty observations. Without a doubt the Amazon, being the worlds largest river, holds my attention like no other and I had intended to hire a local boat and spend the day pottering around some of the tributaries pretending I was Indiana Jones. However, for the first time in my life, I had trouble finding a boat willing to take me out (the last time I had even gone near a harbour was in Hong Kong where I was kidnapped by a sampan owner and forced to cruise Aberdeen harbour to watch the sunset for hours on end) and so instead I settled for a day trip on the mighty river which I booked through a local tourist agency.

As the boat chugged away form the docks, the 21st century slipped away. The two other passengers scanned the jungle with high-powered binoculars as I joined the captain in the wheelhouse. Within a few minutes the city had faded away to be replaced by simple wooden dwellings, the putt-putt-putt of small outboard motors on simple native canoes and the sounds of the jungle. A flick of colour here and there suggested parrots returning to roost.

As our boat rounded a bend in the river two small beautiful mahogany coloured children came swimming out to meet us. ‘Where are you from’, they called out to me in a thick accent. ‘London, England’, I shouted back. ‘That’s far?’ asked the older one, ‘yes very far’ I replied. They swam off howling with laughter.

We stopped after a few hours of apparently aimless meandering along flooded tributaries in a small village. A local guide, whose sun burnt skin give him the appearance of an old peach stone, greeted us warmly with a huge bowl of Brazil nuts and twinkling eyes. He lead us deeper into the jungle as he explained more about the legends of the forest, the history of the many exotic fruits which were growingly abundantly around us and how life had changed in the last twenty years.

Later, as the rain lashed down, and we squatted in his simple wooden home listening to the squabbling of the monkeys in the eaves and the screams of children playing in the rain, I asked him what he thought about the landless movement and the other intrigues which seemed to be as much as part of the Amazon region as the mighty river itself. He sighed, and laid down his machete that he had been using to shell nuts for me. ‘Things must change’, he told me, ‘but for better or for worse, I cant really say what will happen, only time will tell.’ he then smiled, ‘ but remember this is Brazil, and anything is possible’.

By the time I returned to Fortaleza a few days later the protestors had gone, the roads were calm again and the short period of civil unrest seemed to have been forgotten. The old man’s words echoed in my head ‘In Brasil anything is possible.’

The Author is a regular contributor to numerous travel magazines. He has travelled widely in Brazil and can often be found trying to go from A to B in the most difficult manner imaginable whilst using someone else’s money. His only regret is that the coach companies don’t offer frequent flyer miles. Articles by the author ranging from Tibet to China to Africa can be found at He can be contacted at [email protected], and promises, if he is not away falling of the edge of the map somewhere, to write back.

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