Swamp – in search of the Amazon

Marcelo Guimarães Lima, Red Forest - Future Paradise II, 2020


Commentary on the recently published book by João Moreira Salles

Someone can be born in Belém, live in the city until the age of 27 without traveling more than 100 km in its surroundings and, even so, grow up with their back to the Amazon, simply not seeing the forest – except for the famous “escadinha” , one of the few places from which you could look out over the river at that time, in the early 1980s, something that has not changed radically, although it has gained important urban projects such as “Ver-o-rio”, whose name says it all, or visiting the Emílio Goeldi Museum on Sundays. It was remembering this personal experience that I first heard João Moreira Salles comment on the decay of my hometown in a conversation on YouTube; one of the numerous accounts of his expedition through the Amazon.

I read the set of texts published in the Piauí magazine over the course of several months, between rapture and slightly uncomfortable, before watching some of those videos that he himself captured from the first morning of his stay in Belém, from the window of the apartment where he stayed. Reread now in a revised version in the book edition, Arrabalde: in search of the Amazon caused me less discomfort; even so, I will try to synthesize here that initial double sensation.

The first impression is that João Moreira Salles enters the forest unarmed, he does not set himself any special conditions, rather he makes a point of saying that “Although the Amazon is the most precious asset that Brazil has, I, an adult Brazilian with the means to travel, I had never been there even for four days […]”. His concern is real and the book joins other projects linked to his name, in which I have always distinguished a notable probity – the magazine Piaui and the Serrapilheira Institute are the most outstanding examples –, as when he writes that “We are the guardians of this legacy [the Amazon]”; in a country where the elite despises everything that, from their narrow perspective, smells of “popular”, that already says a lot about the author.

His political, social and scientific conscience throughout the almost 400 pages is transparent as the igarapés of childhood, and it is from this position that an inglorious task emerges, namely, that of making Brazil look at the Amazon, something that many may do it for the first time. But not only that, the author also considers it urgent that each of us take responsibility for it.

On the back cover, the reader is induced to identify the book as a modern expedition, along the lines of those undertaken by Humboldt, Henry Walter Bates and Alfred Russel Wallace, or more recently Mário de Andrade, Euclides da Cunha and others, all mentioned in the book. It doesn't stop being true. But, if the book ends, as in some of these famous trips, with the intention of cataloging, this does not involve more species of fauna and flora, but a list of disasters, with punctual successful actions.

João Moreira Salles went in search of the pioneers, who went there motivated by economic facilities at the dawn of the occupation, still in the 1960s and 1970s, almost always motivated by projects created during the Military Dictatorship. It sets up a broad picture of these endeavors, almost all of which failed – Paragominas is one of the few examples where changes in behavior and action resulted in general improvements. The general tone is that “there was nothing” there and therefore it was necessary to produce something to occupy that space.

He gives voice to a surprising diversity of opinions, often ethically dissonant, as when he quotes excerpts from conversations with a former governor of Pará, Simão Jatene – who, by all indications, believes he was re-elected twice due to his care with the Amazonia from Pará, at the very least a discourtesy towards the dedicated artists who gave everything for him during those mandates –, as well as the journalist Lúcio Flávio Pinto – by far one of the people who best know the problems of the occupation of the region –, on the same page and borrowing give them the same weight, something that seems like a deliberate choice to let everyone who has something to say about the catastrophes that hit the Amazon uninterruptedly, indifferent, at first, to ideological currents and political partisanship.

In comparison with the occupation of the American West, we do poorly, “The expansion of the North American territory produced an epic that spread around the world […]. To be a citizen of the United States of America is to know that landscape runs through you – it's yours. The contrast with Brazil could not be greater”. Few Brazilians identify with the Amazon, that is what is left in the background. The vision of the biome as an impenetrable and frightening space marked and defined this distance. João shows this through movies, books and myths built about the mysterious forest.

However, the book can be read in many ways. The elegant style seduces, but the data constantly displaces us from the comfort that the travel literature genre usually brings to the reader; there is almost nothing idyllic about the account. Incidentally, I warn the reader that the book requires attention and patience, as the number of data manipulated far exceeds the descriptions in the book. flaneur. Perhaps one or another researcher even complains about the accuracy of the data treatment, but the truth is that a large part of the book is filled with hundreds of technical information taken by the author from conversations with different researchers from different eras; a mistake here and there would be inevitable.

In this sense, the book mirrors his own work in promoting and respecting the science produced in Brazil. The message is clear: “Perhaps no tropical country has a technical infrastructure – universities, institutes, researchers, non-governmental organizations – as robust as ours. When politics aligns with knowledge, Brazil is competent [...]”. It is not possible to be clearer about your position in the current political framework.

Despite this, the book barely refers to the Universities of the region, when it does so it is in a punctual and indirect way, an event, a research, nothing in depth. As Professor Ernani Chaves told me, “UFPA has 12 campuses, it is the largest multicamp university in the country: Abaetetuba, Altamira, Ananindeua, Belém, Bragança, Breves, Cametá, Capanema, Castanhal, Salinópolis, Soure and Tucuruí. There are also UFOPA, Federal University of Western Pará [the most cited in the book], based in Santarém and which impacts that region, and Unifesspa, Federal University of Southern and Southeast Pará, which also produces effects in a problematic region. And also UFRA, Federal Rural University of the Amazon. Several of these campuses have graduate programs, some with master's and doctoral degrees. High-quality research that seeks to collaborate with improving the lives of riverside and indigenous populations, respecting the environment, etc. Research that unites history, anthropology, engineering, geology, biology and several other areas. These are results that are not immediate, obviously, but we are not passively watching the devastation”.

That is, continues the professor, “it is not a matter of thinking that there is an intact Amazon, of course, but that there are several. That thousands of young people celebrate their approval in the Enem and don't need to leave their cities to attend a Federal University. Before, only the privileged could go out to study”. His testimony helps us to understand that Swamp perhaps it has a specific intention, which I understand to be the correlation between different perspectives that, together, allow a diagnosis of the past without ceasing to propose alternatives for the future; in other words, the book exposes the effects of decades of neglect and shows the urgency of restorative political actions. For example: it is clear that the interviews were conducted more with businessmen than with professors from the region; was it a deliberate choice that has to do with the general intent of the book? Everything points to yes.

Wherever you look, the task was not simple and not everything could fit in the undertaking. The book fulfills less a scientific function than a political function and, in this sense, there is no denying that its publication is of paramount importance. By that I mean that the visibility that the author lends to the debate is unattainable by academic bias. But one cannot take away one merit: João Moreira Salles read a lot to write the book. The volume of information is enough to tire the most eager reader for landscape descriptions, which appear in the book as moments of rest in the midst of so much destruction and bad news.

The book spares no criticism of former President Jair Bolsonaro and no praise for Lula and Marina Silva for what they did in their first term. In fact, the situation we find ourselves in in relation to the Amazon stems mainly from the fact that “Despite the growing risks that the environmental devastation in the Amazon has represented for exporters, Jair Bolsonaro continues to be one of the most popular politicians among rural producers. Ideological ties apparently outweigh economic considerations, even at the risk of self-harm”. In a didactic reversal, we would say, “ignorance has overcome fear”, and nothing indicates that it cannot win again. The book does not cease to be a warning about the possibility of an upsurge that could lead the Amazon to a point of deforestation of no return.

The inconvenience I mentioned at the beginning concerned the diagnosis that João Moreira Salles made of Belém: “One and a half degrees of latitude separates Belém from the Equator. By day, the sun hits everything on the head, shoulders, face, posts [...]. The sun beats everything […]. The sun that rises in Belém hits a city separated from its landscape. […] what you see from the top of a building is a ball of fire that hammers the concrete and steel […]. Bethlehem happened to be there, but it could have been somewhere else. The impression is that Belém no longer knows where it is”.

These and other passages reminded me of some paths and places I traveled after I left the city. Rio de Janeiro, where I lived for six years, three more in Campinas, four seasons in Berlin, a few months in Lisbon, exile, in short. In the Portuguese capital, from the top of Castelo de São Jorge, I understood in one go more than everything I read about the destruction of my city. Within a radius of kilometers from the shore, I could not see any tall building, as if the Old City of Belém spread out to the surroundings of Bosque Rodrigues Alves and only from then onwards the construction of buildings was authorized, all with a maximum of six floors . I understood that we copied the urban model of Lisbon, destroyed it in less than 200 years and now let's be dazzled by the beauty of the dazzling city.

I remembered the first impact of seeing Morro da Mangueira from the surroundings of the apartment next to Maracanã, the 47 degrees, the skin under the arm loosening as if it were melting, in short, the relative beauty of Rio de Janeiro; I remembered the soot from burning sugarcane covering the patio of our republic in Campinas and my friends telling me that it was coming from the wind from the sides of Ribeirão Preto, the low humidity to which my body never adapted and that it roasted the skin by exfoliating my face every day until today.

But one scene particularly touched me, based on the image that João Moreira Salles reproduces when leaving Santarém heading south, “To the right, almost within reach, the traveler will see the Tapajós National Forest flowing […]. On the left, the eyes will not find any barrier […]. The landscape will change little for an hour, and then it will be another. Not to the right, where the forest will continue to border the road for another two or three hours. The big transformation takes place in the windows on the left. The more rugged topography and the less favorable climatic conditions for soybeans will make the crop rarer as the casso advances. Then it will disappear completely. What will take her place is nothing.”

The image reminded me of the first car trip I took between Campinas and Marília, cities in São Paulo. The mountains impressed me, I who came from a flat land [I hope you understand]. As we moved towards the West of the State – attention to the non-coincidence with the US example – all the trees gradually disappeared. Contrary to the author's experience, I saw for the first time, where there once was a dense forest, nothingness. Not on one side of the highway, but on both.

Perhaps he was seeing soy plantations for the first time, the same crop that has so often served as a pretext for deforesting and which is perhaps one of the symbolic engines of the conception that governs the relationship of many southerners with the North/Northeast of Brazil. They feel rich in nothingness, they look at the forest from far away, they see nothing, they voted twice in the majority for the one who promoted the most ostensible and malevolent recent invasion of the Amazon, colluding with the killing of the indigenous people, with “garimpeiro entrepreneurship” , with the murders of those who dare to defend the lives of others, proud of the wealth of their forestless states – “Since he [Bolsonaro] was elected by the majority of Brazilians, since 2018, and until further notice, this is also the country’s utopia ”. What will make them believe that keeping the forest standing is the country's greatest challenge and responsibility today, our last affirmative contribution to the world? Answer: nothing.

When the reader decides to follow the writer's advice and travel to the Amazon, I suggest choosing a seat on the right side of the plane, preferably on a night flight. When the captain informs that “we are in the process of descending to Val-de-Cans airport”, if the destination is Belém, the plane will turn to the right and then the city will appear with its lights and the spectator you will see the line that separates it from the river.

Looking closely, it is possible to see that the city of more than two million inhabitants, considering the metropolitan area, seems like an island that you can only leave on the BR-316. Its misshapen spikes, which provoked the first melancholic reaction in João Moreira Salles – but, after all, which Brazilian capital does not follow this urban model? –, are the consumption dream of the city’s upper classes, terraced ventures facing the river [how lucky for them], and which, despite the cost of millions of reais, are sold in the plant.

On long holidays, the chaotic city leaves motorized and with the air conditioning on, it takes hours to reach any resort, many others to return. We, who always wanted to look like São Paulo, can now be proud. It's true João, the city could be anywhere, and I don't doubt that that right bank of his description will not take long to symbolically disappear in Belém, that is, what remains of green in it may one day come to no longer exist. What bothered me was hearing you speak ill of Belém, not out of disagreement but out of jealousy, thinking that only we natives can speak ill of our burning city. But look, there are also other Beléns that you couldn't get to know in a few months...

But I understand your argument. When the cars clog the city exit, in Ananindeua, everything stops, tempers boil and nothing seems possible, so it occurs to me to believe that we really have nowhere to go.

*Henry Burnett is a professor of philosophy at Unifesp. Author, among other books, of Musical mirror of the world (Phi publisher).


Joao Moreira Salles. Arrabalde: in search of the Amazon. São Paulo, Companhia das Letras, 2022, 424 pages (https://amzn.to/45ul7Q2).

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