Live from Altamira
Diary entry number three
By KEN WIWA
Monday, May 27, 2002
I'm back in Altamira. Back because I've been in the jungle since my last report. After I left Rio last Sunday I flew up to Belem in the north east of Brazil. The next morning I took the first flight out of Belem to Altamira before heading into the jungle.
Altamira is the city where Amazon Indians gathered in 1989 to protest a planned dam on the Xingu River. Pop stars, businessmen and the world's press assembled in Altamira as Indians came to demand their rights and protest against Avanca Brazil, a gazillion dollar super economic government plan to exploit the vast natural resources of the Amazon. ElectroNorte, one of Brazil's energy utilities, along with various big money interests were on a mission to civilise the Amazon and bring prosperity to Brazil - only nobody had really bothered to ask the people who'd roamed the tropical forests for thousands of years.
Brazil has a dam fetish. Ever since 1965 when the TransAmazon highway that runs across the Amazon, began to open up the Amazon, Brazil has been planning and building dams, flooding vast areas of Forest, chopping down trees and driving everything and anything out of the way of progress. The architects of the TransAmazon promised to open up "a land with no people for people with no land", conveniently forgetting that the Indian people who had lived in the Amazon for centuries were also people. In February 1989 the people of the Amazon rose up to protest right here in Altamira. In one famous incident a Kayapo woman waved a machete in the face of a petrified ElectroNorte official.
They are still planning to build a dam here. Altamira is on the route of the TransAmazon super highway and the city feels like a frontier town waiting for the next phase of the road to progress. The TransAmazon brought a flood of people to the Amazon. Everything from landless labourers, displaced and acculturated Indians to opportunists, petty criminals and prostitutes. All these feed off the scraps and bi-products of big money interests - mainly gold mining, cattle ranching and logging - that are turning the wheels of Avanca Brazil.
Altamira as an outpost of Western consumer culture. Beyond the city limits is the jungle another world, a world that is being ruthlessly exploited to feed the ravenous and frivolous appetites of the developed world. I have to admit to feeling a little uneasy about romanticising places like the Amazon. I was born in a place not too dissimilar to Altamira and the Amazon - this place looks so much like home that I could close my eyes, listen to the noise of the traffic, feel the heat, inhale the thick, musty air and picture myself back at home.
I was raised in Nigeria and lowered in England and I often see the world in stereo; sometimes this double consciousness offers you an interesting perspective. Sometimes I find that my heart sees one thing and my brain sees something else. The trick is to have everything, heart, brain in synch. Sustainable development is one way of describing this high wire act.
I'm here in Altamira looking back on four days in the Amazon, trying to focus the collage of images and feelings that my bicultural lens has taken of my trip up the Xingu. I'm typing this in a hotel as the hum of the air conditioning cradles me in a cocoon of cool air. Outside, the humidity, the noise and the modern world is swirling like an angry dust devil. Darkness has already settled on this frontier town on the edge of the world's largest tropical forest. As I punch away at the keyboards I keep reminiscing that only a few hours ago I was standing in a speedboat, fishing in the moonlight while mosquitoes and black flies quietly feasted on my body. I hadn't seen a television much less a computer for five days. I had no idea what day of the week it was and I hovered between bliss and restlessness, sinking inexorably, decadently into the rhythms of the jungle, trying to forget the disturbing images and the disquiet I felt as an outsider using the serenity and dignity of the forest as a backdrop to ease my anxiety about living in fast food society. But if I recall rightly I was looking forward to getting back here to Altamira, to a night in an air-conditioned room, to a place without bugs, to watching the news on television and checking the 100 emails I receive everyday. And yet here I am, looking back with a mixture of regret panicking at the thought that I am being inexorably sucked back into the whirlpool of "civilisation".
I think I am going to let my thoughts percolate for day then I will try to order them for you.
Previous diary entry: May 19