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The most ambitious settlement project ever attempted

By Nigel SmithNigel Smith, associate professor of geography at the University of Florida, is author of the forthcoming book, ''Rainforest Corridors ,'' on which this article is based. / January 4, 1982



In 1970, Brazil embarked on a decade-long program to settle 1 million families along a pioneer road stretching across the Amazon Basin. It was the most ambitious settlement project ever attempted anywhere in the world.

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The 2,000-mile Trans-Amazon Highway, slicing across the earth's largest tropical rain forest, had three main purposes. First, the two-lane road would provide a safety valve for the drought-ridden northeast -- a region with some 30 million inhabitants that was growing by 1 million a year. Second, the highway would help fill a demographic void in a region that occupies half of Brazil's territory but contains only 4 percent of the nation's population. And third, the road would ease access to the mineral and timber resources needed to maintain the country's spectacular economic growth.

Plans called for settling the incoming colonists on 250-acre lots within a 12 -mile zone along the highway. Priority was to be given to settlers from the northeast with large families. Each family was supplied with six months' wages to help them start a new life, and credit was provided to boost agricultural production. In spite of government support and these generous incentives, only 8 ,000 families have so far settled along the highway.

Three main ecological factors have retarded agricultural development along the Trans-Amazon. Although the jungle grows exuberantly, it generally masks very poor soils that have been leached by millions of years of torrential rains. When the forest is cleared and burned to prepare fields, the nutrient-rich ash is soon washed away. Fertilizers are too expensive for most settlers to use. Farm yields have thus been disappointing.

From jet-cruising altitude, the Amazon Forest appears to be growing on a monotonously flat plain. On the ground, however, wood cutters soon discovered that most of the area was in fact quite hilly. The undulating terrain leads to accelerated erosion in fields, where up to 40 tons of topsoil can be stripped from one acre within a year. Equally important, the highway and associated side roads often become impassable. Certain stretches of the compacted-earth highway become a quagmire during the rainy season, while some side roads are entirely cut off. As much as five inches of rain can fall within a few hours, creating havoc for traffic. Farmers are often unable to remove their harvested rice -- the principal cash and subsistence crop -- so it ferments and rots in fields.

Diseases and pests have also depressed agricultural yields. Planners thought that by penetrating virgin areas, farmers would be able to escape crop disease. But before long, fungi and bacteria followed the corridors of disturbance created by the highway.

Cultural and socioeconomic factors have also played a role in the disappointing outcome of the settlement scheme. All attempts to establish co-ops along the highway have failed. Colonists lack both administrative skills and the capital to join or maintain a co-op. Furthermore, there is little cultural unity among the settlers. They come from different regions and belong to diverse faiths.

Inexperience with commercial agriculture has also contributed to the failure of many colonists to eke out a living in the rain forest. Most of the settlers are illiterate and have never before dealt with banks. Lured by easy credit, some plunged heavily into debt. Many soon fell behind in their bank payments because of the meager farm production. About 40 percent of the lots have already changed hands at least once, as unsuccessful colonists sell out and move on. Lots are being bought by prosperous settlers who consolidate adjacent parcels to form ranches, which defeats the government's avowed intention of providing small holdings for colonists.

The highway has not even created the hoped-for access to significant riches. Only in the western sector of the Trans-Amazon is mining an important activity. Near Humaita on the Madeira River, 2,000 tons of tin ore are trucked annually to southern Brazil. The timber industry is underveloped -- a striking paradox in such a vast forest. A major obstacle to the lumber trade is that the commercially valuable trees are widely scattered as an ecological defense against pests and diseases.

The Trans-Amazon project has clearly not proved to be a viable colonization model for other tropical regions. It costs the Brazilian government $65,000 to settle each family, which is far too expensive for most third-world countries to emulate.

Two main lessons can be drawn from the Trans-Amazon experience.

* The highway project was conceived when petroleum cost only $2 a barrel, but Brazil now imports 85 percent of its oil and pays $32 for a barrel. Given these new economic facts of life, the best road to follow in the future might be to concentrate settlement projects along the numerous rivers to take advantage of cheap water transportation, abundant fish stocks, and fertile alluvial soils that are rejuvenated by annual floods.

* The second lesson is that opening the Amazon to settlement did not solve the population problem of the northeast. The Trans-Amazon absorbed less than 1 percent of the region's population growth during the '70s. The failure of the settlement scheme to relieve the social problems of the region recently came into dramatic focus: in 1980, drought once again seared the backlands of northeastern Brazil, threatening the livelihoods of 9 million people. It may not be a wise policy to view the Amazon region as a convenient depository for the northeast's continuous flow of migrants. Rather, family planning and effective land reform would help balance the region's population with its natural resources and recurrent droughts.