Pioneers work up a boom in western wilds of Brazil

This is the Wild West all over again.

Here in the remote hinterlands of western Brazil, one of the world's last remaining land frontiers is being opened up by a hardy breed of pioneer making the territory of Rondonia and the state of Acre a bit of a boom land.

Lying more than 2,000 miles from Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo and the other centers of Brazil's well-publicized economic miracle, this region is beginning to write its own dramatic economic story.

A decade ago, this land was virtual wilderness. The only certain way to reach Rondonia was by air or by roundabout river travel. Now, roads crisscross the territory in what some regard as a frightening destruction of the native tropical rain forest.

Also a decade ago, Rondonia had a mere 100,000 people living in an area about two-thirds the size of California; now, the population approaches 1 million.

The population could be 2 million by 1985 -- again a frightening prospect to many old-timers here. But the clock will not be turned back, nor will the new settlers.

They come by road, by air, by boat, and even on foot. ''We really don't know how many are here,'' comments Joao Baptista da Silva, a surveyor for the land office in the state of Acre.

''The physical services simply are not here. We can't handle all the people that come. But how do you stop them?'' he asks.

How indeed do you stop the pioneering Brazilian from doing just about anything he wants to do in this nation, where ''even the sky is not the limit,'' to quote an aide to Gov. Joaquim Macedo. ''And this is true here more than anywhere in Brazil today.''

''I came out to stake a claim on the gold in the rivers here,'' says Orlando Souza de Figuereido Barretoa. ''And I found gold on my first day, panning in the Madeira.''

The Madeira cuts a wide swath through Rondonia and eventually, 1,000 miles to the north, empties into the mighty Amazon. Rivers are very much a part of this wilderness. Not only are they essential for transport, but they are full of treasure. The gold that Orlando pans comes from the rivers, as do dozens of other minerals. Diamonds, emeralds, and tourmaline have all been panned out of the muddy waters of the Madeira and the many other rivers bisecting this wilderness.

Orlando Souza has a home near Porto Velho and owns 2,000 acres ''or maybe more. I just don't know,'' he confesses. ''I got some of it from the government for a homestead and then added to it whenever I made some money on gold and gems.''

''I could never have made it back in Belo Horizonte (one of Brazil's main industrial cities), where I worked as a janitor in a factory,'' he comments.

But not everyone here has made his or her fortune. In fact, the majority are still waiting to strike it rich. And the majority are not living very well. Agriculture is hardly developed. Most food, machinery, and supplies come in by air. But that's part of the boom -- for now, it is cheaper to bring in food than to carve out new farms and grow food.

The lack of public services is a big drawback; there simply is not the infrastructure to support the successful boom that everyone here sees just around the corner.

There are plenty of roads within the area, but most are little more than single-lane paths which become muddy quagmires in the rainy season. Electricity, sewage, and other conveniences are limited at best. Tin mined here in Rondonia has to be sent to Manaus, the capital of the Amazonia 500 miles to the north, for processing.

Construction on a hydroelectric project began last year and will be ready by 1985. Meanwhile, the World Bank is funding an all-weather surface to the one dirt road that links Rondonia with the rest of Brazil -- to the tune of $345 million. It will be ready next year.

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