WHEN Aparecido Porfirio da Silva went into the Amazon bush in 1979, he sized up his first glimpse of Rolim de Moura this way: ``There were no streets, no phones, no electricity, no nothing. You had only the light of the day, and after sundown nobody went outside, because the woods were full of wild animals.''
The nearest town was two days' journey by mule. Conditions were so rudimentary that the first mayor abandoned the post after two months. But when the government began to pave the roadway 40 miles north, the trickle of settlers turned into a gush, and Rolim de Moura became an Amazon boomtown.
Today, a relentless stream of cars and overladen lumber lorries kick up clouds of thick red dust along Rolim's main thoroughfare, as wide and probably as well traveled as Broadway in Manhattan.
The clearing in the brush now boasts a population of 75,000, five hospitals, 14 pharmacies, 12 supermarkets, two banks, a movie house, and even three discoth`eques. Ninety lumber companies hack away at the surrounding timber stands, and the cleared land is checkered with the plots of smallholders. Lawyers have hung their shingles and the fledgling town is already full of despachantes, or dispatchers, who for exorbitant fees specialize in ``expediting'' bureaucratic tasks with methods often shy of the law. Red tape, the telltale emblem of modernity, has already embroiled the Amazon frontier. Last Dec. 9, 30 candidates disputed Rolim de Moura's first election as an independent township.
Mr. Porfirio may not be fabulously wealthy by world standards, but here he is a frontier tycoon.
``I'm a thousand times better than I was five years ago,'' he says, smiling and leaning over the counter at Barateiro, the town's leading department store. ``Everybody that comes here works hard and prospers. Everybody here gets rich.''
That is just the kind of pioneer lore that has swept down the freshly asphalted BR 364, a 900-mile, $430 million throughway connecting two west Amazonian capitals, Porto Velho and Cuiaba.
When the highway was dirt, the journey took up to 30 days in the rainy season; now it takes 24 hours. By the time the last bit of pavement was poured on BR 364 last September, the highway was already logging startling volumes of transit. Newcomers come now at the clip of 60,000 a month.
This road was born of plans sired in the 1960s by a former Brazilian president, Gen. Em'ilio Garrastaz'u Medici, one of the prime movers of Brazil's economic ``miracle,'' as it was known then. The Amazon was ``a land without men for men without land.'' It would be the salvation of the peasant farmer, and, at the same time, the peasant settlers would be the bulwark against an imperialist bogey thought to be ever looming at the borders.
Such inspiration first begat the Transamazon Highway, an epic-scaled, 3,000-mile road designed to stretch from the Peruvian border nearly to the Atlantic. But the the planning ill-conceived. The Transamazon linked towns of marginal economic significance, earning it the derisive label of the highway ``running from nothing to nowhere at all.'' The jungle has since reclaimed great portions of the Transamazon. But BR 364 was laid with far more planning and good sense. Now the National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform (INCRA) is helping legions of colonos, or settlers, from all over Brazil. They are the vanguard of what the government advertises as ``the world's largest land reform program.''
They come from the Northeast, where successive years of drought have rung dry the available farmland. Or they come from urban slums, brimming with squatters and sparse with jobs. Many more are the fair-haired, light-eyed sons and grandsons of Germans, Irish, Italians, and Ukranians, the flotsam of world wars and tired-out farmlands in Europe. They come from the south of Brazil, land of soy and corn crops, where the same machinery that has produced miracles has also thrown men out of work and into swelling leagues of migrant farmers.
They are staking out new claims in the empty spaces of Brazil's Amazon, perhaps the world's last frontier. Some come out of desperation. Some come running, seemingly propelled by little more than quixotic schemes.
Assis Pena Barbosa turned his back on a small farm plot in Rio de Janeiro state and lit out with a single burning idea -- to raise armadillos. ``Best meat in the world,'' he says.
But the successful ones come with money in the bank and years of experience working the land. Orlando Ganani left a dead-end plot of land in Paran'a State and wended his way north to the wide-open spaces of Rond^onia. The farm land for which he paid $4,000 two years ago is now worth 10 times that.
``A lot of dumb people come here,'' said Mr. Ganani, reclining on the wood porch he and his sons built on a 100-acre piece of bottom land outside Rolim de Moura. ``They buy a little land, give up after a few months, and sell it off cheap, turning into migrant farmers again. Whoever comes here without brains and money in their pocket is going to fail.''
INCRA has already distributed land titles to over a million Brazilians -- nearly a third of them in the Rond^onia frontier regions. For those who have managed a piece of this largesse, it has generally been a good deal. Land is sold, in 60- or 100-acre lots, at subsidized rates, and deedholders have five years to pay.
Funded in part by the World Bank, the settlement program is hailed by its government sponsors as a success. ``Everyone discovers fertile soils and opportunity here,'' declares Paulo Okota, head of INCRA.
Not all pioneers in Brazil's far west would agree. Many who manage titles often complain of lack of infrastructure, such as decent farm-to-market roads. Government credit is often difficult to secure and commercial bank loans are simply too dear. The vision of working abundant, fertile lands often turns into a grinding reality of wage work on someone else's estate. Many settlers wait up to four years to achieve title to a plot of land. Many become posseiros, or squatters, moving in on an idle corner of a wealthy rancher's spread -- often to be moved out by force. In Rolim de Moura, 42 murders were recorded just in the month of October.
In the village of Jauru, Mato Grosso State, hired grileiros, or thugs, reportedly under police cover, invaded a posseiro settlement on the edge of a 75,000-acre ranch, burning huts and beating squatters.
``Here, money talks. And there are a lot of people without land. It's going to happen all over again,'' says Jauru Mayor Jos'e Goncalves Filho. Officials point, in turn, to the tremendous economic benefits brought by the opening up of the new frontier. Mato Grosso State increased its soybean production by nearly 50 percent over the past year, due largely to better transport and access to underexploited lands.
All along the blackened tarmac, a new way of life mingles with the old. Peasants balancing produce on their heads pad barefoot along the asphalt to roadside markets. A satellite tracking station towers over a village of dusty, unpaved streets. Speeding, air-conditioned tour buses roar past horse-drawn carts, and Mercedes trucks full of mahogany for export sift through hundreds of head of cattle driven by cowboys along the Amazon's new superhighway.
``This road is the axle of progress, just what the Amazon needs to integrate us with the rest of the world,'' says Rond^onia's governor, Col. Jorge Texeira. Manifest destiny, after all, does not come cheap. And if pioneer living is burdensome to Brazil's dreamers and doers, the pioneer spirit is also a generous one.
``This land is like a mother's heart,'' said Vitorio Pchek, a Brazilian of Ukranian extraction, who came 11 years ago to Rond^onia when BR 364 was mere weed and bramble. ``There is always room for one more.''