Conquering Brazil's last frontier. Boom times and controversy surround Amazon highway

JUST a year ago, Extrema was little more than a wide place in a dirt road in the Amazon. A couple of hundred wood frame buildings formed a sorry huddle before an infinity of jungle. Passers-by stopped here to shake off the thick red dust, take a swallow of water, and tank up with petrol before pushing on to some still remote destination. Today, Extrema is the Amazon's newest boomtown. Local officials say five new settler families arrive daily, clambering off diesel passenger buses and, in a matter of days, raising up yet another clutch of clapboard dwellings.

In just 15 months, Extrema's 200 buildings have become 2,000. These include a bank, a hospital, a schoolhouse, police station, and a strip of nightclubs, fronted by the powder-blue-trimmed Aquarius Disco Club.

Ask people why all the bustle and industry, and the answer comes back in a hurry: a estrada - the road. The road is BR-364, the newest, and best, Amazon highway, slicing 1,300 miles through three states, from the central scrublands of Mato Grosso deep into the high forest of Rond^onia and Acre. In 1984, when the first thousand miles of pavement was completed, the two lanes of blacktop were hailed as a major assault in Bras'ilia's longtime campaign to occupy the Amazon borderlands and jolt the scattered rain forest communities out of their timeless torpor.

But for all the progress, the $1.2 billion highway, heavily financed by the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), has also been a fast lane to controversy.

Barreling along the asphalt have come lumber companies, gold miners, cattle ranchers, and a rush of land-hungry colonos, or peasant settlers. The stampede has threatened Rond^onia's fragile forest ecology, overrun lands of native Indians, and put Brazil on a collision course with conservationists and international creditors. It has also stirred serious doubts as to whether this growing, resource-hungry nation can develop the world's largest rain forest without destroying it.

Now the highway - and the fierce polemics that surround it - are pushing farther west to towns like Extrema, and beyond. With $58.5 million from the Inter-American Development Bank, construction crews are now paving the last stretch of BR-364 to Rio Branco. The settlers have decided not to wait for the tarmac.

Outside Brazil, an alliance of militant ecologists, the US Treasury Department, and US Sens. Daniel Inouye and Robert Kasten have been pressuring the IDB to suspend its loan disbursements until Brazil can guarantee environmental protection.

Earlier this month the IDB gave Brazil an ultimatum: Guarantee safeguards against environmental destruction and threats to the Amazon Indians or the $58.5 million loan will be canceled in 60 days. This came after ecologists severely criticized the destruction of the Amazon forest in hearings before the United States Senate Appropriations Committee.

One senior official at the Washington-based IDB wearily confessed, ``If we knew at the beginning what we know now, the bank would never have funded the road.''

In 1985, Liberato Camera took his wife, five sons, and four daughters to Extrema, 3,000 miles from his home in the pampas of Rio Grande do Sul. ``Back there, no one can afford to buy land anymore,'' he said. After waiting five years in vain for a lot in neighboring Rond^onia, he managed to buy 250 acres in Extrema. ``The only place for poor people is here.''

That is exactly what frightens Acre officials and the conservationists alike. ``The colonos are moving on to Acre,'' said Carlos Alberto Franca, Rond^onia's officer for the government settlement agency, INCRA. ``And there is no government, no public institution, and no land reform program that can fix this.''

BR-364 started as a dirt road scratched out of the forest in the 1960s by the Army along an abandoned telegraph line. It traversed three sparsely populated states in a swath of northwest Brazil. In 1980, Bras'ilia, with the loans from the World Bank and the IDB, began pouring blacktop.

The Army generals dreamed that the all-weather highway would be ``the backbone to the conquest of the frontier,'' and eventually even a gateway to the Pacific. To the World Bank, BR-364 was the centerpiece of one of its biggest loan projects, the northwest Pole. The $450 million aid program was to help Brazil develop its vast frontiers.

``If it weren't for the highway, there would be no Rond^onia,'' said Jeronimo Santana, governor of Rond^onia's. Until the road west was improved, Acre's capital was virtually unreachable by land for the entire six-month rainy season.

But with the pavement came the poor colonos. In 1978 alone, 12,000 newcomers migrated to Rond^onia. Now, that many come every month in what may be the most intensive human migration since the settlement of the American West. They are the detritus of lopsided development, expelled from the slums of Brazil's clogged megacities or the mechanized farms in the South or the parched sertao of the starving northeast. These castoffs come in search of a bit of El Dorado in the Amazon.

Now all of Rond^onia's good lands have been doled out and spontaneous settlements erupt upon any patch of available earth. Some ecologists and local planners say that as much as 25 percent of Rond^onia's forests have been destroyed. Conflicts between squatters and landholders are rife, and often bloody.

The World Bank concluded in a July 7 report that the health and safety of virtually all the 30,000 Indians, in 69 areas in the northwest pole region, ``was seriously endangered.'' To avoid a reprise of Rond^onia, the IDB linked its Acre loan to a rigorous $10 million plan to protect the environment and indigenous groups. But critics say a major roadblock to conservation is Brazil's military, which has reportedly refused to set aside land for Indians anywhere within a 90-mile ``national security'' cordon along Brazil's northern borders, including all of Acre.

``The military is afraid of the Balkanization of Brazil,'' said Terry Vale de Aquino, director of the government Indian agency in Acre, referring to the general concern that granting title to the Indians would result in the breaking up of Brazil into smaller nation-states.

The Indigenous Missionary Council, linked to the Roman Catholic Church, also charge that the military is reluctant to grant a few thousand Indians title to such vast stretches of Amazon real estate, rich with minerals like gold, tin, and bauxite.

Yet, amid the daunting obstacles and hails of proests, the project appears to be moving ahead swiftly. Earlier this month, work crews moved west of Porto Velho, preparing to pour asphalt over the final stretch of Brazil's problem highway.

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