DELICATE green tendrils snake across the red clay earth by the side of the road, as if straining to escape the flames behind them. Overhead, tongues of fire have caught a towering Brazil nut tree. Its leaves and branches explode in an orange blaze, high above the billows of smoke rising from the ground. A tall palm sways in the surging heat. Its fronds, dry and limp, await the flames. Here in Acre, the remotest state in the Amazon, another section of the Brazilian rain forest is being destroyed. So far, 12 percent of all Amazonia has been cleared: almost 600,000 square kilometers (234,000 square miles) - an area larger than France. The rate of destruction has been accelerating. Nearly 85 percent has taken place in this decade.
Deep in the vibrant green universe of the forest a two-hour walk from this roadside fire, Joao Batista da Silva and Francisco Chaga da Costa are helping to build a schoolhouse. They are rubber tappers whose families have lived in the jungle for 100 years by collecting rubber and Brazil nuts. For them, preserving the forest is inextricably linked to their own survival.
``What's good about living in the forest is the tranquillity,'' Mr. da Silva says. ``Our work is assured here. It's hard work, but we have everything we need right here in the forest.''
His companion, Mr. Chaga, points with a grin to the shoes he is wearing. They are of supple, strong rubber, molded to his feet. He made them himself out of the latex he extracts from trees.
``I sell 50 kilos of rubber every week, for 15,000 cruzados [about $45],'' says Chaga. ``That's what I would earn in a month in the city. Our future is right here, and the future of our children.''
There are 150,000 rubber tappers in Acre - 500,000 in all of Amazonia. Studies show that they earn over 50 percent more than the small-scale farmers who clear forest land.
Moreover, research by FUNTAC, the Brazilian government's environmental agency, indicates that extraction of rubber, nuts, and other products from the intact forest is more lucrative in the long run than cattle ranching on cleared forest land, the most serious current threat to the forest.
Environmentalists say the whole world will be affected if Brazil's rain forests disappear. Locally, it is the rubber tappers who stand to lose the most if their forest home is destroyed. To combat the destruction, they formed a union in 1985, the National Council of Rubber Tappers, and are fighting to save the forest from destruction, sometimes by sitting, with women and children, in the paths of bulldozers mowing down trees.
Most rubber tappers are illiterate, with little experience of the modern world. Yet the proposal for forest preservation they have presented to the Brazilian government is already being implemented, at least in part.
HERE in Acre, almost 10 percent of the forest has been burned off in this decade alone. Most of the land is being cleared for cattle ranching, often by speculators who bought it from rubber barons. A lawyer working with rubber tappers says that many new ``owners'' do not have clear title to the land.
In the battle for development in the Amazon, rubber tappers and cattle ranchers are as much at odds as David and Goliath - and, to all appearances, as unequally matched. The Brazilian government began promoting migration to the region in the 1960s, offering financial incentives to ranchers, even though the returns have continued to fall far short of the profits expected.
The practice of converting forests into ranches has been widely criticized as ecologically and economically unsound. But these objections don't seem to worry ranchers. One young man, whose father owns 1,500 head of cattle, says firmly that ranching is where Acre's future lies.
``The best thing for Acre is cattle ranching,'' says Carlos Sergio Medeiros Hibeiro, emerging from his father's roadside slaughterhouse in blood-spattered jeans and T-shirt. ``All you need is two head of cattle to start with. This land is very good for cattle ranching.''
Mr. Hibeiro says his father has owned his ranch for 17 years. Gesturing on either side of the road, he explains, ``We cleared this area four years ago, that over there two years ago.'' Hibeiro doesn't know how much land his father has, but he says it supports 9 or 10 head of cattle per acre.
Some parts of Acre may be better suited for use as pasture than others, but local experts insist that, over time, the conversion of forest to pasture isn't profitable.
``Cattle ranchers need to burn the forest every year for five years to make a pasture,'' Jorge Franco Matny, an agronomist with FUNTAC, points out. ``Yearly burning is very damaging to the soil. Eventually only weeds grow, and in many places the land supports only one head of cattle per hectare [2.5 acres]. When the land gives out, the ranchers just cut more and more forest.''
It is the productivity of the forest that the rubber tappers hope will save it. Their development plan is based on the establishment of ``extractive reserves'' - areas of forest that can be used only for the sustainable extraction of forest products. So far, 12 such reserves have been created in five Amazon states, covering a total of more than 5 million acres. Four of the reserves are in Acre, totaling about 1.2 million acres, and protecting the livelihood of some 10,000 rubber tappers. The tappers hope that eventually at least 40 percent of Acre will be designated as extractive reserves.
``The rubber tappers have managed to launch an alternative proposal and influence the government's development policy in a way that no grass-roots movement in Amazonia has been able to do,'' says Stephan Schwartzman of the Environmental Defense Fund in Washington. Mr. Schwartzman is consulting with the rubber tappers and the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) as they negotiate development strategies for Amazonia with the Brazilian government.
But as the rubber tappers' movement gains strength, opposition to it has become more and more violent. In 1988 alone, five rubber tappers in Acre were murdered. Last Dec. 22, Francisco (Chico) Mendes, head of the rubber tappers' union, was shot to death at his home. He had received numerous death threats from ranchers who claim their land was divided to create an extractive reserve. In 1987 Mr. Mendes was given the Global 500 Award for environmental protection from the United Nations Environment Program.
His murder produced an outcry in the international and Brazilian press, and appears to have strengthened and energized his campaign. Already, a new president of the union has been named: Julio Barbosa, who was trained by Mendes. The Chico Mendes Foundation has been established, and more rubber tappers are being trained as leaders throughout the Amazon region.
``The movement is very important in Brazil now,'' says Mary Helena Allegretti, president of the Institute of Amazon Studies in Curitiba, which works closely with rubber tappers. ``Perhaps we will organize a mass movement in defense of the Amazon.''
``We don't believe that Amazonia should be an untouchable preserve, nor do we believe that it should be destroyed,'' Mendes told the Monitor in an interview last September. ``But the land should be controlled by the people who make it profitable, while protecting the forest at the same time. Rubber and nuts are enough to make the forest pay for itself. Since the extractive reserves were created a year ago, rubber production has increased by 15 percent.''
There are plans to increase production even more. FUNTAC is working on a ``densification'' project to increase the number of rubber trees from an average of 5 to 30 per hectare, without disturbing the forest ecology.
``The rubber tappers and the local Indian tribes are the only people who are not predatory toward the forest,'' says Gilberto Sigueira, FUNTAC's director. ``The rubber tappers' movement has become an economic model for the Amazon. It is viable economically and it doesn't destroy the environment. The local government in Acre supports the rubber tappers, because it wants an economy based on the forest.''
Ultimately, say the experts, the greatest threat to the rain forests lies in the unequal distribution of land in Brazil. According to Brazilian government figures for 1986 cited by Amnesty International, 50 percent of rural landowners share only 3 percent of the land, while large estates that make up less than 1 percent of rural properties occupy 43 percent of the land.
The national government has long felt pressure from the millions of landless peasants in areas where most of the land is concentrated in a few huge holdings. To relieve this pressure, the government has encouraged migration to the Amazon. In most Amazon states, new roads have brought in countless small-scale farmers who destroy large areas of forest and reap such low economic returns from the poor soils that many are forced to sell their land to cattle ranchers and move to the cities.
``It's ridiculous,'' says Ms. Allegretti. ``[The migrating farmers] burn the forest only to plant rice and beans - only for subsistence farming. This is terrible economics. What we need in this country is agrarian reform.''
BUT environmental concerns are slowly gaining priority in Amazonia. In 1985, the World Bank suspended a large loan to the Brazilian government, leaving unfinished the construction of the first road into Acre. The unprecedented action was taken because the migration along the road in states farther east was having disastrous effects on the forest in those areas.
The IADB then proposed another loan to continue the roadbuilding project. But the rubber tappers and environmental groups became alarmed at the lack of environmental components in the new loan proposal, and the concept of extractive reserves was born. The Environmental Defense Fund arranged for Mendes to testify before the United States Congress about the impending dangers to the forest of the IADB project. Under pressure from Congress in early 1988, the IADB loan was also suspended.
Today, the IADB is still negotiating with the Brazilian government to include more environmental safeguards before proceeding with the road, and IADB officers say the bank is very supportive of the concept of extractive reserves.
Gomercindo Rodrigues is an agronomist who helped set up a rubber tappers' cooperative that pays more to the rubber tappers than local merchants formerly paid. The cooperative is experimenting with ways to process the rubber to make it more competitive on the world market with the cheaper rubber from plantations in Southeast Asia.
As evening falls on the crumbling brick streets of the forest town of Xapuri, Mr. Rodrigues sits in the town square, cooling off from the heat of the day. He says he has received death threats from gunmen hired by cattle ranchers. But he is encouraged by the growing political awareness he sees among the rubber tappers as their union makes them a stronger force in the community.
``The rubber tappers are beginning to improve their lives by their own efforts,'' Rodrigues says. ``Politicians can't buy their votes because these people don't need their charity anymore.''
The sun has sunk low above the houses. It is strawberry-pink, a beautiful but sinister color caused by the smoke of burning forest.
``If development doesn't make for improvements in the life of the people, it's not worth it,'' says Rodrigues. ``Things that high technology is searching for - how to make the forest productive without destroying it - these illiterate people are already doing.''
SNAPSHOT OF BRAZIL South America's largest country has diversified its economy in recent years. Agriculture (coffee, soybeans, cotton, sugar) continues to be important, along with growing industries (textiles, iron, steel, petroleum, paper). Brazil's huge foreign debt and high rate of inflation continue to undermine its economic stability.
Area in square miles: 3.3 million (US: 3.6 million). Total population: 144.4 million (US: 240 million). Population/square mile: 44 (US: 68). Per capita GNP: $1,810 (US: $17,500). Mortality rate for children under 5 years: 87/1,000 (US: 13/1,000). Fertility rate: 3.4 children/woman (US: 1.8). Percentage of infants with low birth weight: 8 (US: 7). Percentage of literate adults male/female: 79/76. Life expectancy at birth: 65 years (US: 76). Percentage of population in urban areas: 75 (US: 74).
Sources: The Population Reference Bureau; UNICEF; Political Handbook of the World (1987); The World Almanac (1989).