How Eco-Trends, Asia, 'J.R.,' End Up in an Amazon Town

Globalization, even TV's Dallas, change tiny Tarauaca in odd ways

With a little knowledge about this river town deep in the Brazilian rain forest, one can understand why even busy weekday mornings here are marked by a refreshing calm - like something out of another century.

The population is young, so armies of children, some in uniform, march quietly off to school on foot. Incomes in the town of about 23,000 are generally modest at best, so bicycles, treads humming on what are often dirt streets, are a common form of transportation. Flocks of parrots squawk overhead, competing with an occasional rooster's crow as they sail off to the surrounding forest.

But the main reason for the tranquility is that for nine months of the year no road leads from the outside world to this riverport on the Tarauaca River. And even during the three-month dry season, the road from Rio Branco, capital of Acre State where Tarauaca sits, is unpaved.

With the river the primary means of getting around and transporting goods, there's no great need for fleets of honking, coughing automobiles. Indian families bringing piles of green bananas to market from their upriver reserves glide quietly to the town's riverside market, while other locals patiently cast fishing nets upon the river's surface.

But the quiet is deceiving. Tarauaca's relative remoteness doesn't mean it is isolated from the economic and social influences of the rest of Brazil, or even of the rest of the world.

The town sits in the heart of Brazil's rubber-production region. The town's seal, which dates from its founding in 1913, carries the likeness of a rubber tapper, latex-collecting tools in hand, opposite one of a local Indian.

But the collapse of the traditional rubber industry in the wake of synthetics and a more competitive, plantation-based rubber industry in Southeast Asia, forced many rubber tappers to turn to logging the rain forest's hardwoods.

But now Brazil has declared a ban on mahogany harvesting - largely in response to pressure from international environmentalists. Even if poorly enforced, the ban is cutting into wood-related employment.

Much of the deforested land forming a close ring around the town is in the hands of wealthy - and generally absent - landowners. Some of them plunk cattle down on their spreads that require the tending of a farmhand or two, but more job-intensive agricultural pursuits are absent.

With rural income-producing activities drying up, Tarauaca has witnessed a population influx over recent years. But with little for people to do in town, either, the area has fallen into a slump. "The town's about tripled [in population] over 10 years, but mostly as a result of the collapse of jobs in the forest," says Luis Meleiro, the local teachers' union president. "That doesn't mean there's more money in town - in fact it's the opposite."

Teachers, storekeepers, and local Indian leaders all say the same thing: Little money circulates here, and many families are feeling a harder pinch than just a few years ago. Tarauaca has gotten by on some public spending: A new school is going up next to the town's airstrip, which is getting its first small terminal.

But that stream will slow as Brazil implements a recently announced federal-spending slash in response to Asia's recent currency turmoil, which hit hard Brazil's overvalued currency.

So Tarauaca may seem removed, with toads hopping down the streets at night and young couples strolling dreamily along the town's modest answer to the grand boulevards of the world.

But in an era when even local Kaxinawa Indians use the word "globalization," the illusion doesn't last long.

A poster on city hall's front door warns of AIDS. Both the town pharmacy and tobacco shop, sitting face to face across the main street, are named "Dallas." And some enterprising residents make a living traveling upriver to Bolivia, where goods are cheaper than in more-protectionist Brazil, and carting their purchases back to Tarauaca to sell on the black market.

Then there's this past summer's story of Indian killings in the deep jungle south of Tarauaca. With isolated, dart-blowing Yaminawa Indians reportedly killing intruding rubber tappers, and then the "white" settlers returning in greater numbers to wipe out some Indians in revenge, the sordid tale sounded like a land conflict as old as the Conquistadors.

But then it recently came out that maybe the original killings didn't involve the Yaminawas at all.

The latest theory is that drug traffickers smuggling cocaine in from Bolivia, using the Indians as cover, are causing the bloodshed.

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