Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Fears For The Amazon's Future


The fires raging in the Amazon are generating a global debate about how to preserve the rainforest. This isn't just about cracking down on cattle ranchers and farmers who are illegally setting fires to grab land. Brazil's far-right government under Jair Bolsonaro is intent on exploiting the Amazon's economic potential, including minerals, agriculture and energy. NPR's Philip Reeves recently visited a place that some fear could be a harbinger of the rainforest's future.


PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: This requires a boat and a short journey along a river. This river is called the Xingu. It flows into the Amazon hundreds of miles from here and belongs to the plumbing system that keeps the rainforest alive. A while back, Brazil decided to harness the Xingu's power by building a giant hydroelectric plant near here called the Belo Monte Dam. Work is almost complete.

Beautiful day - blue sky, flat water. We're in a small boat - about 30-foot-long, narrow - skimming across the surface of the water surrounded by rainforest.

ILDO DA COSTA: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: Ildo Da Costa is a Ribeirinho, someone who lives in the forest by the river surviving by fishing and subsistence farming. Da Costa scans the horizon and points a finger into the distance.

DA COSTA: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: It's where his family home used to be before the dam came along. The area is now swallowed up by water; so are lots of trees.

We're going past chunks of forest that's now semi-submerged and dead. You can see the tips of the trees poking out of the water. And there are hundreds and hundreds of them - very eerie looking actually.

The Belo Monte Dam is actually two dams 25 miles apart linked by a system of dikes and canals. Measured by output, it'll be the fourth-largest hydroelectric dam in the world.

DA COSTA: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: Da Costa, the Ribeirinho, says losing this forest land was a huge blow. We were forced to leave, he says. The dam's in the Amazon state of Para, close to the city of Altamira. The project took decades to come to fruition. Environmental and Indigenous organizations went to court and helped secure some important changes. The area of land flooded because the dam was significantly reduced. Even so, it's still larger than Las Vegas.

It's taken about an hour to get here, but we are now coming up to the dam. It must have taken an awful lot of concrete and steel to build this thing. I can see buildings. I can see power lines.

Those who fought to limit the dam's environmental impact now face tough new challenges elsewhere in the rainforest because of this man...


PRESIDENT JAIR BOLSONARO: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: ...Brazil's president, Jair Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro's trying to calm worldwide outrage over the Amazon fires. He stresses his commitment to preserving the forest.


BOLSONARO: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: Yet he also makes clear he believes in developing parts of it.

PAULO WROBEL: I think he visualized the question of the Amazons that the Amazons cannot sit still.

REEVES: Paulo Wrobel is from the Institute of International Relations at the Catholic University in Rio de Janeiro. Wrobel says Bolsonaro believes...

WROBEL: The Amazon which is literally half of Brazil's territory, should be preserved. But parts of it should be legally developed - could be agricultural, could be exploiting minerals, could be exploiting oil.

REEVES: Bolsonaro's plans include paving a major highway that bisects the Amazon rainforest. He also favors fast-tracking smaller hydroelectric projects and legalizing wildcat mining.


BOLSONARO: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "The Amazon's the richest place on Earth," says Bolsonaro in a recent speech. He has big ambitions for its future. Those who live near the Belo Monte Dam worry about the present. The dam brought more than 30,000 temporary construction workers to the city of Altamira. Crime soared; so did property prices. But Maria Augusta da Silva Neta, of the Altamira Rural Union, believes it's been worth it.

MARIA AUGUSTA DA SILVA NETA: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: She says she's happy because the dam also brought infrastructure and investment. Neta's a cattle farmer who favors more development in the Amazon. She believes Brazil's environmental laws are sufficiently rigorous, and she has no time for outsiders offering advice.

NETA: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "The people of the Amazon should be the ones who decide what happens here," she says.

NETA: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "Our wealth's enormous," she said. She believes it should be used to improve people's lives.


REEVES: Some in Altamira say that's actually happening. Tassiana da Silva is selling green beans in the fruit and veg market. She's glad the dam was built because now...

TASSIANA DA SILVA: They shop. They see name (speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: The city has malls and cinemas. She's talking about this place - a huge showpiece shopping center on the edge of Altamira. Families are lining up to buy tickets for the afternoon screening of "The Lion King."

RENATO FREITAS: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: Renato Freitas is in a nearby booth awaiting clients. He's a realtor. Behind him - a video screen showing a landscape of gleaming new homes in Altamira's so-called New City.

FREITAS: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: Freitas reckons he sells at least 20 plots a month. Scenes such as these alarm those fighting to preserve the rainforest. Not so long ago, they were making real progress in Brazil. In 2005, deforestation rates started to drop significantly. Eight years later, they began to edge up. Under Bolsonaro, aided by the Amazon fires, they're surging. Environmental organizations fear the worst.

ADRIANA RAMOS: We are afraid of the possibility of losing. I think that we already lost something.

REEVES: Adriana Ramos is from the Socio-Environmental Institute. Her organization played a leading role in opposing the Belo Monte Dam. Now it's turning its attention to the Brazilian government's other plans for the rainforest.

RAMOS: Because there are a lot of proposals that the government is announcing which are illegal. They will have to convince the Congress. They will have to go to court.

REEVES: The fact that the fight for the Amazon is getting tougher by the day doesn't deter Ramos.

RAMOS: We cannot give up. We are just using our anger to do more things.

REEVES: Ildo da Costa, the Ribeirinho on the river, also isn't giving up.

DA COSTA: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: He dreams of the day when he and his family can move back to the river, not to destroy anything, he says, but to build a new life. Philip Reeves, NPR News, in the Amazon rainforest.


NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.