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From rubber to energy, history is clouded in the Amazon

From rubber to energy, history is clouded in the Amazon


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By Mario Osava

“It was 30 days of travel in an ox cart. It could be reduced to five days, on horseback, following the telegraph line, but my father feared attacks by indigenous people, ”Tourinho told IPS.

Then his father, a landowner in Corumbá, another municipality in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, on the border with southeastern Bolivia, escaped unscathed from a shooting that punctured his car, one of the few existing in Brazil at the time. Conflicts over land used to be settled with "the 38", the caliber of the revolver that "everyone used".

“Hydroelectric plants have a negative impact, which is to destroy nature, engulf forests, but without electricity there is no progress. Porto Velho only has public officials, it needs to attract industries, even small ones, such as clothing manufacturing ”: Euro Tourinho.

A public job and the compensation received by the railroad that would cross his farm allowed him to avoid that war, in exchange for delving further into the Brazilian jungle.


Euro Tourinho, director and owner of the Alto Madeira newspaper, which trained generations of journalists in the northwestern state of Rondônia, in Brazil. At 94, he is the living history of that Amazon region with a hazardous past and an uncertain present, a great supplier of hydroelectricity for the country. Credit: Mario Osava / IPS

To take office in what is now Rondônia, the northwestern Amazon state on the border with northern Bolivia, he had to travel six months with the family, by land to the cities of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, then by sea to Belém and by Amazonian rivers to the new home. An almost complete tour of the geography of Brazil.

Accessible practically only by slow river boats until 1960, Rondônia is today a logistical hinge between the Amazon, the industrialized southeast of Brazil, Bolivia and Peru, an important factor for its possible development.

It is in the middle of roads that connect the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean in Peru, it has others that penetrate the Amazon or go to the north of Bolivia and the Madeira River waterway, where a good part of the soybean harvested in the country is exported. western Brazil, making transportation cheaper.

The most recent transformation of the state derives from the construction, between 2008 and 2016, of two large hydroelectric plants in Madeira, near Porto Velho, the capital of Rondônia, which thus becomes a major energy supplier.

At 94, Tourinho is the living history of that process and of the economic cycles that occurred in Rondônia, a state with 1.8 million inhabitants, 510,000 of them in the capital.

It started with the rubber business, which enriched the Amazon since the late 19th century, thanks to the demand for tires from the nascent automobile industry. At age 22, he inherited from his deceased father a forest of rubber trees (Hevea brasiliensis), or “seringueiras”, the Portuguese word by which they are also known.

At that time, 1944, there was a new rubber boom. World War II (1939-1945) demanded large supplies for military vehicles and Malaysia, the main producer, was under the control of Japan, leaving the United States and its allies dependent on Brazilian rubber.

After the war, prices fell and the decline of the rubber economy in the Amazon was inevitable, unable to compete with the intensive production of Southeast Asia.


The Immediate Attention Unit in the town of Jacy Paraná, of 3,000 inhabitants, cornered between the Santo Antônio reservoir and the Jirau reservoir, the two hydroelectric plants in the state of Rondônia. The public clinic, built two years ago, remains closed, without doctors or equipment, in a town mired in neglect. Credit: Mario Osava / IPS

At that time, 1944, there was a new rubber boom. World War II (1939-1945) demanded large supplies for military vehicles and Malaysia, the main producer, was under the control of Japan, leaving the United States and its allies dependent on Brazilian rubber.

After the war, prices fell and the decline of the rubber economy in the Amazon was inevitable, unable to compete with the intensive production of Southeast Asia.

Tourinho left the “seringal” and the jungle and set up a billiard games room in Porto Velho, next to the headquarters of the newspaper “Alto Madeira”, where he began to write in 1950 and from where he became a witness to the evolution of Rondônia as a journalist.

In 1970 he acquired the newspaper and since then he has personally directed its edition, with disciplined dedication. "As long as I live the printed newspaper will not end," he said about the medium that in 2017 it will be 100 years old.

Tourinho continues clinging to his old typewriter, rejecting the computer, but not the new subjects.

“Hydroelectric plants have a negative impact, which is to destroy nature, engulf forests, but without electricity there is no progress. Porto Velho only has public officials, it needs to attract industries, even if they are small, such as clothing manufacturing, ”he said.

The Santo Antônio plant, built six kilometers from Porto Velho, with capacity for 3,150 megawatts, is preparing to add 417 megawatts, adding six new turbines to the 44 already in operation. The additional energy would go exclusively to Rondônia and the neighboring state of Acre.

“It is important because we will have energy surpluses to attract investment. Until now, in the blackouts we are the first to suffer the drop in supply and the restoration is done the other way around, finally here ”, observed Marcelo Thomé, president of the Federation of Industries of Rondônia (Fiero).

“The great legacy of the construction of the plants is a new business culture, the qualification of companies and entrepreneurs as the best providers of services and products. The workforce was also trained with the experience of working in a large company, ”he added to IPS.

But the industrialization expected by the Fiero did not materialize, nor did the great increase in trade with Peru for which the interoceanic highway was built, completed in 2011.


A burned grassland on the side of the BR 364 highway that leads to northern Bolivia and eastern Peru from the state of Rondônia, in northwestern Brazil. Large land burning was reduced in the Amazon, but fires in small areas persist. Credit: Mario Osava / IPS

Entrepreneurs now seek to identify vocations and processes appropriate to local "production chains". The food industry, taking advantage of expanding agriculture, is a good way forward, Fiero superintendent Gilberto Baptista told IPS.

Between rubber and hydroelectricity, the state experienced an intense agricultural and mining expansion, deforesting large areas. Many indigenous people were massacred by illegal miners and farmers and ranchers.

Rondônia was one of the states that received the most migrants, attracted by government campaigns of Amazonian occupation in the 70s and 80s.

The axis of the devastation was the BR-364 highway, which crosses Brazil from the southeast to the northwest, inaugurated in 1960 by the then president Juscelino Kubitschek, cutting down the last tree on the road with a tractor, but whose paving in Rondônia took more than two decades .

"At that time, they didn't even talk about ecology," recalled Tourinho, who was at the event to give the president a copy of Alto Madeira.

But now, the protests and complaints from environmentalists, social activists and prosecutors from the Public Ministry (prosecutor's office) became inseparable from hydroelectric projects, especially in the Amazon, despite the increasing resources allocated by the concession companies to compensation and mitigation actions Of Damage.

The Movement of People Affected by Dams (MAB, in Portuguese) considers, for example, that companies underestimated the flooded area and, therefore, the number of families to resettle or compensate.

"The soil here is clayey, soaks, and with sedimentation the reservoir expands, killing trees and leaving the land unproductive, in addition to polluting drinking water wells," affecting more people than the companies admit, a coordinator told IPS from the MAB in Rondônia, João Dutra.

"Our monitoring program shows that there is no interference from the reservoir in the water table," countered the concessionaire Santo Antônio Energía in a written response.

"The soil gets soaked, but it was already flooded before the reservoir, much of the surrounding area is 'umirizal', a vulnerable area," explained Veríssimo Alves, socio-environmental manager of Energía Sustentable do Brasil (ESBR), the plant's concessionaire. from Jirau, 110 kilometers upriver from Santo Antônio.

"Umirizal" defines the woody vegetation born in poor and flooded soils, when it rains. For this reason, ESBR refuses to resettle the inhabitants of Abunã, some 5,000 according to the MAB.

Everyone recognizes that the brutal flooding of the Madeira River in 2014 altered conditions, including sedimentation, and could have aggravated these phenomena.

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez

IPS News


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