Jan Rocha takes a break from her usual razor-sharp analyses of Brazil’s political landscape. Yet, even in Santarém, Pará, where the Tapajos river joins the Amazon, she finds that all is change: rapid urbanisation, a massive grain terminal, clearance of forest for soya and the arrival of indigenous people from Venezuela.
A full moon hangs in the sky over the Tapajos river. Senhor Gama deftly chops the end off a green coconut, upending it to drain into a machine, and then pours the liquid into two plastic mugs, and, with all the aplomb of a Downton Abbey butler, serves them to us on a silver salver, in reality a tin tray turned silver by the light of the moon, as we sit on deck chairs under a palm tree. In the hot, humid heat of the tropical night, the cool coconut water is wonderfully refreshing.
Further along the waterfront, fishermen have laid out their fresh catch on wooden crates: large pintados, tucunaré, tambaqui. Beyond them boats lie stranded on the beach, as the river shrinks, waiting for the rains that will only come in December. Towering over everything is the lofty Cargill grain terminal structure: its coloured lights make it look like a giant fairground attraction.
When I first came to Santarem way back in the 1980s it was just a small town, one of the oldest in the Amazon, located on the confluence of the Tapajos and Amazon rivers, half way between Belem and Manaus. Then, as now, the riverfront was lined with the traditional wooden three storied passenger boats packed with hammocks and cargo.
Today Santarem has a population of over 300,000 and sprawls in all directions. I was amazed to find that the huge Hotel Tropical, which I remembered being located some distance away from the town, reached by a road that cut through the rainforest, when I stayed there in 1993, had been engulfed by the town and was now surrounded by houses, not trees.
The rubber legacy
Just 40 kms south of Santarem, along the Tapajos, is the town of Belterra. Like the more famous Fordlandia, a bit further upriver, it was built by the Ford company in the 1930s to house the workers who would work in the plantations producing rubber for their US car factories.
When the rows of closely planted rubber trees were decimated by disease, Fordlandia was abandoned, but Belterra, located on the more fertile terra preta created by the area’s earlier indigenous inhabitants, survived. It was after all “bela terra”.
The Americans have long gone, but much of the neat company town they built remains. Rows of smartly painted wooden houses with front gardens full of flowers. Well-kept pavements and kerbs. A couple of fire hydrants and a giant water tower, all imported from the States. It is almost like being in a US suburb.
Our taxi driver, Senhor Osmar, who grew up in Belterra, explains there was a rigid social structure, dividing the inhabitants by hierarchy. The manual workers lived in Vila Operaria, or Vila Mensalista, according to pay level, while the professionals, the engineers and the administrators, lived in the more spacious Vila Americana.
In its heyday Belterra even boasted a golf course, for the exclusive use of Americans. Alcohol was banned for the workers, but there was a well-appointed company hospital, and schools and churches.
Today some rubber is still produced in Belterra. But the crop which is encroaching more and more on Santarem is soy. New clearings in the rainforest are visible everywhere. And plans to improve transport links, like paving the road which runs up from Mato Grosso, building a railway, improving the port in Itaituba, developing further the terminals in Santarem, are all on the table.
Influx from Venezuela
Back in Santarem, at the market, a handful of women and children of the Warao tribe are begging. They come from Venezuela, and most of the several hundred who have crossed the border have settled in Boa Vista or Manaus, but some have found their way further downriver to here and to Belem. The Brazilian authorities say at least 30,000 Venezuelans have arrived in Brazil in recent months, fleeing the crisis in their country. Over 12,000 have asked for political asylum. The Warao women in the market are tiny. They are surrounded by piles of fruit and vegetables, but they look hungry and miserable.