Santarém on the Amazon ( a few delays, I’ve reached Santarém, a sleepy river-port located precisely where the green water of the Tapajós river flows in to the red, muddier water of the Amazon. It’s great to be back to the slower pace of the Amazon basin, to sit by the river as the tropical dusk falls rapidly, while old-style river-steamers load cargo and people, ready to travel in the cool of the night.

I was last in Santarém five years ago. There was much talk then of the big new soya terminal that Cargill had opened a few years earlier. Soya farmers were moving into a region to the east of Santarém, taking over land destined for agrarian reform, and illegally clearing tropical forest to plant soya. I’d expected soya by now to have reached the outskirts of Santarém. But soya hasn’t taken off, at least not on the expected scale. Cargill’s terminal is ticking over at a very low level of output. Why hasn’t the boom happened? Soya, it seems, has turned out to be vulnerable to disease and to bad weather. It’s safer to plant rice. Partly as a result of the campaign carried out by local social movements and Greenpeace, the government is also exerting stricter controls over forest clearing carried out by soya farmers who are illegally occupying the land. Moreover, they are not managing to get official bank loans to cover their production costs.

Good news? Yes … but, as so often happens in Brazil, all is not quite what it seems. Cargill’s terminal is no white elephant. When the paving of the BR-163 (the road linking Santarém with Cuiabá) is finally completed—and no-one knows quite when that will be, though the work is in full swing—soya farmers in Mato Grosso will send all of their soya crop out through Cargill’s terminal and others that are being planned. It will be cheaper and faster to export soya through the Amazon than to send it all the way down to the port of Paranaguá in the south of Brazil. And, with Brazil set this year to overtake the USA as the world’s leading soya exporter, there will be a stream of lorries driving up to the terminal. The lorries won’t go through the centre of Santarém, but some local inhabitants are already worried that the massive increase in the number of lorry drivers visiting their bars and brothels will mean more violence, more sexually transmitted disease, more child prostitution.

Moreover, the decrease in the area of the Amazon forest felled each year, which the government has been proudly announcing, doesn’t actually mean that the forest is finally beginning to be saved. The new name of the game for those carrying on with the old tradition of turning the Amazon’s extraordinary biodiversity, accumulated over centuries, into short-term profit is logging. And, although logging doesn’t lead to the wholesale destruction of the forest, it creates serious problems of degradation.

Maurício Torres, the Brazilian researcher with whom I am travelling, tells me that the loggers have not been deterred by recent government efforts to create a whole new mosaic of conservation units, sustainable settlements and indigenous reserves to inhibit forest destruction but have discovered ways of using them to continue extracting secretly huge amounts of valuable timber. Although their logging is seriously damaging the forest, it does not entail the wholesale jungle clearance required for farming, so it is not usually picked up by the monitoring programme used in Brazil, PRODES-INPE, which can only detect cleared areas larger than 6.25 hectares. Maurício and I are going to travel to the logging areas to discover how precisely the new scams work.

The bus from Santarém (with puncture)We take an early bus from Santarém down the BR-163, passing teams of construction workers busy paving the road. After a few hours and a puncture, we reach the Transamazônica highway, built by the military government in the early 1970s. I can still remember seeing on television the hard-line military president then in power, General Médici, symbolically felling a Brazil nut tree in October 1979 as he announced the beginning of construction work on the road.

The bus turns east and we proceed more slowly along the deeply rutted, unpaved highway, passing through an agrovila every 10 kilometres. I’d first been here in the early 1970s, as the road was being built. A few years later thousands of peasant families, brought in from outside the region, were settled on the land. It was, as the Brazilian sociologist Octávio Ianni notably said at the time, a ‘programme of counter-agrarian reform’, a way of defusing the widespread discontent among peasant families in the north-east and the extreme south of Brazil by transporting them thousands of kilometres and giving them land in an inhospitable and extremely isolated region.

For the military, who were keen to get the region inhabited by ‘proper Brazilians’, not indigenous groups, the programme had the added advantage of breaking with the old way in which the occupation of the Amazon was occurring by peasant families slowly migrating into the region from the east and the south, and nibbling away at the edges of the forest. As the sociologist Philippe Hamelin said, the Transamazônica was like a bomb that was ‘detonated to break the Amazon up and to facilitate its penetration’.

At the time, the project had seemed liked madness to me and many others. Without roads to transport their produce, without proper schools and hospitals, the colonos – as the settlers were called – would surely be driven back to their states of origin by disease and unbearable economic hardship. Indeed, in the 1980s and the 1990s, I read reports of thousands of colonos giving up. The colonisation programme, it seemed, had been a disaster.

Santarém to Porto Alegre busSo I have been somewhat startled to find that the agrovilas along the road are bustling with activity. Gaúchos (the name given to inhabitants of Rio Grande do Sul) are everywhere. There are gaúcho restaurants, serving rodízio (barbecued meat), in all the agrovilas andpeople drinking maté tea in chimarrões in the bars. And in a bus station along the road I spot a bus, clearly marked Santarém–Porto Alegre, which is taking people back down to the state of Rio Grande do Sul, a journey which (without mishaps) will last three days. People tell me that when I reach the colonisation projects themselves, travelling down the smaller roads that branch off the Transamazônica like bones from the central spine of a fish, I will find many more nordestinos (people from the north-east).

From what people say, many colonos did, indeed, leave in those early days. But others stayed and are making a go of it, rearing cattle, planting cacao, and growing basic food crops. Partly as a result, too, of national government policies to better the lot of poor people, such as the pension for rural workers, incomes are growing. A colono tells me a joke that is emblematic: a tractor gets stuck deep in the mud, lorries try to pull it out and fail, a man passes by on a donkey. ‘I’ll get it out for you’, he promises. He attaches his donkey to the tractor with a rope and whispers something in the donkey’s ear. Quick as a flash, the donkey makes an enormous effort and hauls the tractor out. ‘What on earth did you say to the donkey?’ bystanders ask. ‘That unless he managed to get it out, I’d send him back to Maranhão’, the colono replies. (Maranhao is an impoverished state in the north-east from where many of the colonos came.)