A jetliner vanishes in the Amazon jungle. Drug smugglers fly through undetected. Gold miners poison rivers with impunity.
Brazil wants to put an end to all of that by building a $1.4-billion radar network that would peer behind the curtain of mystery obscuring 2 million square miles of jungle.
Construction hasn’t begun, and already the project is swamped with charges of fraud, corruption and even CIA dirty tricks.
The Amazon Surveillance System, to be built by Raytheon Corp. of Bedford, Mass., will use satellites, radar and infrared sensors on planes and at 13 stations on the ground.
A plane that crashed in 1989 wasn’t found for four days, highlighting the need for radar tracking. And nationalists want to keep other countries, drug cartels or guerrillas from taking control of the giant no man’s land.
Radar stations would be built across the states of Para, Amazonas and Rondonia, which cover most of Brazil’s vast northern wilderness.
Raytheon says its sensing system could help protect the environment by pinpointing wildfires and even measuring the mercury dumped into rivers by wildcat gold miners.
“It will be like looking at the Amazon through an enormous magnifying glass,” said Brig. Gen. Marcos Antonio de Oliveira, head of the armed forces committee coordinating the project.
But work on the radar system--known by its Portuguese initials SIVAM--hasn’t even begun and already it is under attack from all sides.
A lobbying blitz by President Clinton revived fears of U.S. designs on the Amazon’s riches.
“If Raytheon builds this system, you can be sure the CIA and the White House will get privileged access to data on the Amazon,” said Sen. Eduardo Suplicy, a leading opponent of the project.
Rogerio Cezar de Cequeira Leite, a physicist at the University of Campinas, near Sao Paulo, said Brazil didn’t even need to hire an outside contractor. At least 12 Brazilian companies can build the system, although it might take them longer, he said.
“If the purpose of this is national security, why should we risk leaking classified information to the United States?” he asked.
At the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Raytheon pitched SIVAM as an “environmental monitoring system” to help Brazil preserve its wilderness.
Raytheon says the system also could help Brazil map its natural resources. Trillions of dollars worth of hardwoods, oil and gas, uranium, gold, iron, bauxite and other minerals lie untapped in the Amazon.
“How can you make decisions to protect the Amazon if you don’t know what’s going on inside it?” said Raytheon Vice President James Carter in a telephone interview from the company’s headquarters in Massachusetts.
Data from 13 radar stations, six mobile radars and eight airborne sensors would be sent to three data processing centers in the jungle and to a command center in Brasilia.
“The growth capability of the system is infinite,” said Bob Young, a Raytheon manager. “All you need do is add sensors and software.”
Raytheon also plans to outfit 800 remote jungle posts with antennas and portable computers. Some would be set up on Indian reservations, letting them send faxes, e-mail or digitized voice messages by satellite.
But some critics ask whether such a sophisticated system can work in the Amazon. Giant projects by Henry Ford and billionaire industrialist Daniel Ludwig succumbed to the “green hell.”
Retired Gen. Thaumaturgo Sotero Vaz, chief of the Amazon Regional Command from 1988 to 1991, said the more advanced the technology used in the Amazon, the more vulnerable it is.
“SIVAM is a First-World project in a Sixth-World region,” said Vaz. “It’s one more white elephant for the Amazon.”
Big projects in Brazil often include big bribes, and critics were skeptical when the government rushed to close a deal with Raytheon and appeared to favor a Brazilian software company.
Brazil asked for bids from companies in 16 countries. But then, citing national security, it dispensed with bidding and appointed the Brazilian software company Esca, whose president is a naturalized U.S. citizen.
Raytheon then was recommended by a nine-member council that included five Esca technicians.
CIA officials leaked reports to U.S. newspapers claiming that Raytheon’s main competitor, Thomson-CSF of France, was bribing members of the selection committee for their support.
Thomson-CSF denied the allegations, but the damage was done.
On May 27, the government signed a five-year deal with Raytheon pending approval by Brazil’s Senate of the financing. The U.S. government’s Export Import Bank is to provide 85% of the money.
But Esca, Raytheon’s Brazilian partner, was dropped from the project for tax fraud and went bankrupt. A federal judge suspended Raytheon, ruling that the selection process was tainted.
Three weeks later, a superior court overturned the ruling on grounds of “national interests.”
For security reasons, Raytheon still has to sign up a Brazilian company to supply “strategic software.” But the American company will control the $170-million programming budget.
Ronaldo Sardemberg, director of Brazil’s Strategic Affairs Secretariat, said last year that the agency “could not guarantee absolute secrecy.” He later backtracked and said “sensitive information” would remain confidential.