Many in Brazil See Their Amazon as a Jungle of Foreign Intrigue

Times Staff Writer

Afghanistan was the first to fall. Iraq, with all that oil, was next. And Socorro Leite says she has a fair idea of what else lies in the sights of the American imperialists.

“Soon,” she warns, “their target will be the Amazon.”

Insidious plots are already afoot to snatch the rain forest from Brazil and declare it an international protectorate, the 45-year-old political aide believes. Foreign scientists and environmental activists are really secret fronts for nations bent on laying claim to the region’s abundant riches. American schoolkids are being prepped on their right to control the Amazon.

“A lot of things are happening that we don’t know about,” Leite says darkly.

It would be tempting to dismiss Leite, a lifelong resident of this Amazonian city, as a crackpot if a large number of her fellow Brazilians didn’t share her theories in one form or another.

Many are convinced that foreign powers, in particular the United States, are making plans for a takeover of the world’s biggest tropical forest to secure the rights to its seemingly limitless natural resources, from wood to gems to medicinal herbs. In a national survey released last month, 75% of Brazilians polled feared a foreign invasion provoked by their country’s natural riches.


Opposition to international “meddling” in the Amazon is one of the rare issues that Brazil’s political right and left can agree on -- from nationalistic groups convinced of a foreign plot to keep Brazil down to Marxists long hostile to U.S. influence in Latin America, which included support for the repressive military dictatorship that once ruled Brazil.

As evidence of malign intentions, they cite the large-scale foreign business ventures that have tried, and largely failed, to exploit the jungle, stretching back to a doomed rubber plantation created by Henry Ford in the 1920s.

Or they cast a suspicious eye at the Amazon Surveillance Network, a sophisticated tracking system installed by Brazil to monitor smuggling, deforestation and other illegal activities. Some consider it a covert American spy operation because much of its technology was developed by the U.S. defense giant Raytheon Co.

Even innocuous or complimentary references by outsiders to the Amazon as a global wonder or international treasure are often construed as coded calls to take the region away from Brazil and have it administered by a world body such as the United Nations -- led, of course, by the Americans.

“They’ve already laid claim to it morally,” said Flavio Lacerda, a 31-year-old street vendor. “They say the Amazon ‘belongs to the world,’ of which they’re the best representative. They say they have a real interest in the world and the Amazon, but in actual fact they care only about themselves.”

The high level of paranoia about foreign designs on the Amazon contrasts with the low level of knowledge most Brazilians have of the region. Northern Brazil is home to more than half the rain forest -- which is larger than the continental U.S. and spreads across eight countries -- but the vast majority of Brazilians have never set foot in it.

In some ways, the situation is similar to the way in which many Americans view Alaska: huge and sparsely populated, rich in oil and other resources, indisputably part of U.S. territory, but otherwise a mystery.

Brazilians take umbrage at any suggestion that their governance of the Amazon is lacking, even though many officials acknowledge that the rain forest is a lawless place where the state has had a minimal presence. Rampant deforestation continues despite strict laws, and land conflicts pitting ranchers and loggers against environmentalists and squatters claim dozens of lives annually.

Widespread ignorance about the rich territory in their own backyard may contribute to many Brazilians’ ready belief in hoaxes such as the one centering on a textbook that was supposedly used to teach geography in American classrooms.

An obscure Brazilian nationalist group posted a page from the alleged book online featuring a map of South America with the Amazon marked as the “Former International Reserve of Amazon Forest.” The illustration was accompanied by text describing how, “since the middle ‘80s,” the U.S. took control of the region from “eight different and strange countries” and internationalized the area as a “gift” to the world.

The whole thing is littered with laughable grammatical and spelling mistakes that would never have slipped by even the most lackadaisical of American publishers. Entire passages seem to have been run through a bad automated translator. Example: “The value of this area is unable to calcule, but the planet can be cert that The United States won’t let these Latin American countries explorate and destroy this real ownership of all humanity.” But the mangled English didn’t stop many Brazilians, even educated ones, from accepting the “textbook’s” authenticity. “They’re already teaching their children that the Amazon belongs to them,” Lacerda complained.

Fanning the conspiracy-theory flames is Brazil’s own federal intelligence agency.

Last month, the Estado de Sao Paulo newspaper published an account of what it said was an agency report describing home-grown and foreign organizations with a presence in the Amazon as pawns of “hegemonic countries” trying to “maintain and broaden their domination.”

“Everything indicates that environmental problems and problems with indigenous peoples are only pretexts” for these groups to operate in the jungle, the paper quoted the report as saying. Among the front organizations it listed was the World Wildlife Fund.

Daniel C. Nepstad, an ecologist with the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts, has felt the effect of such accusations firsthand.

Nepstad, who has been studying the Amazon for two decades, helped found the Amazon Institute of Environmental Studies here in Belem. Staffed primarily by Brazilian scientists, the institute still is criticized “as a front for gringos,” he said.

Nepstad has also received veiled threats from ranchers who were angered by environmentalists’ efforts to have vast swaths of forest turned into national parks and reserves.

“There are huge sensitivities about international [nongovernmental organizations] as behind those efforts,” he said. “Some of the billboards that get put up whenever Greenpeace has a campaign are hilarious: ‘Greenpeace Wants Misery,’ ‘Greenpeace Wants Unemployment.’ ”

But Brazilians aren’t laughing.

Leandro Schilipake, a sociology professor who attended a recent Communist Party rally in Belem’s central park, worries about the encroachment of “big North American interests” and global capitalists on the rain forest. “We don’t have a xenophobic attitude regarding the Amazon. We don’t think the riches are here only to benefit Brazilians,” he said. But “we defend the principle of the sovereignty of nations.”

The Amazon, he added, “is a part of our national identity. It’s a symbol of Brazil.”