Destruction of the Amazon: ‘Let people know what is happening. Shout it loud’
My dream of running a ranch took me into the heart of the jungle. I went there to change the place, but the place changed me, writes author Jonathan Franklin.
by: Jonathan Franklin
30 Aug 2022
Illustration: Poppy Lam
Red Road Green is the story of Idenea, a young Brazilian woman who travels with her family into the Amazon rainforest on a government promise that they would lead a better life. I was inspired to write her story by my own experience as a rancher in the Amazon.
I’d always dreamed of owning a ranch. Cowboy stories and riding my horse while imagining a herd of cattle in front of me were probably the reason. My wife was Brazilian, so the idea of ranching in Brazil rather than Australia made sense.
After a couple of years in Rio learning the country, we made guiding rules; be near a river, near a road and not too far from a sizeable town. We settled beside the River Madeira, 165 kilometres south of Porto Velho in what was then the territory of Rondônia. We’d make it work. We’d farm responsibly, create good jobs for local people and protect the wildlife.
I couldn’t take it in at first; the heat, the dark, the sheeting rain, monster trees, the constant noise of birds and insects, even the cough of a jaguar. I was told there were forest people close by who had never been seen by modern man. I had to think that one through.
We learned that we must only clear trees on 20 per cent of the land; to leave the jungle alone at least 100 metres from rivers and to plan the pasture so all jungle areas connected, allowing animals to move about, and to make sure no pasture was bigger than 50 hectares.
The rainy season eroded our track ways. Malaria and hepatitis killed people. We caught poisonous snakes and sent them to a snake farm in São Paulo. When the first cattle stepped in, I was thrilled.
Later I picked up a baby toucan beside a recently felled sucupira tree. We had destroyed its nest. On another day a sun bittern displayed its beautifully marked wings, hoping to scare me off. There was nowhere for it to hide.
I went to Funai, the National Indian Foundation in Porto Velho, and asked for advice. I was told there could be two small tribes 20 kilometres behind us, who had probably fled there after refusing to work on the Madeira Marmoré Railway many years before. The agent said that to help these tribes we should try and stop rubber tappers from penetrating through our land, but this was impossible on a 15-kilometre boundary.
The moment of change came when I encountered a group of Indigenous people at the edge of a clearing; some lying on their backs firing their bows with long arrows at the top of a tall tree. There must have been a monkey up there. Intrigued, I wandered over raising my hand in a friendly salute. The group jumped up and disappeared into the jungle.
Flying back in our single prop Cessna, we had to use our instruments to navigate through monster columns of smoke. I wondered if those same Indigenous people would be watching the flames and breathing the smoke. Even our 20 per cent rule couldn’t be right, could it? Not if it contributed to destruction on such a vast scale. I now believe all jungle must be preserved and all indigenous people, those who are still alive, must be left alone to decide how they wish to live.
We had to sell the ranch, but years later I went back to see what the new owners had done. They had mown the jungle like a lawn. They asked me why I thought the river, where we used to wash ourselves, had dried up. I suggested knocking down so much jungle was the reason. Another said they’d shot 12 jaguars that year as they were eating the calves. Obviously since their habitat and natural prey had been destroyed, the jaguars were bound to hunt elsewhere.
I went back to the Funai compound. Several Indigenous people were wandering about, some dressed in jeans and T-shirts, others with little on and a band of feathers around their heads. I could see their huts and simple palm-leafed bungalows to one side. I was happy that Funai was obviously doing a good job and their founder, Marshall Rondon, would be proud. The state of Rondônia is named after him.
I asked an agent what had happened to the two tribes of about 400 each we’d suspected lived behind our ranch. Walking over to the window, he pointed at a couple of people. “We managed to persuade a few families to leave their threatened land and come in here. But our biggest problem is where to relocate them; their original forest is gone and now covered with cattle and soya.”
I asked how I could help. He said, “Let people know what is happening. Shout it loud.”
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