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Personal Essay — Rivers, Roads, and Gunmen

Two researchers search for the elusive logging frontier in the Amazonian wilds.

By Robert Walker

The ferry threads the labyrinth of islets leading to the Xingu River, with the Amazonian town, São Felix do Xingu, now 10 minutes behind. I stand at the bow breathing the morning mists. Eugenio Arima, my Brazilian colleague and an assistant professor at the University of Texas (UT) at Austin, hangs back in our pickup, saving his energy for the 100-mile drive to Vila Central, the only settlement in a rather wild part of Amazonia. Our objective is to find the logging frontier so that we can understand the process of forest fragmentation that takes place when loggers build roads to access valuable timber. Such fragmentation, bad enough in its own right, is what paves the way to human occupation and a total conversion to agriculture. That we find the frontier is essential to the successful conclusion of our research project, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). We’ve been searching for the past two summers but without luck. It’s now or never.

This morning when we left Hotel Jacaré at 5 a.m., Chico, the owner, settled our accounts, asking, “So where you going?”

“Vila Central,” Eugenio said.

“You can’t go there!”

At this, Chico told us how the owner of the Vila’s gas station, a fellow named Paulo Texeira, had recently killed someone in a bar fight. To get even, the victim’s brother hired two gunmen, pistoleiros, but Texeira’s bodyguards got the drop on them. This threw fuel on the fire, with the aggrieved brother promising reward money, thereby sparking a Kill Bill convergence of pistoleiros on Vila Central. Done with his story, Chico asked, “You really need to go?” to which I responded, “It’s our job.”“OK, but I’d hate to lose your business.”

Eugenio bumps the pickup over the rutted dirt road. We’ve seen nothing but pastures. No logging or even people to talk to about it. But two and a half hours after the ferry crossing, the forest rises on either side. The road now passes through a series of ravines, their low spots swampy with thickets of açai, and huge burití palm trees rising like totem poles from black pools. Beside a wall of vegetation where the terrain has flattened, Eugenio stops to back up, pointing out the picada, a dirt track cutting through the roadside forest. “What do you think?” he asks.

We haven’t seen a soul, much less a sawmill, and need intelligence. “Sure,” I say.

The picada widens on entering, and a canopy folds over us. But we soon reach a slash field still smoking in places. The lonely wattle and daub shelter stands in harsh sunlight a hundred yards away. We park in shade and climb out, setting off for the crude dwelling with map tubes and backpacks.

Upon nearing it, we stop and Eugenio claps. After an old woman and teenage girl emerge from the dark entrance, we approach. Wrinkles cleave the old woman’s face like knife cuts in putty, and the teenage girl holds a baby boy with bug bites on every square inch of his naked body. The girl invites us in, and the old woman, who’s been watching the distance, giggles. We sit down in the stifling space against sacks of rice, sharing the hardpan floor with chickens. A sheet partitions us from the bowels of the humble dwelling.

Eugenio takes a satellite image from the map tube and spreads it out, then queries the girl, “Do you know about satellites?”

She squats beside him, and brings her finger down to the slash field, plainly visible on the image.

“So, have you ever sold wood?” Eugenio asks her.

“We’ve not even sold one log,” claims a voice from behind the sheet. This startles us, but Eugenio plods on, “Then how’d you build the road in?”

The sheet ripples, and an old man staggers out, coughing. He wears raggedy shorts, and tropical light has burned the freckles on his shoulders into fat, cancerous moles. “I am Jorge Silva de Bom Jesus, from Maranhão.”

Walker speaking with an informant

Walker talks to a key informant in São Felix do Xingu.

We stand to shake his sweaty hand as he shuffles in our direction. Eugenio says, “You’ve come a long way, to the Amazon.”

“We arrived 20 years ago and built this house, as God is my witness. We came when there was nothing but forest, jaguars, malaria.” Jorge pauses to swat a fly.

“Señor Jorge, we’re from the university.” Eugenio explains. “Could we ask a few questions?”

“My wife was beaten down by our life in Maranhão, a terra de besta-fera [Satan’s land].” Jorge’s eyes glisten.

Eugenio tries to get to the subject. “Señor Jorge, the land here. Does it belong to loggers?”

For a moment, Jorge appears lost in thought, but then he begins to tremble. “You want to know who owns our land?”

Eugenio tries to soothe him. “We didn’t mean to disturb you, Señor Jorge.”

“You want to know who owns our land.” Jorge glares at us as he flings his boney arm.

There’s nothing to be learned here, not to mention we’ve agitated the head of the house. Eugenio and I thank everyone for their time, then grab our belongings and exit through the hole in the wattle.

Once outside, we turn for a final good-bye, surprised to see our hosts lined up in front of their shack, Señora Silva de Bom Jesus with an outsized smile. Señor Jorge, perfectly calm now, asks, “But what about lunch?”

“We have to get to Vila Central.” Eugenio looks at his watch.

“Vila Central!” Jorge shouts, as if he’s just now aware of us. “Only pistoleiros go there.”

“How do you know this?” I ask, beginning to worry about Chico’s warning, which I’d dismissed.

Pistoleiros!” Jorge jabs at us. “Go. Go!”

I’ve been driving for an hour. The forest thins, and when a small store appears beside an abandoned pasture, I pull to the front and park. Inside, a middle-aged man stands behind a plank counter, while a middle-aged woman sits to the side, writing in a notebook. We pay for soft drinks, and drink them with lust.

“Where you going?” the man asks, although it should be obvious. Vila Central lies three miles ahead.

“Vila Central.”

“You know what’s happening there?”

“Yes,” Eugenio says. “We’re researchers, though.”

a ferry crossing on a river

A one-truck ferry crossing on a nameless waterway in Amazonia.

The man shakes his head. “The best pistoleiros don’t look like pistoleiros. You’re dead-ringers for what he’s probably worried about, researcher-pistoleiros.”

Eugenio changes the subject. “Are there sawmills?”

“Yeah. They’ve had a run on coffins.”

As we turn to take our leave, the woman says, “Suppose you don’t get killed today, so what? Vão queimar archivo [They won’t leave witnesses].”

We drive off, but in a moment I downshift and pull over. After watching the vultures wheel through the gray-blue sky, I say, “Maybe we should put this off.”

Eugenio shakes his head. “Filho da puta [Son-of-a-bitch]!”

“We’ll come back next summer.”

“There isn’t a next summer.”

dog standing on road

A friendly dog stares down the road towards Vila Central.

Indeed, this is the last year of the project, but there’s a way to buy time. “NSF gives no-cost extensions. One year, no questions asked.”

This doesn’t fully satisfy Eugenio. “You’re not an assistant professor.”

Up for tenure and promotion at UT, he has a point, but I try to reassure him.

“Eugenio, the university doesn’t expect you to die for research.”

The air in the pickup compresses. At last, Eugenio says, “Turn around, but let me drive. I need to do something.”

Eugenio shouts, “Macaws,” then swerves off the road and hits the breaks. We climb from the pickup, near a cluster of giant burití palms rising high over scummy water, one of the swamps we passed on the way in. Husky squawks draw my attention to the tip of a rotting tree that’s lost its fronds. A blue macaw stands there, its chest feathers a burst of yellow against the watery sky. Another bird clings to the bark with claws and beak, inching to the summit. As they squawk excitedly no more than 50 yards away, other macaws fly from the background forest, coming to their evening roost.

macaws flying through airMacaws at play.

“Eugenio, the university doesn’t expect you to die for research.”

Eugenio goes for his camera as I do mine, and we start shooting pictures of the birds individually and in multiples, climbing up and down the palm trees, buzzing so close we can practically touch them. After half an hour, I lower my camera, and see that Eugenio has also finished. We climb into the pickup, and I can’t help but notice that my colleague is smiling.

We make the last ferry to São Felix do Xingu, and head for Hotel Jacaré. Chico is so happy we’ve returned alive that we get the promotional rate.

Robert Walker is Professor of Geography and Latin American Studies and adjunct faculty at the Federal University of Pará, in Belém, Brazil. An environmental scientist with a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania, Walker has conducted research in the Amazonian frontier for more than 20 years, with support from the National Science Foundation, the National Geographic Society, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.