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The Amazing Amazon — Will Amazonia feed the World?

Scientists warn of famine and mass starvation in the decade ahead.
A world BREADBASKET is desperately needed.
Some point to the Amazon Basin, hoping this vast green tropical jungle holds the key to staving off world hunger.
Here is the conclusion of a two-part report on the mighty Amazon Basin.


Rio des Janeiro

ORVILLE FREEMAN, former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, told Brazilian officials in 1966 at Sao Paulo: "You have a tremendous [food] market.

"This market is so rich," Mr. Freeman said, "if I . . . saw it down the road I would start producing because I could get rich as hell."

Yes — get rich by selling food to the rapidly increasing world population. Somebody has to produce food for the predicted FOUR BILLION PEOPLE who will be alive on earth by 1975 — or millions will starve!


The Pioneer's Price

Orville Freeman reminded the Brazilians their country has more arable land than the U.S. In essence, both he and Brazilian ex-president Artur de Costa e Silva, in his August, 1968 message, envisioned the vast, green jungle basin — Amazonia — as the future "breadbasket of the world."

What has happened since then? Where are the pioneers to settle Amazonia? Today famine threatens much of mankind. Hungry millions agonize, while Amazonia's "breadbasket" — nearly two billion acres — lies undeveloped.

No wonder the world cries for pioneers to grow food in Amazonia.

But could you be an Amazon pioneer? Only a handful have been willing to make the sacrifice.

Whether you really would want to be a pioneer makes no difference. You can be a better-informed citizen if you come along with us as we take a fact-finding trip. Imagine, then, you are going to develop agriculture in Amazonia.

First, you will have to come down to the standard of the average jungle pioneer. Start with your home and furnishings. Throw out the washing machine, the shower, the bathtub, the kitchen sink, the dishwasher, the garbage disposal unit if you have one, and the indoor bathroom. The pioneer-log or reed-and-thatch maloca you build in Amazonia will not have inside running water. But fresh, drinkable tap water is not all you will have to do without.

If you become an Amazonian pioneer, you must learn to get along without electricity too. Without electricity you will have no use for the refrigerator, the freezer, (nor any frozen food), the electric stove, the iron, the electric lights, the toaster, the electric shaver, the TV set, the radio, the stereo. Ladies, you will not be able to use your electric mixers, ovens, electric sewing machines or hair dryers.

You will have to leave behind your furniture — bed, chairs, tables, divans, rugs, lamps, pictures, silver service, china — everything.

Now sell your house, property, and land holdings. Of course, don't forget to sell your business! Junk, scrap, or sell your car, any motor bikes, boats, trailers, campers, bicycles you may have. But save the fishing gear — you may need to live on fish for a while.

Sell all you have. Take the kids out of school; tell the folks good-bye; cut all ties. Either fly to Brazil or boat commercially to the Amazon River; at Belem transfer to one of the few river boats which ply the great Amazon Sea-river. Say "good-bye" to civilization!


Opening up a Jungle

Do you begin to understand the tremendous sacrifice involved? Why so few are willing pioneers? Why Amazonia will be a long time in opening up? The difficulties of your imaginary venture are not yet over; they are just beginning.

If you are going to be a pioneer in the Amazon, you might as well begin getting used to it. You will not have a radio at all unless you bring a battery-powered shortwave set. And in the dampness of the Amazon basin, it won't last long. There will be no newspapers, no magazines, no books.

There will be no government services, no policemen, no postmen, no firemen, and no school. You will be lucky if there is a doctor or nurse within 100 miles. The only way to reach him (her) will be by boat.

How much money will you need? Luckily, not much. In the Amazon jungles there is very little to buy. (Maybe at last you could lose a little excess weight, or break the cigarette habit: life here is hard work, diet is limited, and cigarettes are expensive)

There are, however, a few things you had better bring with you when you come to Amazonia: an ax, shovel, machete, saw, hammer and some nails; a first-aid kit, snake-bite kit, and a good raincoat. Because of the ever-present danger of attack from wild animals and snakes, you had better take a good rifle with plenty of ammunition.

One more thing: Check with the Brazilian Indian Protection Service. You don't want to locate too near a hostile or headhunting tribe.

At last you have the plot picked out. Now prepare for months of drenching, near-monsoon rains in winter, near drought in summer. Prepare for stifling, blistering heat. Prepare for dull, monotonous green, green, green. Prepare your mind for aching, silent loneliness — loneliness broken only by exotic jungle noises and infernal buzzing, biting insects.

Overcoming the temptation to flee back to civilization, you face the first actual job: clearing enough land to grow food for you and your family. Your plot in Amazon territory will be covered with thick, green, dense, dark, damp jungle — huge trees up to 250 feet tall. It is this jungle you have to clear in order to grow food for you and your family.

It can be done. A few have done it.


Amazonia Is the Problem

You, the dauntless pioneer, are now faced with the same verdant labyrinth, the same gargantuan problems explained in last month's PLAIN TRUTH.

Could the great sprawling green jungles of Brazil (Amazonia) be converted into yellow waving fields of grain — into an agricultural paradise? Could this vast emerald-green wilderness produce enough to offset impending world famines?

On-the-spot investigations at Pucalpa and Iquitos, Peru, plus interviews with officials of Brazil's Ministry of the Interior in Rio de Janeiro are extremely educational, if somewhat disappointing with respect to "breadbasket dreams."

During the investigation we reluctantly reach our first conclusion: Amazonia is a giant problem in itself. There are virtually no roads, no reliable transportation (except for infrequent air trips between Manaus and Belem), no telegraph, no telephone communications! How can a jungle so inhospitable be developed without "conquering" the geography — without transportation — without communications?

We also learn that the ten million dollars already allocated would build precious few miles of road. Roads here are exceptionally costly: they must go through dense growth which grows up through pavement, over swampy areas of mud and silt many feet thick, above or across churning rivers. They must be built to withstand destructive floods which occur every year! According to Mr. Jose Wady Abuyaghi, personal advisor to the Minister of the Interior, the Brazilian government has only very limited financial resources. He has said, "We cannot accomplish much [in developing Amazonia] without significant foreign financial assistance."

Absolutely true!

To fight famine, to achieve massive food production in Amazonia — to change the old "green hell" of the Spaniards into modern "green mansions" of literary fame — would require billions, even TRILLIONS OF DOLLARS, even if the venture were possible. So far, that money has not been forthcoming. These financial difficulties are not mentioned in the original optimistic reports which start our investigation. Science News, speaking about money needed for Amazonian research, accurately reported: "No one seems willing to spend the kind of money this would take, just to build up an inedible, unwearable, unsaleable body of scientific knowledge" (April 5, 1969).

Brazil's officials, however — fully aware of the untold, untapped potential of Amazonia — are spending up to the limits of their resources. The Brazilian government has set up various commissions called superintendencias to oversee and help finance development of far-flung regions of Brazil's widely variegated geography.

The committee which has received the most attention, and probably the most crucial one for fighting famine is the Superintendency of Amazonian Development (SUDAM) — the commission specifically in charge of the Amazon River basin. Besides construction projects in Belem, SUDAM has opened up three federal territories (Amapa, Rondonia and Roraima) while planning two more (Acre and Rio Branco). The three territories have, by government estimate, a total of about 250,000 people hacking a living out of the jungle. But even if the government estimate is not exaggerated, this effort barely begins to scratch the surface. Many hundreds of thousands of square miles are left untouched. And that is an unexpected problem we find: lack of population to open the jungle!

The Brazilian government is also aware of the problems you, the pioneer, face. Officials are doing everything possible — within the limits of time and money — to help you. We left you facing a veritable wall of brown-green vines and emerald-colored trees reaching 250 feet into the blue Amazonian sky — remember? Others who have stayed here find their first harvests to be fabulous. But here is a shocking discovery! Three or four years later those early pioneers are forced to clear a new patch of land, or starve! Why?


The Jungle Paradox

"Why is it," you ask, "that such thick, lush foliage will grow a fantastic twenty feet a year without cultivation, yet farms and crops under cultivation fail in five years? The problem is a scientific one, but can be explained in simple terms.

With the explanation you will see why the danger of famine is outstripping food production in Brazil.

Trying to find why crops fail, the International Association for Tropical Biology held several meetings on Amazon ecology. The first meeting was a symposium in Florencia, Colombia. The second was a round-table discussion in the Amazon River town of Leticia. Scientists from the Netherlands, Germany, England, France and much of Latin America attended.

The first clue was uncovered when scientists found the feeder roots of trees were covered by a mysterious fungus — a fungus they called mycorrhiza.

Other authorities, notably Dr. Went from the University of Nevada and Dr. Stark of the Desert Research Institute, had developed the theory that the rain forest of the Amazon does not use the soil as do most trees. Trees in Amazonia, they said, use soil only as an anchor and a platform, not as a food source. How then do such trees feed?

Drs. Went and Stark found that jungle trees take their plant food not from the soil, but from that mysterious fungus, mycorrhiza.

The mycorrhiza system breaks down the fallen litter of the forest floor — leaves and vines, twigs and trash, almost as soon as it falls — before it decays into soil. In other words, this mycorrhiza root fungus returns nutrients directly to the living vegetation without significantly using the soil.

Of course, rain forest soil itself can be fertile as long as it receives some organic matter from decaying plants. It's just that tree roots — thanks to mycorrhiza — do not have to wait until food filters down into deeper soil. You might say the trees "take it from the top"!

It appears that mycorrhiza produces enzymes which help other organisms decompose the forest litter — leaves, vines, branches — with this result: a natural cycle is created in which theminerals from plant debris are fed directly back into the plants themselves. A perfect sewage disposal and utilization plan, you might say!

The trouble is, mycorrhiza feeds only certain plants. Trouble is again, mycorrhiza usually dies when virgin vegetation is cleared.

But this is only part of the reason why crops fail within five years. What else stands between today's starving millions and tomorrow's "breadbasket"? Can't the rich Amazonian soil support crops in spite of the mycorrhiza problem?