Whither the World's Last Forest?
Brazil bets that it can save the Amazon wilderness while tapping its riches
The flame on the horizon is startling, a tight orange cone shimmering over the tree line. After flying for almost two hours southwest from Manaus with nothing but trees and an occasional snaking brown river underneath, any sign of civilization is satisfying. The fire's source becomes clear as we approach: a sprawling series of white chimneys, part of a high-tech industrial complex that looks like a secret military installation. An army of workers in orange jumpsuits moves through a maze of pipes and steel towers and low squat buildings. We hadn't seen a town for hundreds of miles in any direction, not even a road, except for the spine of black pavement we spotted as we approached this clearing. A wildcatter from Oklahoma exploring for oil in the Peruvian Amazon once said to us, "As a general rule, you have to remember the good Lord was a fine man, but he picked some godawful places to put oil." This was one of them.
The oil and gas field at the headwaters of the Urucu River lies almost dead center in the South American continent, surrounded by primary rain forest for hundreds of miles in all directions. If there were a part of the Amazon that even the most worrisome environmentalist considered impenetrable, this would be it.
It's estimated that there are at least 100 billion cubic meters of gas and 18 million barrels of oil in the Urucu region. "This is not Saudi Arabia, but for Brazil it will be very helpful," said Ronaldo Coelho, who manages the site for Petrobras, the state-owned oil company.
The hydrocarbons are high quality and easily recoverable. The crude is unusually pure, bubbling out of the wellhead like espresso. "You could practically strain this through your handkerchief and put it in your gas tank," said Coelho as he rubbed some between his fingers. "The only issue is how to get it out of this site to a market. And that's a political problem, not a technical one." A big political problem.
Whenever an access route has been created in the Amazon, a spontaneous influx of immigrants hungry for land has emerged. Environmentalists see the gas and oil finds as a death blow to the remote western jungle, fearing that pipelines to Manaus and Porto Velho in the southwestern Amazon will open a seam of entry to empty forest and protected Indian lands, clearing the way for a torrent of loggers, miners, and cattle ranchers. The controversy over the pipelines—along with other burgeoning industries such as cattle ranching, soy farming, and iron mining—has profoundly changed the traditional debate about how to manage the Amazon—or, as many environmentalists would see it, how to save the Amazon. The construction of these pipelines will alter the rain forest but will also generate energy for millions of people. Nearly 2 million people live in Manaus alone, and they need energy. Blackouts rotate through the city daily. Lack of energy has retarded factory construction, holding back employment expansion. When Brazilian President Lula da Silva approved the pipeline to Manaus in the spring of 2004, he said, "If people want development that preserves the environment, we have to have energy. It's no good people saying the Amazon has to be the sanctuary of humanity and forget there are 20 million people living there."