NOVA CALIFORNIA, Brazil — Carved from a carpet of pristine forest in the Amazonian state of Acre, this pioneer farming community depends for its existence on an umbilical link known as "the BR."
Without that link, a highway bearing the official designation BR-364, Nova California's 5,000 settlers would have no hope of building a better life on this newly opened land. Without the BR, they and thousands of others would never have come here to cut away the forest in the first place.
BR-364 thus has brought both the promise of economic development and the threat of environmental destruction to the remote heart of South America. And in the past two years, it has become a symbol of conflict between those who want more land cleared for development in Brazil's huge Amazon River basin and those who seek to preserve the region's natural environment.
The Inter-American Development Bank suspended funds for paving BR-364 because of fears that better access would increase damage to the forest and to Indian societies. The Brazilian government, however, insists that it will soon finish the 80 miles remaining to be paved between here and Rio Branco, the Acre state capital.
Brazil is also planning to pave BR-364 all the way to the border of Peru, giving this country its first true trans-Amazon highway.
In Nova California and other struggling farm centers along the western reaches of BR-364, paving is seen as a matter of survival. Without pavement, costly and unreliable transportation makes it hard to advance beyond the primitive and destructive methods of slash-and-burn agriculture, settlers say.
'BR Is Our Salvation'
"We need the highway, please," said Marlene Svirski, a schoolteacher in Nova California. "The BR is our salvation."
BR-364 is one of many highways that have sliced into the Amazon basin during the past two decades, connecting the region's main cities to one another and to Brazil's population centers far to the east and southeast. Branch roads have crept out from the main routes as farmers, ranchers, prospectors and merchants have pushed into the jungle. Settlements, towns and small cities have sprung up as the forest has receded.
Today, the population of Brazil's most thinly populated Amazon states is estimated at nearly 9 million, up from 3.6 million in 1970.
Dramatic Land Rush
Nowhere has the land rush been more dramatic than in Rondonia, a state nearly as large as West Germany to the east of Acre. Settlers from southern Brazil, where large-scale mechanized agriculture is crowding out small farmers, have poured into Rondonia on BR-364. The state's population has grown to more than 1.5 million from 111,000 in 1970.
Three-quarters of Rondonia was virgin forest when the BR opened it up in the 1970s. Luis Alberto Cantanhede, national forest service supervisor for Rondonia, said in an interview that deforestation of the original woodlands has now probably surpassed 30% in the state.
"There is a geometric progression," Cantanhede said. "Every three years, deforestation is doubling."
Settlers often farm a few acres for two or three years, depleting the nutrients in the soil, then move on to raze another patch of forest. The idle land is quickly overgrown with heavy brush called \o7 capoeira.\f7
60% Is New Growth
Officials estimate that more than 60% of deforested land in Rondonia is now covered with \o7 capoeira. \f7 This figure is often cited as a warning against degrading the rest of the Amazon forest.
Across the state line in Acre, settlers in Nova California hope to avoid Rondonia's mistakes. Antonio Carlos Scheffer, a Nova California farmer, said that many here would like to cultivate Brazil-nut trees and other cash-producing plants in the virgin forest on their land.
"The Amazon here would become productive without destroying the forest," said Scheffer, 35. "But here we are without resources. We have to cut down more forest every year."
California was the name of a privately owned forest tract here that was taken over by the government and redistributed to small farmers in the early 1980s after the BR came through. The modest and mostly unpainted wood houses of Nova California are scattered over a network of dirt streets on the south side of the highway. A broad main street, named Avenue of the Pioneers, is divided by a weedy center strip and scarred with ruts and bumps.
Barely Making It
So far, Nova California has barely managed to scratch a living from the soil, but a group of farmers has designed an ambitious reforestation project they hope will improve the community's fortunes.
The project will create new "forests" containing three kinds of trees: the Brazil nut, the cupuacu and the pupunha. The cupuacu, related to the cacao tree, produces a pod containing sweet, juicy pulp that is a popular flavoring for juice and ice cream and other foods; the pupunha is a palm that produces a small coconut used for different foods, oil and animal feed.