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Amazon Rainforest 30 Years on

It's happened to all of us. You return to a beloved location -- and it isn't quite as you remembered. But even taking that into consideration, Sue Branford got a big shock recently when she returned to what was once a small community in the Brazilian rainforest.

It's estimated that last year alone twenty-six thousand square kilometres of trees were felled -- an area almost the size of Belgium! Sue first visited the region three decades ago. Today it's almost unrecognisable...

It's a strange sensation returning to a place you haven't visited for 30 years. And it's even stranger if everything has changed out of all recognition.

I first went to the Amazon basin in 1974. At that time it was a real wild-west. The generals then ruling Brazil had decided, in what later proved to be a dangerous simplification, that the Amazon basin was empty. It was time, they said, to occupy it. So they set about building a network of roads and encouraging loggers and cattle companies to move in.

So there I was in 1974, on one of my first journalist assignments, finding out what was going on. I'd never been to the Amazon before and I was overwhelmed by it all. The beauty of the forest was breathtaking. There were trees so huge that it would have taken ten men with outstretched arms to encircle their trunks. Turtles basked in the sun on the white sand dunes that lined the rivers.

But, along with this natural beauty, was man-made conflict. When the loggers and cattle companies arrived, they found peasant families living in parts of the forest. As well as fishing, hunting and collecting Brazil nuts, they were clearing small plots of land to grow food. The companies sent in gunmen to deal with them. Day after day I met traumatised peasants who'd been forcibly evicted. On another occasion I saw a group of disoriented, emaciated Amerindians, begging for food by the side of the road.

For a few days I travelled in a lorry along one of the half-finished roads. One afternoon, after hours of dense forest, we stopped at a tiny hamlet. It was called Redencao, Redemption. And there among the wooden shacks, with their roofs made of palm leaves, was a bar selling ice-cream. The owner, an eccentric Italian, had somehow managed to bring an ice-cream maker into this remote region. The machine was fuelled by diesel, which was in short supply, so it often lay idle.

But we were in luck. Six or seven rough-looking men, some with revolvers tucked into their waists, were standing at the bar, licking ice-cream. We joined them. And we chatted about the violence. 'Nearly every week some one here is killed,' said the Italian. A few minutes later a shot rang out. I saw a man lying on the ground, about 20 yards from the bar. Hesitantly, I moved towards him, but the lorry driver stopped me. “Ah-ah”, he said. “Vamos embora! We're off!” In a trice, we were back in the lorry and on our way.

Earlier this month I was back in Redencao, travelling by bus along the same route. Passengers were still complaining about the ruts in the road but that's about all that was the same. The forest has disappeared, except for a few fragments. In its place are cattle and, increasingly, soybeans, which is exported as animal fodder. The town itself now has a population of 80,000. It's got paved roads, electricity, cinemas, shops, schools, hospitals. The Italian ice-cream maker shut down his bar and retired just a few years ago.

More people are still arriving. They're driven by the Brazilian dream of building a new life on the agricultural frontier. It often ends in disaster. I spoke to Regivaldo, a 22-year old man, who had been lured by the promise of high wages to travel deep in the forest to clear land for a rancher. He and others had been left stranded without food or proper accommodation for over six months. Eventually they'd escaped by repairing a leaky canoe. And now -- and this didn't happen 30 years ago -- they were suing the landowner for violating the labour legislation.

So what do I make of it all? This extraordinary transformation of the region? I have mixed feelings. I sympathise with many of the Brazilians who are only seeking a better life. But I also feel anger and despair. Each year we learn more about the importance of the Amazon rain forest. We know that, by destroying it, we're accelerating global warming and disrupting the world's climate. Yet we, in the developed world, go on eating more and more meat. And this in turn encourages Brazil, which is burdened with a heavy foreign debt, to export more beef and more soybeans. It makes no sense at all to let market forces destroy a precious ecosystem that we all need for our survival and yet somehow we are letting it happen.