FLOATING LIVES: Oeiras do Para, Brazil

Behind the mangroves and the açai (palm) trees the sun is playing hide-and-seek with its golden rays dancing on this vast 'sea' stage -the Amazon.  A kid, probably of six years, came out of the only house in the island of Acara and stepped into a tiny canoe. Pushing against first our docked boat and then against the mangrove branches, he moved his canoe towards the mouth of the little bay which protects the boat dock from the river current.  While absorbing this picture perfect scenery, I suddenly realized that his canoe was empty; it had no paddle, not even a pole. My curiosity gave way to fear; how is he going to get back?  Fast flowing current may drag the canoe into open water!  As I was about to yell for help, the boy walked coolly to the back of the canoe, sat down at the edge with his feet in water. Looking over the shoulder, he peddled the canoe expertly to the other end of the bay.

I realized that I am in a different world; here land and water have inverted their roles. Land is a hindrance in the amazon: it invokes fear of serpents; brings the nuisance of mosquitoes; and its thick mud traps your boots.  Water, in turn, provides bulk of the food; a reliable and cheap means of transportation; and a cool comfort in the blistering heat.  For the kids, the river is their play ground... oops! the play pool. Even in sleep, people here prefer the drifting sensation of the hammock to a bed on firm ground.

Seeing the Amazon, that was my dream. Being able to get to know it intimately?  It's like taking a trip to heaven!

Having arrived in Belem, Brazil, with absolutely no prior contacts, I considered myself lucky to have my first try at volunteering land me in Oeiras do Para. Mainly because the municipality there (equivalent to a county in U.S.) is governed by the PT (Workers Party). Working as a city engineer, I would get a close look at that young but powerful organization which is the envy of many leftist groups in the world. Imagine my joy having learned that the town is twelve hours up the river.

The boat leaves at night, so I too bought a hammock and slept little the night before. I need an overdose of tiredness to sleep in a hammock; its rhythmic motion brings to my mind unnerving earth tremors of San Francisco, California. The boat was jam-packed, as trips to Oeiras have been cut down to once a week.

I slung my hammock at what seemed the only unoccupied spot, apologizing, as I was only a foot away from my neighbor.  Little I knew of these boat trips!  When I came to lie down a couple of hours later, the boat deck resembled the tropical rain forest, densely covered with multi-colored hammocks hanging from everywhere. More or less ten hammocks occupied every meter length of that 5m wide boat. I can't think of any other mode of passenger accommodation so dense, yet so optimally comfortable and safe. Yes, you roll in and cover yourself from both edges..., and it does not matter who sleeps next to you. And these people have a way of tying the hammocks. You are either slightly above or below your neighbor, so that the body curves of one another densely pack all into a bunch, rolling back and forth in harmony with the boat's rhythm. Why don't  long distance air carriers copy this?

I woke up early and peeped out through the maze of hammocks. "We must be in the sea!" I thought, because wherever you look, you see only water. In the distant horizon, a dark green line is faintly visible. That too is not the river bank, I was told, just the edge of an island, one of thousands in this immense river-sea. All night we had been circumventing Marajo, the detaic island, only slightly smaller than Sri Lanka!  In the forward horizon our path was blocked by many strange looking islands.  

No! here the images are distorted. A canoe would appear as wide as a warship; a barge, looks more like an island.  This is a super highway, congested with small canoes, fishing boats, container-packed barges and multiple-decked passenger ships. 

The bank is lined by a stack of needles -tall, thin plants, growing up rapidly to keep their heads above the rainy season high-water level. Varieties of palm trees stand-guard behind, protecting the fabled Amazonian jungle further inland. 

We are approaching a Marajo township. Huts of timber planks and zinc, popped up on posts, line the wooden walkway along the bank. Hundreds of canoes are tied to their posts. Roofs of a church and of some masonry buildings appear behind. A haphazardly built jetty creeps forward, like the extended hand of an old man, glad to receive the visitors. Supply depots, the guardians of urban life, line the walkway along the jetty. 

This is Amazonia, where people still live facing the river. In contrast, in many other rivers, towns have simply turned their back, to face the highway. But here, the river is their farm, the plaza, the highway, in other words, their umbilical chord.  If I said I had dreamt of Amazonia, in my wildest dreams I had not imagined this total domination of life by the river.

Our boat then crossed over to the opposite bank and entered a small river (still wider than the widest in Sri Lanka), and headed towards Oeiras. Now you can grasp the river-life in detail. A narrow igarape (estuary) appears, causing an abrupt break in the riverine vegetation. An elderly man emerges out of the mangroves overhanging the igarape, paddling his tiny canoe. A humble house occupies that ideal location, 'the street corner', and a thick grove of açai stands tall over it. A couple of kids at the door jump up and down waving, before plunging into the water.  The man in the canoe, now entering the river, straightens his canoe to let the boat's wake pass, while acknowledging the greetings of a relative returning from the city.

The boat's arrival is the event of  the week in Oeiras. Hundreds gather behind the gates guarded by the police. Kids press their bare bodies to the wire-fence. Adults, on toes, peep over the heads and shoulders, just to take the first glimpse of the novelties the boat brings. The privileged few, assembled on the jetty, lean out to hand-shake the returning/visiting relatives and friends, even before the boat is secured.

Welcome to Oeiras do Para! This boat is the most valuable and reliable link that connects the town to big city of Belem. Along with relatives and friends, it brings news of others living far and away, mail, gift parcels, latest model TVs, fans, furniture, and exotic creatures like the 'gringa', spending a semester in the Amazon. Not me! Being of the same skin color as the majority in Amazón, my exoticness begins when I open my mouth!

The mayor's office is not too far, just across the street from the jetty, and a municipal official whom I met in the boat took me there directly.  I was sleepy, unshaven and,... in my thongs!  Well-built but young-looking mayor sat behind a huge table flanked by city, state and country flags. When he looked up, 'a gypsy for the city engineer?' probably crossed his mind. But when I saw that not-even-passed-thirty face and those beaming innocent eyes, I was totally at ease. It was a warm, down-to-earth greeting. I was offered board and lodging on their account, for as long as I can stay. That's a deal.  Frustrated with a year-long campaign to attract a doctor, despite offering a salary five times his own, he looked relieved. Here is somebody to deal with the ills of city infrastructure, for free! A series of handshakes with other city officials followed, most younger than me, all with similar sounding names pronounced under one breath.  Finally I was led to a guest house to catch up with my sleep.

Municipal Public Works department has one skilled carpenter, a temporary skilled mason and..., that's all. The businessman-turned department chief, to his credit, has directed construction of a few buildings. Not even a draftsman was around to produce or to read a plan.  It seemed as if nothing had been planned in this town for decades. Urban infrastructure was totally absent.

The town had sprung up on a marginally high riverine peninsula. A concentration of small igarapes may have provided ideal house lots and easy access to inland hunting for the Araticu people, said to have occupied the area before the Europeans came. Jesuits had 'civilized' them and formed an official villa, Araticu, in 1653. That didn't last long, as at the slightest provocation by the whites, the indigenous took refuge in deep jungle. In 1758 though, a number of whites and caboclos (mixed race) had gained municipality status for their village. Until late 1950s, the town was limited to about 40 houses, spread along the river edge. The arrival of a catholic priest in 1955 and the opening of the college of Sisters of Charity in 1961 made Oeiras a pole of attraction, rapidly increasing its urban population.

Returned Amazonian natives did not fit into land-based urban structure, and mounted their houses in the baixadas (periodically inundated marshy lands) along the igarapes. Just like in rural areas, they located the lavatory in the back of the house, used marshy land as an open pit sanitary, and fetched drinking water from the igarape in front. They ignored that all the houses sitting along a igarape dump all types of waste in its drainage, but kept faith in that dark brown water used by generations before them. Intestinal diseases would become abundant, especially in the dry season. Yet, nobody succeeded in introducing an alternative to this unsanitary system. Now there is a drinking water supply system in town, but terribly-leaking pipe lines barely reach the front edge of the marsh.

Urban relocation drastically changed at least one aspect of their life. They became increasingly dependent on town merchants, especially for food. Canoe became impractical for doing quick runs, many a day, to the town center. Thus evolved the 'ponte', a wooden pedastrian bridge with only one fixed end, the other being continually extended to link island-houses in the baixada. These precarious walkways, mounted on piles simply standing on deep mud thanks to their wide footings, are good only for walking, and good only for a year. Annual high-water will wash away or resettle the piles.

Yet these 'pontes' permanently transformed the settlement pattern of the town. Now houses are built in a row, facing one another on either side of the walkway, ignoring igarapes completely.  They essentially converted the marsh into city blocks. Inevitably came the next stage of 'progress': walkways were replaced by 'streets'. These earth embankments, simply dumped over deep mud, were successful only in blocking natural drainage, creating ideal grounds for kids' mud-soccer in rainy season. Behind every house sits a stinking pool, breeding all sorts of plagues.

Despite precarious sanitary conditions, priorities of the 5000-odd urban population are: paving the streets (only two streets of the 30-odd block urban center are paved) and improving the unstable pedastrian bridges. The streets, both in the reclaimed area and in firm ground, are 10 to 15 meters wide, but mud pools and rapidly growing bushes limit the useful width to a couple of feet. To me, these landing-strip streets reflect typical regional development plans: they like to build everything grandiose, but during execution the resources dry out and the advance is minuscule.

My insistence on providing proper drainage in streets finally got through the ears of authorities. Yet my suggestion for paving the streets using clay bricks and sand -the only construction materials locally available, was not well received. Everybody here is dreaming of the day when the highway from Tucurui will congest city streets with heavy traffic (two 10-ton ricketty trucks are the only motorized vehicles in town now). Clay bricks in city streets? What a perverse idea! I was simply being pragmatic: by the time the five bridges needed to complete that highway get build (not one is being planned yet), the bricks would have sunk into the mud, providing a good base for concrete paving.

Making more durable those kilometers-long walkway bridges in that soft mud is a very costly proposition. Besides, we would be swimming against the drift of the things, as tomorrow, people will ask for something else.  All want to see their city in the light of mayor Paulo Maluf's Sao Paulo: misery paved over!

The municipal building, born 15 years ago in the era of 'one-man-show' governments , needed major modifications to accommodate the current 'team-work' government.  A reform plan, prepared free of charge by a Belem architect sympathetic to PT, called for costs way beyond the capacity of public coffers.  I was apprehensive in getting into this business of building construction, because my last tango with structures was more than ten years ago.  But there was no point in telling them that my specialization is not in structures. If you are not an engineer dealing with plants and animals (an agronomist, most common 'engineer' in rural Latin America), you must deal with buildings, roads and the rest!

It seemed that municipal officials only needed someone technically evaluating their own suggestions. Soon I was in business, drawing plans for the municipal building, clinic, market and soccer/basketball court. A pencil, an eraser, a measuring tape and a ruler were all I could gather for my drawing office. However, when enthused city officials began discussing a design for the city plaza, I had to pull the plug.

Festival of Camarao (prawn), a major event in Oeiras, was coming up, and we had to build a stage for the musical group and the important Miss Camarao contest.  The location, already picked as it is ideal for dancing (a concrete-paved street), had little visibility and insufficient room for the thousands expected to attend. A few blocks away, a large lot reclaimed from the river, laid unused. The mayor badly needed to revitalize the lot, but lamented the lack of resources. "Why not we erect the stage there?" I said, "Throw some sand around, build some benches, and see whether people like it". Once the decision was taken to relocate the stage, the openness of the lot inspired everybody to contribute ideas. During the next three weeks, the usually sleepy town looked like a beehive. They built a beautiful octagonal stage in the center, repaired wooden tidal barrier, refilled wash-outs and depressions, and installed benches all around, working almost round the clock. The whole town came to admire the rejuvenated park. During the opening ceremony, the mayor was in full praise for me 'for designing this beautiful park'!  Having an imported engineer to conduct city works contributed greatly to the prestige of the local government, I figured, and did not press for corrections.

Festivities began in the second week of June, as incessant rains began to recede. I was quite enthusiastic about the chance to experience some Amazonian folk music and dance. My mistake! They are much more 'civilized' than I thought: no time for those silly things, bring pop music and samba! Only thing that came close was the quadrilha, school square dance troop twisting to a pop tune. 

Main attraction of the event was, ...yes, cerveja (beer), and crates of it, imported and sold exclusively by the municipality (forget what Ministry of Health says; this is the only way to recover some of the expenses). One wealthy young man decided to celebrate low key and sat down at a hotel table at 7 in the morning for a drink. Twelve hours later, when he departed, still with his head straight, he had accounted for 50 odd cans of beer. Many faithful admirers of PT government and the park were pretty disappointed being unable to celebrate with me, "he doesn't drink"!

There were literally thousands, from interior villages and from neighboring towns, taking part in the party. The young and the elderly, the poor and the rich, the peons and the masters, the bare-footed and the well-heeled; everybody twisting and twirling to the local pop band's live music, balancing a beer can in one hand.  Festa lasted three days, and the fourth, a Monday, was declared a holiday because the closing event, free-for-ladies dance, continued till dawn.

I expected the town would fall back on its sleepy routine for a while, seeing how exhaustive this event was for locals, in terms of both physical and fiscal resources.  Wrong again!  The week-end next, I woke up to a blast of music. A local primary school is trying to raise funds with another festa.  Get ready for at least one party every week, I was told.  The same recipe: same music, this time from discs; a beauty contest, now among little girls, painted and garlanded Miss Caipira (rural beauty), Miss Boneca (doll) and Miss Mulata; and of course, beer.  "How can you find so much energy and money to spend on so many festas?" "Then you would not last the Festa do Santo in August.  That goes on for ten days straight!"

How people find money for those gallons and gallons of beer added to the river during festas is still a mystery to me. Since its founding Oeiras never had any firm commercial product. First, it was all subsistence exploitation: fishing, hunting, timber and small roças (farms).  Later, as their needs grew, people marketed some, especially prawns and timber, but at rock bottom prices. The collection of seringa (rubber) was lucrative but it was scarce here. In mid 1970s, 'palmita' industry (canning hearts of açai palms) came in attracted by cheap labor. This was the only 'boom time' to speak of in Oeiras.  However, as nobody planted açai, came the doom, within a decade. People experienced hunger, having sold the last of their açai, whose fruit provide a very nutrious drink, to go with fariña (dried manioc powder) and prawns. Easy money from palmita had made them dependent on urban foods.

Then, timber came to their rescue, as jungle was cleared for the highway from Tucurui. That too was short-lived because few big trees were accessible from road.  In early 80s, timber mills moved up the river, palmita factory closed its door, and the municipality became the only employer in town. 

Oeiras exemplifies extrativism tradition prevalent in Amazon riparian communities.  Agriculture is not in their blood. If food is not around close-by, they go deeper into the jungle, or take a dip in the river. The number of palms and other trees that produce edible fruits is amazing. Needless to count how many dishes the river puts on their dinner table. No wonder they do not care to plant: do not have to!

Traditional dishes prepared in Oeiras' homes have a taste different from urban centers, as they use a variety of leaves as spices. The dish of manioc leaves, a famine-food in Sri Lanka, is a delicacy here. I lost count of the ways they prepare prawns: salted, cooked, toasted, fried, baked,.. or roasted, as we had in the trip to the island of Acará. You simply cover the pile of prawns, spread on ground, with a dry coconut leaf and set fire to it! Big fish receive special treatment and I soon dropped my prejudice against fresh water fish. A feast with a giant Amazonian tortoise (45 kilos) involved a number of culinary experts.

Nowadays, this caboclo subsistence life style is under threat by extractivism based on greed, practised at Amazonian scale. In 1986, a candidate for governer in neighboring state of Amazonas offered a chain saw to any caboclo, and won the elections! That attitude decimated the impenetrable jungle that prevented completing Brasilia-Belem highway till late 1970s, and it now contains nothing more than a castaña tree or two, for tens of kilometers either side of that road. 

During my week-long boat trip between Manaus and Leticia, I mused at the rarity of timber mills there, compared to small rivers around Oeiras where the mills far exceeds the number of villages, only to be told that no tree worth cutting now appears along the main river. 

On the other hand, hydropower dams and mining are slowly killing the rich aquatic life of the Amazon. Balbina, the first hydro dam in Amazon, built in 1989 near Manaus, caused so much socio-environmental damage and set a clear example on how not to dam a river, but nobody seems to have learned. 

The garimpeiros extract gold nuggets using huge barge-mounted pumps, sucking-up and sieving river-bottom sediments with mercury, and have wiped out fish in Madeira river, further up from Oeiras. My Amazon boat to Leticia served us only chicken on all 7 days, since it was cheaper than buying fish, in the river! The PT team in Oeiras municipality understands this bleak picture and is working hard to redirect, at least some people, from extractivism to farming.

Currently, greater part of Oeiras' consumption of fariña is imported from Belem. They consume large amounts of rice and bread too, all imported. There is almost no cattle in the region, and hence milk is a rarity and beef is expensive. (I point them out that cow is sacred not only in India, but also in Oeiras, as it is the food of the god-Real!) Small fish and tortoise, cheap to buy, make for the protein deficit when prawns are rare. Large fish, like dorada, can be as out of their reach as beef, and pirarucu, the freshwater cousin of the whale. is mostly imported salted. Wild game is still around, though rare. Seeing one day three men galloping behind a wounded deer, I couldn't help but contemplate their net benefit.

This dependence of extrativism makes socio-political organizing very difficult. In 1970s, once the palmita factory wiped out açai trees around town, men had to leave town for weeks-on-end looking for palmita.  Women had to fend for the family in the meantime. Many were completely abandoned, and had turned to prostitution. The town's Married Women's Club decided to include the separated and the abandoned, despite the church's protest, and launched a community garden project. The cooperative atmosphere never materialized, but the organization has matured slowly, campaigning for acai replantation, and against timber felling and poison-fishing.

In late 1970s, Tucurui-Cameta highway crossed the southern half of the municipality. Small land holders there, who relied on farming as the only means of survival, organized themselves to fight the parachuting fazendeiros (land barons).  To legitimize the struggle for entitlement of their lands, they needed a voice in the municipal capital. Existing Rural Workers' Union was a mere welfare organization for the majority extrativist population, but in 1978, southern farmers (extremists, according to the priest who founded the union) won its control.

Agitative politics began in town. As the Workers Party (PT) came into being in 1982, the Union and the Women's Organization sided with it and have been contesting local politics since then.  They are experienced fighters, but had little education and money, which made them easy meat for wealthier families in town, who could buy the votes.  However, in 1992 elections, the rich were divided and the PT had a new, educated face: an agronomist, a native son.  The margin was slight, but the PT won!

The deputy mayor, former union president, decribed me his first day at work. New mayor was still in Belem, finishing the last three weeks of his degree program.  The ex-deputy had fled with two months of unpaid salary. A mass of people buzzed at the door claiming to be municipal employees, but were not sure what they were getting paid for!  "I knew how to farm and to agitate" the deputy says, "but administrating that mess?"

They are slowly learning. The first two years were spent in cleaning up: renegotiating debts, taking past-fraud cases to courts and restructuring staff and salaries. Federal transfers are the only source of income. Local commerce contributes nothing, as it costs more to collect taxes. Any increase in taxes gets stuck in the municipal council where PT is a minority. Lack of a medical doctor in town forced the municipality to foot even the cost of transferring patients to Belem.

In spite of the financial crunch, this municipal administration has managed to triple the student population, especially in rural areas. During our trip to the island of Acará, its inhabitants agreed to support a primary school there, but city teachers would not endure a day's boat trip to the islet. Best educated local kid had only passed the 7th grade. Similar situation prevails in many rural schools in this 3000+ km2 municipality with little accesibility. So the task is to educate the teachers themselves during weekends and the breaks. 

Finally convinced that mproving the infrastructure of baixadas is enormously costly, the municipality offered firm land for that population to move, but the takers were few. The urbanfolks, used to paternalistic old days, do little on their own initiative. Those simple improvements to the park for the Festival of Camarao drained the municipal budget to a point where they had to scrape the bottom to pay the following month's salaries.

The young governing team is learning that, in this vast Amazonian landscape, the path to progress has obstacles of the same scale!

Kashyapa A.S. Yapa
16th August 1995, Colombia.

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