By Stephen Buckley
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday , March 4, 2000 ; A11
JACAREACANGA, Brazil –– The low-flying single-engine plane dipped and
lurched and trembled as it plunged through a wall
of rain over the vast, impossibly dense carpet of vegetation in the Amazon rain forest.
As the aircraft approached this no-stoplight town, pilot Daniel Moreno
alerted the airport on his scratchy radio. An air-traffic
controller acknowledged Moreno's approach, then calmly added: "We don't know if there are other aircraft in the area right
The plane, which landed safely, carried engineers who work for Project
SIVAM --the Portuguese acronym for the System for
the Vigilance of the Amazon--a $1.4 billion project being fashioned in Brazil to ensure that air-traffic controllers and other
officials know exactly what is happening in the world's largest tropical rain forest.
After struggling for decades to monitor the Amazon with paltry manpower,
Brazilian officials say the system will allow them to
employ a new, powerful weapon in the war against deforestation, drug trafficking and disease: information.
A sophisticated network of sensory equipment--including satellites,
surveillance aircraft and dozens of radar systems spread
across the jungle--will allow air-traffic controllers to follow clandestine flights, help isolated towns to quickly alert officials of
epidemics and track environmental data. The first of those radars is scheduled to go up in Jacareacanga this month.
But will information be enough? What happens after officials find out
what's happening in the most remote areas? Will Brazil
invest in enough police, environmental monitors, epidemiologists and meteorologists to act on the information?
"I don't think anyone who has ever been to the Amazon could be against
[controllers] having radar in their airports, or against
Brazil having greater control over its airspace," said Stephan Schwartzman, senior scientist with Environmental Defense who
has studied the Amazon for two decades. "The question is whether better and new data by itself can make a difference."
There is no question that the government needs more information about
the jungle, which covers seven states and 61 percent of
Latin America's largest and most populous nation. The rain forest, home to 300 species of mammals, 1,400 types of fish and
1,300 kinds of birds, stretches over 3.1 million square miles.
Brazil has never had enough manpower to oversee the region. In the Jau
National Park, for example, which blankets 5.6 million
acres, the government has three full-time monitors.
Brazilian officials estimate that two planes a month crash in the jungle
but suggest that may be a conservative figure. Illegal
activities such as drug smuggling, unlicensed gold mining and logging thrive. Officials estimate that 5 million acres of land are
SIVAM is supposed to fill the huge gaps left by the lack of manpower.
The five-year project, being carried out by
Massachusetts-based Raytheon Co. for the government, will employ a complex web of sensory devices that provide
information to three capitals in Amazon states, which will in turn feed the data to a primary base in Brasilia, the nation's capital.
The project, initially awarded to Raytheon in 1994, was paralyzed by controversy for nearly three years after allegations
surfaced that a top-level Raytheon executive had bribed Brazilian government officials to win the contract. Raytheon essentially
was awarded the bid a second time after congressional investigations here concluded that neither the government nor Raytheon
had acted illegally. The information gathered by the technology, which is set to be in place by July 2002, will affect the work of
virtually all of Brazil's government ministries.
"The ultimate goal is to secure sustainable development in the Amazon,"
said air force Brig. Gen. Jose Orlando Bellon, who is in
charge of SIVAM, "to know, to use, to take advantage of the resources there, without destroying them." The government
chose the air force to oversee SIVAM because its personnel were deemed most technically qualified to get the program
Along with sustainable development, SIVAM officials make it clear that
national security and national sovereignty also are
strong motives for building the system in this country where obsession over the Amazon--often articulated in conspiracy
theories about foreigners who want to dominate it--is almost a national pastime.
This remote town of 1,384 is a perfect test site for the project because
it is well acquainted with illicit gold mining and frequent
outbreaks of deadly disease.
The town has three police officers, two stop signs, one hotel and no
bank. A slow drive through the town takes less than 10
minutes. Its people live in wood and clay houses with shabby tin roofs; telephones came two years ago.
For the past six months, its curious residents have watched as scores
of SIVAM workers, clad in white hard hats and red
overalls, have dug ditches, spread concrete and built foundations for, among other things, a weather station, electrical
generators, computer control rooms and an 82 1/2-foot-high radar tower.
At the Jacareacanga Municipal Airport, air-traffic controller Jetson
Ney Feleol Gomes is eager to see the new radar go up. He
said that during a busy week perhaps 16 flights will land here. But judging from the makeshift landing strips in the thick forest
that encircles the town, he believes many more pass through unseen.
"We only know a plane is out there when they contact us by radio," said
Gomes, 28. "If they don't, we don't know." He said
that having radar means that "every flight will have to contact us," or come under suspicion.
The new technological infrastructure is also supposed to help the town
curb periodic outbreaks of malaria, hepatitis and other
serious diseases. "We get so much malaria and hepatitis through here that sometimes the epidemic has come and gone before
anybody on the outside has even known about it," said town councilman Carlos Augusto Andrade Cardoso.
SIVAM officials said that when an epidemic erupts, an integrated telecommunications
network should allow the town to swiftly
contact federal authorities, who then would dispatch teams of doctors and other health workers.
Residents like the idea of stanching epidemics. "I didn't know they
were going to help us with those other things, but I'm glad
they will because we need the help," said hotel owner Eudelina Portela Rego.
Residents are less pleased with the possibility of the radar's repelling
unlicensed miners, who flock here for gold and
Mining without a license is illegal, but that has hardly dented the
practice. Typically miners fly in, make a find, then sell some of
the gold to locals, who make bracelets, necklaces and rings to sell cheaply to other residents. In fact, many residents buy their
everyday goods with gold, and some merchants have scales at the front of their stores near the cash register. The supermarket
owner keeps a torch and molds in a hidden space behind his store, where he melts gold into bars.
The question is, when Brazilian officials detect miners flying into
this area, or drug traffickers hauling their wares through other
parts of the jungle, will they have the resources to do anything about it?
Bellon, the man who oversees SIVAM, said yes. "I know the air force
is sending 1,000 people into the Amazon" to ensure that
the information is not wasted. "Every ministry is responsible for preparing people who will be able to act when they're needed."
But one high-level official with SIVAM said: "The air force is taking
this seriously, but I think the rest of the ministries basically
see this as a military project." The Brazilian official added, "I've seen no evidence that they're preparing the manpower they
need to make this project work after all the radars and planes are in place. And my question is: Why not?"
Along with manpower, said environmental watchdogs, the government needs
to bolster ministries with new equipment and must
build infrastructure--especially roads--around the most isolated towns, many of which are reachable now only by plane.
"They need roads, they need boats and fuel, they need well-paid people,"
said Paulo Adario, the head of Greenpeace in
Amazonas, the largest of the Amazon states. "Otherwise, all they'll have is a great database showing the destruction of the
About the Amazon
The rain forest covers 3.1 million square miles, making it the largest
in the world (roughly the size of the continental United
The Amazon River is the second longest in the world at 4,000 miles (the
Nile is about 4,145 miles long), longer than the
distance between New York City and San Francisco.
The basin is home to
300 species of mammals
1,400 types of fish
1,300 kinds of birds
More than 200 rivers flow into the Amazon River. Near its mouth, the
volume of flow is about 12 times that of the Mississippi
SOURCE: World Book Encyclopedia