“The Amazon is in the hands of the drug trade”
Interview with Roberto Jaramillo, Jesuit priest and anthropologist
Colombian Jesuit priest Roberto Jaramillo has lived in the Brazilian Amazon for the last 15 years. Since 2005, he is the regional leader of the Society of Jesus in the Amazon state. As an anthropologist, he has studied problems facing indigenous peoples living in urban areas.
Latinamerica Press collaborator Paolo Moiola spoke with Jaramillo in Manaus about the way of life in the Amazon, the situation facing indigenous people and development.
The idea of the Amazon these days is not very realistic. Is that true?
Yes. The imaginary Amazon does not coincide with reality. The image is one of a land without people, while there are 40 million inhabitants, most of them in urbanized areas, with all the problems that urbanization in Latin America poses.
Almost 2 million people live in Manaus, but only 17 percent of them have access to a sewage system. For the most part, the majority of the biological and chemical waste is sent into the environment, into the water. Another paradox: in a city on the banks of the world’s largest river, only 32 percent have running water in their homes, while the rest of the population has to make do with unpurified water. These scenarios point to something else: in Amazon cities — Manaus, Santarém, Belém and some smaller ones — the gap between rich and poor is manifested more in the cities than along the coast. In other words, in the Amazon, the concentration of wealth is much greater.
Many people from other parts of Brazil came to Manaus for work. Why is that?
During the 1980s the military junta [that governed from 1964 to 1985] instituted a duty-free zone in Manaus, the only one in Brazil. We were talking about some 500 companies — particularly Sony, Thompson, Philips, but also Honda motorcycles and many others — for approximately 100,000 jobs, but 90 percent are temporary positions, especially for the women. This means that many came to work for two or three months, and they are then fired and have no right to a severance. Apart from a handful of families — those that hold everything in Manaus — which do business with investors in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Paraná. In conclusion, the money does not belong to Manaus and it sees no benefit.
Brazil is experiencing rapid development, something many have admired.
It has democratic instruments like elections, newspapers, but the way of thinking is pre-modern. The governments continue to be clientelist. There are cities in the Amazon where the mayor controls the economy. Who would dare to vote against him, knowing that he or she could lose his or her job, or even a relative’s job? There should be education through an adequate period of time.
In addition to urbanization and political clientelism, what else have the missionaries observed?
Another serious problem that people often don’t figure — perhaps it’s one of the worst — is that the Amazon is in the hands of the drug trade. The outskirts of the cities are hostage to the sale and consumption of drugs. Half of the violence in this city is tied to drugs. Young people in the suburbs see no other options in life than smoking marijuana or snorting cocaine.
You said there are 40 million people living in the Amazon. How many are indigenous? Why do the figures vary so much?
In the 2000 census, 750,000 people identified themselves as indigenous. But 10 years earlier, it was half of this. What happened to explain a change of this magnitude? Something changed in the national political conscience that made it convenient to identify oneself as indigenous. A similar thing occurred around the world. Before, being indigenous was considered a humiliation, but then it became something to be proud of. But of those 750,000 people, the [state-run National Indigenous Foundation] FUNAI only recognizes about 380,000 to 400,000 of them. One of the problems with Brazil’s indigenous policy is that an indigenous person must live in indigenous land. So, half are not recognized as indigenous by the state. That half lives from Rio to São Paulo to Manaus.
Those people were born in the city, and they do not speak indigenous languages. But they are indigenous and they feel indigenous. It’s a reality that bothers the white people and the government because they don’t know how to treat them. And it’s a reality that often causes problems even among the indigenous communities themselves.
Could you give us an example?
Take mixed marriages: the children of an indigenous man and a white woman are indigenous but the children of an indigenous woman and a white man are not. What’s the logic behind that? Or perhaps the issue of language: is that a fundamental element to say if one is or is not indigenous?
The Brazilian government and the multinational companies are taking advantage of the enormous wealth of the Amazon. What is left for the local population?
The politically- and economically-powerful are servicing big capital, which is generally foreign. Think about the IIRSA [Initiative for the Integration of Regional Infrastructure in South America], with its megaprojects: inter-oceanic canals, highways all over the place, 11 hydroelectric plants instead of upgrading the 24 we already have. Sadly, all of the large Amazon projects are directed at a development that is not in equilibrium with the population.
What legacy did Luiz Ignácio Lula da Silva’s eight-year presidency leave behind?
Lula did wonderful things, but he did not do what he promised. His problem was that he trusted in international capital. Lula has paid 50-60 reales (US$31-37) a month to 4 million families that had never received money from the state. The redistribution of the income was impressive, taking into account that is very hard to do great changes in eight years in a country as Brazil. But Brazilian politicians are increasingly in the hands of big money. As the philosophy of the PAC [the government’s Growth Acceleration Program] says, “grow, grow, grow” economically, without any interest in health, education, participation and democracy.
Nevertheless, it’s not Lula’s fault, but that of the social movements that got close to him, close to power and got comfortable there. Even the Landless Rural Workers Movement, as the number of smaller invasions show — and more symbolic ones at that — that occurred during Lula’s government.