Plain Truth Magazine
April-May 1970
Volume: Vol XXXV, No.4-5
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Charles V Dorothy & Lynn E Torrance  

Scientists warn of famine and mass starvation in the decade ahead. A world BREADBASKET is desperately needed. Some point to the Amazon Basin, hoping this vast green tropical jungle holds the key to staving off world hunger. Will Amazonia feed the world? Here is the conclusion of a two-part report on the mighty Amazon Basin.

Rio des Janeiro
   ORVILLE FREEMAN, former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, told Brazilian officials in 1966 at Sao Paulo: "You have a tremendous [food] market.
   "This market is so rich," Mr. Freeman said, "if I... saw it down the road I would start producing because I could get rich as hell."
   Yes get rich by selling food to the rapidly increasing world population. Somebody has to produce food for the predicted FOUR BILLION PEOPLE who will be alive on earth by 1975 or millions will starve!

The Pioneer's Price

   Orville Freeman reminded the Brazilians their country has more arable land than the U.S. In essence, both he and Brazilian ex-president Artur de Costa e Silva, in his August, 1968 message, envisioned the vast, green jungle basin Amazonia as the future "breadbasket of the world."
   What has happened since then? Where are the pioneers to settle Amazonia? Today famine threatens much of mankind. Hungry millions agonize, while Amazonia's "breadbasket" nearly two billion acres lies undeveloped.
   No wonder the world cries for pioneers to grow food in Amazonia.
   But could you be an Amazon pioneer? Only a handful have been willing to make the sacrifice.
   Whether you really would want to be a pioneer makes no difference. You can be a better-informed citizen if you come along with us as we take a fact-finding trip. Imagine, then, you are going to develop agriculture in Amazonia.
   First, you will have to come down to the standard of the average jungle pioneer. Start with your home and furnishings. Throw out the washing machine, the shower, the bathtub, the kitchen sink, the dishwasher, the garbage disposal unit if you have one, and the indoor bathroom. The pioneer-log or reed-and-thatch maloca you build in Amazonia will not have inside running water. But fresh, drinkable tap water is not all you will have to do without.
   If you become an Amazonian pioneer, you must learn to get along without electricity too. Without electricity you will have no use for the refrigerator, the freezer, (nor any frozen food), the electric stove, the iron, the electric lights, the toaster, the electric shaver, the TV set, the radio, the stereo. Ladies, you will not be able to use your electric mixers, ovens, electric sewing machines or hair dryers.
   You will have to leave behind your furniture bed, chairs, tables, divans, rugs, lamps, pictures, silver service, china everything.
   Now sell your house, property, and land holdings. Of course, don't forget to sell your business! Junk, scrap, or sell your car, any motor bikes, boats, trailers, campers, bicycles you may have. But save the fishing gear you may need to live on fish for a while.
   Sell all you have. Take the kids out of school; tell the folks good-bye; cut all ties. Either fly to Brazil or boat commercially to the Amazon River; at Belem transfer to one of the few river boats which ply the great Amazon Sea-river. Say "good-bye" to civilization!

Opening up a Jungle

   Do you begin to understand the tremendous sacrifice involved? Why so few are willing pioneers? Why Amazonia will be a long time in opening up? The difficulties of your imaginary venture are not yet over; they are just beginning.
   If you are going to be a pioneer in the Amazon, you might as well begin getting used to it. You will not have a radio at all unless you bring a battery-powered shortwave set. And in the dampness of the Amazon basin, it won't last long. There will be no newspapers, no magazines, no books.
   There will be no government services, no policemen, no postmen, no firemen, and no school. You will be lucky if there is a doctor or nurse within 100 miles. The only way to reach him (her) will be by boat.
   How much money will you need? Luckily, not much. In the Amazon jungles there is very little to buy. (Maybe at last you could lose a little excess weight, or break the cigarette habit: life here is hard work, diet is limited, and cigarettes are expensive)
   There are, however, a few things you had better bring with you when you come to Amazonia: an ax, shovel, machete, saw, hammer and some nails; a first-aid kit, snake-bite kit, and a good raincoat. Because of the ever-present danger of attack from wild animals and snakes, you had better take a good rifle with plenty of ammunition.
   One more thing: Check with the Brazilian Indian Protection Service. You don't want to locate too near a hostile or headhunting tribe.
   At last you have the plot picked out. Now prepare for months of drenching, near-monsoon rains in winter, near drought in summer. Prepare for stifling, blistering heat. Prepare for dull, monotonous green, green, green. Prepare your mind for aching, silent loneliness loneliness broken only by exotic jungle noises and infernal buzzing, biting insects.
   Overcoming the temptation to flee back to civilization, you face the first actual job: clearing enough land to grow food for you and your family. Your plot in Amazon territory will be covered with thick, green, dense, dark, damp jungle huge trees up to 250 feet tall. It is this jungle you have to clear in order to grow food for you and your family.
   It can be done. A few have done it.

Amazonia Is the Problem

   You, the dauntless pioneer, are now faced with the same verdant labyrinth, the same gargantuan problems explained in last month's PLAIN TRUTH.
   Could the great sprawling green jungles of Brazil (Amazonia) be converted into yellow waving fields of grain into an agricultural paradise? Could this vast emerald-green wilderness produce enough to offset impending world famines?
   On-the-spot investigations at Pucalpa and Iquitos, Peru, plus interviews with officials of Brazil's Ministry of the Interior in Rio de Janeiro are extremely educational, if somewhat disappointing with respect to "breadbasket dreams."
   During the investigation we reluctantly reach our first conclusion: Amazonia is a giant problem in itself. There are virtually no roads, no reliable transportation (except for infrequent air trips between Manaus and Belem), no telegraph, no telephone communications! How can a jungle so inhospitable be developed without "conquering" the geography without transportation without communications?
   We also learn that the ten million dollars already allocated would build precious few miles of road. Roads here are exceptionally costly: they must go through dense growth which grows up through pavement, over swampy areas of mud and silt many feet thick, above or across churning rivers. They must be built to withstand destructive floods which occur every year! According to Mr. Jose Wady Abuyaghi, personal advisor to the Minister of the Interior, the Brazilian government has only very limited financial resources. He has said, "We cannot accomplish much [in developing Amazonia] without significant foreign financial assistance."
   Absolutely true!
   To fight famine, to achieve massive food production in Amazonia to change the old "green hell" of the Spaniards into modern "green mansions" of literary fame would require billions, even TRILLIONS OF DOLLARS, even if the venture were possible. So far, that money has not been forthcoming. These financial difficulties are not mentioned in the original optimistic reports which start our investigation. Science News, speaking about money needed for Amazonian research, accurately reported: "No one seems willing to spend the kind of money this would take, just to build up an inedible, unwearable, unsaleable body of scientific knowledge" (April 5, 1969).
   Brazil's officials, however fully aware of the untold, untapped potential of Amazonia are spending up to the limits of their resources. The Brazilian government has set up various commissions called superintendencias to oversee and help finance development of far-flung regions of Brazil's widely variegated geography.
   The committee which has received the most attention, and probably the most crucial one for fighting famine is the Superintendency of Amazonian Development (SUDAM) the commission specifically in charge of the Amazon River basin. Besides construction projects in Belem, SUDAM has opened up three federal territories (Amapa, Rondonia and Roraima) while planning two more (Acre and Rio Branco). The three territories have, by government estimate, a total of about 250,000 people hacking a living out of the jungle. But even if the government estimate is not exaggerated, this effort barely begins to scratch the surface. Many hundreds of thousands of square miles are left untouched. And that is an unexpected problem we find: lack of population to open the jungle!
   The Brazilian government is also aware of the problems you, the pioneer, face. Officials are doing everything possible within the limits of time and money to help you. We left you facing a veritable wall of brown-green vines and emerald-colored trees reaching 250 feet into the blue Amazonian sky remember? Others who have stayed here find their first harvests to be fabulous. But here is a shocking discovery! Three or four years later those early pioneers are forced to clear a new patch of land, or starve! Why?

The Jungle Paradox

   "Why is it," you ask, "that such thick, lush foliage will grow a fantastic twenty feet a year without cultivation, yet farms and crops under cultivation fail in five years? The problem is a scientific one, but can be explained in simple terms.
   With the explanation you will see why the danger of famine is outstripping food production in Brazil.
   Trying to find why crops fail, the International Association for Tropical Biology held several meetings on Amazon ecology. The first meeting was a symposium in Florencia, Colombia. The second was a round-table discussion in the Amazon River town of Leticia. Scientists from the Netherlands, Germany, England, France and much of Latin America attended.
   The first clue was uncovered when scientists found the feeder roots of trees were covered by a mysterious fungus a fungus they called mycorrhiza.
   Other authorities, notably Dr. Went from the University of Nevada and Dr. Stark of the Desert Research Institute, had developed the theory that the rain forest of the Amazon does not use the soil as do most trees. Trees in Amazonia, they said, use soil only as an anchor and a platform, not as a food source. How then do such trees feed?
   Drs. Went and Stark found that jungle trees take their plant food not from the soil, but from that mysterious fungus, mycorrhiza.
   The mycorrhiza system breaks down the fallen litter of the forest floor leaves and vines, twigs and trash, almost as soon as it falls before it decays into soil. In other words, this mycorrhiza root fungus returns nutrients directly to the living vegetation without significantly using the soil.
   Of course, rain forest soil itself can be fertile as long as it receives some organic matter from decaying plants. It's just that tree roots thanks to mycorrhiza do not have to wait until food filters down into deeper soil. You might say the trees "take it from the top"!
   It appears that mycorrhiza produces enzymes which help other organisms decompose the forest litter leaves, vines, branches with this result: a natural cycle is created in which theminerals from plant debris are fed directly back into the plants themselves. A perfect sewage disposal and utilization plan, you might say!
   The trouble is, mycorrhiza feeds only certain plants. Trouble is again, mycorrhiza usually dies when virgin vegetation is cleared.
   But this is only part of the reason why crops fail within five years. What else stands between today's starving millions and tomorrow's "breadbasket"? Can't the rich Amazonian soil support crops in spite of the mycorrhiza problem?

Forced to Destroy

   About the only way you can begin farming is to burn. Why? Lacking tens of thousands of dollars needed for heavy-duty land-clearing equipment, lacking roads to get the machinery there, pioneers like you are reduced to small power tools, and more frequently to axes and saws.
   Armed with saw and ax, the pioneer who confronts the emerald jungle maze compares to young David attacking Goliath. Vines here often fall 100 feet from branch to jungle floor. Tangled brush is so thick a man can't force his way through without a bolo knife. Giant green trees jut high above massive and protruding, gnarled roots. Jungle growth is so lush and dense that even after all is slashed down, the farmer has no land to work on! He has a great brown-green mat several feet thick between him and the soil. His easiest and usual recourse is to BURN.
   What is left after burning off the jungle is "the poorest soil known outside of the world's frank deserts" (Science News, March 29, 1969. Emphasis ours throughout). Soil in Amazonia is deceptive in its "richness." And, worse yet, you soon unintentionally destroy whatever richness exists. You, the pioneer, are practically forced to destroy the soil the very thing you need most! Burning destroys mycorrhiza and other soil life. The pioneer who burns is on his way to destroying himself! And land clearers are burning here have no doubt. So much so that in Colombia's Amazon, pilots often have to fly 20 to 30 minutes on instruments through farmer's smoke!
   "Too bad," you say, "but couldn't other ways of clearing the land be used?" Probably true, but one way or another ground must be cleared, or crops can't receive enough sunlight to grow. And that brings us to the most serious agriculture problem of all Amazonia. The problem, for that matter, of most all potential breadbaskets such as the Niger River, the Volta basin, and the Ganges-Brahmaputra. This is the laterite cycle.

Rain Brings Ruin

   Years ago when geographer-mathematician Thomas Malthus foresaw today's population outgrowing all food supply, optimistic visionaries and Don Quixotes hastily pointed to vast, undeveloped tropic jungles as the solution. Surely the rich, lush growth would produce limitless tons of food.
   ... Or at least, so everyone wanted to believe.
   Recently, love of investigation and population pressure have driven scientists into the green wilds of scattered tropical areas in search of new lands to farm. Armchair philosophers smugly awaited glorious scientific pronouncements of a future breadbasket.
   What a crushing, disappointing shock awaited them.
   Remember that any healthy, fertile soil has a good supply of minerals. And most jungle soils have those vital mineral and chemical supplies. But sadly, those minerals have one relentless, DEADLY ENEMY.
   Tropical RAIN.
   Rain, rain and more rain! Driving, pounding, splattering, soaking, drenching RAIN. Up to 200 inches a year in some areas. Always a yearly average of from 80 to 100 inches in Amazonia. We have seen it. We have been in it.
   Those incessant tropical showers erode, wash away, leach out many of life's basic elements: potassium, iron, calcium, magnesium, aluminum. But that's not all.
   Dejected scientists emerge from the "green mansions" with a dismal report. Five brief years of pounding tropical rain hardened the cultivated soil beyond use BEYOND HOPE! In technical terms, "the end product of excessive leaching is a soil of iron and aluminum oxides and quartz, invariably acidic, deficient in bases, low in plant nutrients, and intensely weathered to great depths."
   This fatal soil-hardening, plant-destroying process is termed "laterization."
   Brick, hardpan in the jungle?
   Hard to imagine, we know!
   Yet "hardpan" is hardly the word for it.
   Tropic soil actually leaches out after a few years into brick. Some famous temples of the "lost civilization of Khmer" (modern Cambodia) were built of bricks quarried from former fields land turned to laterite. Jungle farms evolved (into) agricultural corpses. Those temples are still standing, nearly 1000 years later! The Khmer civilization of Southeast Asia died out, somewhat mysteriously. Part of that mystery is no doubt solved by what science recently discovered about the leaching cycle in the tropics. The unfortunate people of Khmer had cleared, burned and farmed themselves right out of farmland, right out of existence!
   In the Western Hemisphere, and closer in type to Amazonia, we have another mute testimony to the killing power of the laterite cycle. Ever hear of the Maya (Maya-Itza) civilization of the Yucatan? Masters of astronomy and the calendar, conquerors of the Mexican jungles, admirable builders of possibly the greatest early civilization of the Americas, they also mysteriously dropped from the pinnacles of success, declined and degenerated into a weak and stunted race, easily conquered by the invading Spaniards.
   What caused the strange, unexplained decline?
   All the answers are not available, but a definite factor was the old enemy, the laterite cycle. Ancient Mayans could not break the disastrous cycle of rain, leaching and laterization.
   As American geologist T.H. Holland quipped, "Laterization might be added to the long list of tropical diseases from which not even the rocks are safe."

Laterite in Amazonia?

   The dead civilizations of Yucatan and Cambodia are not in South America. Is there laterite soil in Amazonia? Sad to say and as conscientious reporters and readers we must face the facts YES.
   The fact is, the Amazon basin most of its two and one half million square miles is shot through with laterite-forming soil.
   Of course Amazonia is covered now with green jungle. The soils here are just lateritic, and not pure laterite not yet! But within five to ten years of being cleared, land here would be nothing but brick. The proof is real. The proof lives in such places as lata. There, in mid-Amazonia, the Brazilian government set up an agricultural colony. Hopeful agriculturalists wrenched a clearing from the rain forest, planted crops and harvested a good yield. But what had appeared to be a rich soil, with a promising cover of humus, disintegrated after the first or second planting. In less than five years the cleared fields became virtually pavements of rock. Today Iata is a drab, despairing colony which evidences the killing power of the laterite cycle.
   Perhaps you are beginning to understand why scientists say "the Amazon is a mock paradise and A FRAUD" (Georg Borgstrom, The Hungry Planet, p. 238; Christopher Weathersbee, Science News, March 29, 1969).
   What appears to be a fabulously rich soil proves to be 'poverty-stricken. In five years or less, cleared fields become like cement. Asians are still paving their roads with laterite soil. Amazon farmers still move from patch to patch (the milpa system), innocently assuming the jungle will grow back. But contrary to popular belief, the jungle in laterite areas does not always grow back. Large areas that have been cleared for plantation cultivation are often permanently lost to agriculture after a few crop cycles have worn out the soil.
   Modern technology may, sometime in the future, solve these problems. But the average pioneer cannot.

Other Possibilities Explored

   If agriculture in Amazonia falls short of "breadbasket dreams," why not explore other possibilities, other potential riches? Fine! To be sure, Amazonia offers potential in other areas besides agriculture. For example, some believe commercial fisheries and cattle raising will prove successful. But scientists, businessmen and government officials have explored these food-producing schemes. Let's lay aside high-sounding dreams and analyze what these experts have found.
   FISHERIES: At present, fishing in Amazonia is largely undeveloped. Saltwater fish come many miles up the Amazon as the ocean tide rolls in, and fresh-water fish are found beyond the mouth of the Amazon, still swimming in the powerful Amazon current which carries a hundred miles out to sea. There are manatee (mammals about 8' long) and of course the industrially processed fish tambaqui and the pirarucu which often weigh 200 pounds, not to mention the deadly piranha.
   Obviously fishing could be increased. However three major difficulties stand in the way of the Amazon's feeding fish to all the world. First, the supply of edible types is not all that great. Secondly, quantity is not superabundant. Thirdly, the variety is bewildering, and the array of species makes marketing difficult. Processing, packaging, storing and transportation are all serious problems here, since spoilage begins immediately in this intense humid heat.
   STOCK RAISING: Though the Brazilian consulate estimates its present cattle herds in Amazonia at 4 million (about 700,000 head on the MarajO Island alone) cattle raising here has not been what one might hope. The apparent "natural cattle country" is south of Amazonia in central Brazil, on grassy savannas called cam pos. Unfortunately the cameos provide pastures which are "highly seasonal and in addition seriously deficient in minerals (lime and other key plant nutrients). They also decline rapidly under the impact of permanent grazing. The animals in these pasture herds usually become smaller and smaller in body size with each succeeding generation, and new blood has to be brought in constantly from outside." (The Hungry Planet, Georg Borgstrom, p. 306)
   Of course more cattle can be raised, and fishing can be increased. But the cold fact is that increase in these industries is falling seriously behind population growth in Brazil alone much less the rest of the world!


   Amazonia is a giant. This giant, to serve man, requires vast, sweeping and costly development. That development is desperately needed, since the world adds over 190,000 people per day over 70 million every year. Will the Amazon feed Brazil? Will the old "green hell" feed the world?
   Not until ambitious, grandiose projects are undertaken, and are successful. And not until fabulous sums of money are put to work in the right places.
   Ambitious Amazon projects are not necessarily condemned to failure, but they are doomed to delay. As Mr. Jose Wady Abuyaghi of Brazil's Ministry of the Interior has told us, "Opening up the Amazon is not the work of one generation rather THREE TO FOUR GENERATIONS!" That means 60 to 120 years, depending on your definition of generation! But mass famines and starvation are predicted within the next 5 to 15 years.
   Will then Amazonia feed the world? Not in time to save starving millions. And certainly not in our lifetime.
   If the world is to find and develop an international breadbasket, it will have to look elsewhere. Amazonia is not the answer.
For additional information on world population and famine, read our free full-color booklet titled Famine! ...Can We Survive?

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Plain Truth MagazineApril-May 1970Vol XXXV, No.4-5