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In 1980, we first saw Serra Pelada as a pink dot on satellite maps used to track deforestation. Solid green indicated intact forest, and pink showed transitory invasions. Black meant permanent settlement. The color patterns varied from map to map, depending on which satellite took the pictures and which office was reviewing them. At that time, though, every map was dominated by green in the western part of the Amazon.

Carlos Marx was then in charge of Brazil's fledgling satellite mapping program. The international environmental movement had just begun to appreciate deforestation of the Amazon as an easily understood indicator of the pace of nature's demise. Statistical evidence showing accelerated deforestation had never been available. Technology now could be used to judge Brazil's guardianship of this resource, and it could provide empirical data in order to garner financial support for preservation efforts. Over time, the annual release of this data would become tantamount to environmentalism's annual physical, the results broadcast and reproduced around the world.

At the time, Marx was intrigued by the gadgetry of the process, not the politics. Deforestation amounted to no more than 3 percent of the Brazilian Amazon. Although some scientists were alarmed at exponential increases due to the pace of road building, there was so much green on these maps that it was hard to contemplate a significant shrinkage. “The majority of the rain forest should last forever,” Marx said. He pointed to the heart of the state of Amazonas, the center of the green. “No one can get there,” he assured us. While he conceded that deforestation would eat away at the edges of the area, he was confident that the jungle's inaccessibility would be its salvation.

We met only one person who challenged Marx's hypothesis. Dorival Knipboff, a millionaire builder from the far south of Brazil, told us he planned to clear about 1.5 million hectares in the heart of the rain forest to create a palm oil plantation. With little refinement, his oil could be used as a substitute for diesel. The wood could be transformed in a giant alcohol refinery. “We have the technology. We will just take our time. We expect to be there for many, many years,” he boasted.

Twenty-five years later no one had heard of Knipboff. No one we spoke to in São Paulo, where we first heard his name at the trade association of Amazon businessmen; no one in Brasília; and no one in Manaus, the nearest city to his dream project. Most likely, he never cut a tree. Yet when we checked recent satellite maps, we saw pink precisely where Knipboff had planned to build his plantation, the very spot indicated by Carlos Marx when he said, “No one can get there.”

We went to find out what was there.

The flame on the horizon is startling, a tight orange cone shimmering over the tree line. After flying for almost two hours southwest from Manaus with nothing but trees and an occasional snaking brown river underneath, any sign of civilization is satisfying. The fire's source becomes clear as we approach: a sprawling series of white chimneys, part of a high-tech industrial complex that looks like a secret military installation. An army of workers in orange jumpsuits moves through a maze of pipes and steel towers and low squat buildings. We hadn't seen a town for hundreds of miles in any direction, not even a road, except for the spine of black pavement we spotted as we approached this clearing. A wildcatter from Oklahoma exploring for oil in the Peruvian Amazon once said to us, “As a general rule, you have to remember the good Lord was a fine man, but he picked some godawful places to put oil.” This place was one of them.

This oil and gas field at the headwaters of the Urucu River lies almost dead center in the South American continent, surrounded by primary rain forest for hundreds of miles in all directions. If there were a part of the Amazon that even the most worrisome environmentalist considered impenetrable, this would be it. It's the only pink splotch on that spillage of green, but it means that no place is out of reach any longer.

The factory's flaming towers are part of a typical oil and gas plant, complex in design but simple in purpose: to sort the hydrocarbons pulled from wells over the 2,500-square-mile field and route them into a pipeline. It's the standard petrochemical extraction process, only exceptional because no one thought it would ever happen in the center of the Amazon basin.


The Last Forest
The Amazon in the
Age of Globalization

By Brian Kelly and
Mark London

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