Mac Margolis
Mac Margolis

Fellowship Title:

Tropic of Illusions

Mac Margolis
August 19, 1991

Fellowship Year

Takashi Shida bent down in a field of soy beans, briefly disappearing in the sea of pea green stalks that swelled off toward the flat horizon. Surfacing again, he brandished a plant better than a yard long. He grasped it firmly and, as if playing love-me-not with a daisy, tenderly pulled off the flat soya pods, one by one. “Two, three, four,” he reported precisely. It was nearly noon, and shadows had shrunk to almost nothing as the sun ambled towards the zenith. The midday heat was allayed only by the odd breath of wind that made the plantation of soya shiver slightly, like green jello. “Forty-three, forty four,” Takashi continued, beaming now under the bill of his baseball cap. The porcelain blue bowl of sky above him seemed to reflect back his satisfaction.

No one took the temperature, but the thermometer would easily have registered ninety, with the barometer pushing a hundred. It was the wet season, and the heat drew up the moisture and held it in the air like a sauna. In a few hours, the skies would blacken and then bawl their daily thunderstorm. “One hundred and eleven,” he announced the total, triumphant.

This pastoral portrait, of a farmer’s cheer over a supplicant earth, may stir little sympathy now that the plow and bulldozer have long ago dispatched most of the world’s untamed places. It is Wilderness, not Arcadia, that we exalt today. Yet Shida’s small harvest that afternoon told part of a remarkable and unlikely story. For both he and the soy beans that engulfed him were strangers here.

Shida is a first generation Brazilian born of an immigrant Japanese farmer. His father made his home in Sao Paulo state, Brazil’s green belt, with a mild climate and rich red soils. But Shida had gone a giant step further. An engineer, he helped plan and build Itamaraty North, a vast plantation in the middle of the scrubby tablelands, known as the cerrado. It is the property of a Sao Paulo agrimogul, Olacyr de Moraes. He is said to be the largest soy bean farmer in the world, and his farmland carpets hundreds of miles of western Brazil.

But the 300,000 acre Itamaraty North, in Mato Grosso state, is not so much a monument to the glory of agribusiness as it is to science. You could say that Moraes has done for grain farming what Armand Hammer did for venture capitalism. He traffics behind the iron curtain of geography and climate. At the bottom of the Amazon basin, just 13 degrees shy of the equator, Moraes sows thousands of acres with crops that belong to another world, the temperate zone. A decade ago, no soya had been planted anywhere close to the Tropics, and top agricultural scientists said it couldn’t be done. But a foolish few researchers hulled ahead, and the result today is this empire of green in the cerrado, some of the hottest and harshest lands in South America.

At least since Ancient Greece, the Tropics have earned a bad name. This was the Torrid Zone, those lethal latitudes where, according to Aristotle, man and his husbanded beasts and plants had no business being, and no hope of surviving. It would take the polymaths of the Enlightenment to debunk the “Meteoroglogica.” And eventually explorers and conquistadors would learn that the earth was in fact a ball, not an egg, as the sage surmised, and did not sit at the center of the universe. Yet centuries after the discoverers happened upon human societies thriving at the equator, the vision of the deadly Tropics took shape and volition.

“When civilized nations come into contact with the barbarians the struggle is short,” commented Charles Darwin, in 1871, “except,” he amended, “where a deadly climate gives its aid to the native race.” So it was that the colonies of Europe penetrated only superficially in the edges of equatorial Africa and America, like barnacles clinging to the shore with an ocean of jungle beating at their backs. “This jungle,” gasps a gringo in Peter Mathiessen’s novel, At Play in the Fields of the Lord, “How can you stand it? – you depraved or what? I mean, this is where God farted.”

The steamy latitudes had their eternal allure, of course. Spices, gold, dyewoods, and timber beckoned comers from across the globe. But, writes the historian Alfred W. Crosby, “Until the beginning of the century, colonies of outsiders in Tropical Africa tended to sizzle and die.”

Countervailing these calumnies was a whole other school of thought. The tropical apologists emerged with the Age of Discovery, when European navigators crossed the oceans and pushed the boundaries of empire into another hemisphere. Columbus was hoping to reach Calicut, of course, but fell instead for the enchantments of the balmy Antilles. “Your Highness may believe,” he wrote in his diary, “that this is the best and most fertile and temperate and level and good land that there is in the world.”

The Genoan was abetted by the English maritime historian Richard Hakluyt. The year after Columbus’ first voyage, he wrote “it is nowe thought that no where else but under the Equinoctiall, or not farre from thence is the Earthly Paradise.” Hakluyt was thinking about Guinea, but he had allies across the Atlantic, as the Brazilian historian Sergio Buarque de Holanda shows in his intriguing study, “Visions of Paradise.” Vicente do Salvador, a Franciscan priest and historian, took Aristotle head on. “Experience has shown,” he proclaimed, “that the Torrid Zone is habitable, and that in some parts of it men live in better health than those in all the Temperate Zones–especially in Brazil…”

Often, such heady claims for the tropics were pure fantasy, replete with tales of cyclops, anthropophagi, and a dozen versions of Eldorado. For half a millennium, however, visitors to the lower latitudes caromed back and forth between visions of Paradise and Ruin, trying to make up their minds. Over the years, such visions purpled the prose of countless chronicles and misted over their mappi mundi in a perilous fog of illusion.

In the early part of this century, the designs on the tropics were hastened by the cult of science and industry. Though British historian James Bryce doubted that any white race could do it, “It seems certain,” he ventured cautiously in 1912, after a trip to Amazonia, “that coming generations will endeavor to turn to the service of man the largest unused piece of productive soil that remains anywhere on the earth’s surface.”

Caution was not Theodore Roosevelt’s strong suit. In 1913, on a poetic pause down an unknown river in the Amazon, the former president–echoing Humboldt–waxed ecstatic. “Surely such a rich and fertile land cannot be permitted to remain idle, to be a tenantless wilderness, while there are so many teeming swarms of human beings in the overcrowded, overpeopled countries of the Old World.”

But the punishing journey seemed to mar Teddy’s idyll. He battled mosquito and pium, while armies of ants ate his socks, boots, and a even hole through his helmet. Later Roosevelt gashed his leg fording a stream and fell into a raging fever, begging at one point to be left to die. “The very pathetic myth of ‘beneficent nature’ could not deceive even the least wise being if he once saw for himself the iron cruelty of life in the tropics,” the champion of the strenuous life concluded soberly.

In fact, for years the naysayers seemed to have the upper hand in these geographical debates. From Henry Ford’s blighted rubber plantation to Daniel Ludwig’s megalamoniacal Amazon rice and tree farm, the arrogance of the 20th century would be brought to its knees over and over in Amazonia. In the 1970s, the Brazilian military, basking in its own notion of destiny, scattered thousands of peasants along a highway that tore due west through the jungle for 3000 miles. At first, Antonio Delfim Neto, the hardheaded and wily Planning minister, strenuously opposed the Transamazonica as a white elephant. Yet often in authoritarian Brazil, saying was believing. And with democracy on ice, the generals and their technocrats spent 21 years listening to themselves.

In short order, Neto, too, succumbed to the reigning vision. The Transamazonica canot be seen merely as an economic undertaking, the economy czar now argued in October, 1970. After all, if Pedro Cabral, the navigator who claimed Brazil for Portugal, “had waited for an economic viability study, Brazil would still today be undiscovered.” Besides, Neto worked his fantasy, “There exists in Amazonia, a strain of (fertile) red earth comparable to any state in the Center-South.”

The Transamazon was built, finally, at a cost of billions of dollars and untold suffering for peasants and indigenous peoples. It was never paved, and thousands of miles still wash out every rainy season. The rich red soils turned out to be mostly wan and weak. Though some towns along its length, like Altamira, prosper today, that has more to do with the tenaciousness of the pioneers than the wisdom of the planners who sent them there. Over and over in the Amazon, settlers have had to piece together their lives out of the junkyards of official utopias.

So it was that well into our century the Tropics, these niggardly portions of the New World, would remain as final bits of Eden. Everything from mosquitoes to microbes conspired to spare these lands from what Levi-Strauss called “the agitations of history.” It would take more than shining ambitions to meet, in Crosby’s words, “the Pleistocene challenge of the rain forest.”

0riginally from China, soya has now conquered farmland around much of the globe’s traditional grain belt, from the middle west of the United States to the Ilanos of Uruguay. The fanciful idea of planting it in the “short latitudes” bloomed among a small group of Brazilian students of the famous American agronomist, Edgar Hartwig. Hartwig, who taught at Mississippi State University, schooled his students well–so well, in fact, he would eventually draw heavy flak from the American farm lobby for aiding the competition. The adaptation of crops to alien environments is as old as agriculture. Yet outside an arcane circle of agricultural scientists, the tale of Brazilian soya is surprisingly little known. To the protagonists, it has taken on the dimensions of an epic novel.

On a recent morning, in an empty meeting room at the Cerrados Research Center near Brasilia, the Brazilian capital, one of those scientists, Plinio Itamar de Souza, began to recount that story. It was mid morning and an important staff summit beckoned. Radical changes in agricultural research policy were looming and the corridors were buzzing with worry and speculation. Now and again, fellow scientists would poke their heads through the door of the meeting room, their brows stitched with concern over their sequestered colleague. But after an hour and a half of sifting through charts and tables and designing maps on paper, Souza was only just warming up to his theme. “Believe it or not,” he confided, “I’d rather talk about soy beans.”

Souza worked closely with another agronomist, Romeu Kiihl, whose research has made him a household word in developing world agriculture. Kiihl, a Brazilian of German descent, had earned a masters and then a doctorate under Hartwig, and returned to work at the Agricultural Institute of Campinas, in Sao Paulo’s farm country. Nearly all of southern Brazil was being overhauled then. Coffee, the traditional crop, was being torn up after successive frosts. In its place came wheat, sorghum, soya and citrus, but especially soya. In the decade since 1969, Brazil increased its soya production ten-fold, and today has become the world’s second producer, behind only the United States.

But Kiihl knew that by the 1970s the frontier spaces of southern Brazil were nearly all settled. Many smaller farmers were already being squeezed off their plots, for they could not compete with the machines and capital of the powerful agro-industries. Many of the displaced ended up in city slums. Others were lured west by the cheap land and wide open spaces at the bottom lip of the Amazon region.

About that time, Souza took a posting at a farming institute in Bahia, the northeastern state where Brazil was born. There the climate was hot and arid year-round, hardly grain country. But Souza had a notion about the tropics and drew up a research proposal for soya in the Bahian sertao, the dusty backlands. His colleagues turned it down. “The institute was full of southerners. They thought it couldn’t be done,” he says. It took a job change and an appeal to the head of the new Brazilian Center for Ranching and Agriculture, Embrapa, before Souza won over the policy bosses.

This was the early Seventies and a number of the new farmers in the west had already lost their shirts with the same idea. Like the pioneers of any land, the southerners had brought their habits and crops with them to the frontier. The soya they planted bore names like Lee, Bragg, Hampton and Major, in honor of the saints of temperate agriculture who had made America’s middlewest into a cornucopia.

But the cerrado was not Illinois. The low lying bush and scrub was easily cleared and burnt off, and the soils readily turned over and sown. But the results were frustrating. The seeds germinated well, yet the soya of the Mato Grosso climbed only to about a man’s knee, flowered, and stopped growing. A measly few pods sprouted on each puny stalk. It was a green desert. Though they had no idea at the time, the soya farmers of the cerrado had bumped up against the rude exigencies of the Torrid Zone. Ironically, the problem was not so much the excess of heat, as Aristotle imagined, as the lack of light.

Souza grabbed a piece of chalk and drew a long arc across the blackboard, bisecting it with a vertical line. This, he lectured, represented the normal growth cycle of soy beans, from germination to flowering and on to barren old age. Above it he designed another curve, tracking the sun over the 365 days of the year. Soya, he said, grows to its maximum height and flowers at the summer solstice, when the days are not only warm but long. Souza put his index finger at the apex of the curve. “In southern Brazil, as in North America and much of Asia,” he said, “there are up to 14-16 hours of sunlight at the height of summer. In the tropics there is sun all year round, but never more than 13.5 hours a day.” Souza drew another sun curve for the Tropics, its apex nosing just below that of the first curve.

Just the couple hours or so less of sun in the cerrado made all the difference.

The plants did not have the time to mature, and flowering came early, halting growth. “It’s sort of like a ten-year-old getting pregnant,” Souza said. “She may be able to deliver a baby but neither she nor the baby will be well developed.” Botanically, the runt soya served as an interesting lesson. Commercially, it was a disaster. So Souza and Kiihl in separate corners of Brazil went to work to find out why. “He was in the wrong latitude. I needed materials,” Souza said. So they exchanged letters and phone calls, then literature and seeds. It was the beginning of 14 years of correspondence that would consecrate one of the most aggressive expansions of an agricultural frontier in this century.

By the early eighties, Kiihl had moved south to Parana, to Embrapa’s Soya Center. He sent the multiple seed strains to Souza, who took a job in Brasilia at Embrapa’s newly inaugurated Cerrados Research Center. Their challenge was to fool the seasons by altering the genetic coding of the plant. The goal: to make soya flower later, allowing full growth even under the reduced daylight of tropics.

Kiihl and a colleague, Leones de Almeida, crossed thousands and thousands of varieties, trying to combine later flowering strains with disease resistant ones, and still maintain high productivity. As soon as he got them Souza put the new seeds in the ground at the Cerrado Center’s test plots. A third man, Irineu Bays, was the evangelist. Kiihl hated to fly, so Bays took to crisscrossing the country, introducing the improved varieties of soya to farmers and research stations from Brasilia to Maranhao. Tragically, in 1984 Bays lost his life on one of these missions when his twin-engine plane crashed into the Brazilian interior.

Yet thanks to these researchers, and the counsel of Hartwig, a new hagiography for tropical soya was written. Lee, Hampton, Bragg and Major bowed to Doko, Teresina, Carajas, and Ariri. Some of the new strains, like the one Takashi Shida plucked, reach nearly chest high to a grown man and produce up to four tons a hectare (or 2.5 acres), double the normal. A new frontier for soya had been blazed, within Brazil and without. Recently, Bolivia, the Ivory Coast, and other nations imported these new strains and become part of the expanding tropical soya belt.

Now, the forbidding cerrados have become part of the agricultural frontier. Nowhere else in Brazil, and perhaps in the world, can so many crops–soya, wheat, corn, beans, and peas–be harvested twice a year. Now, ten million hectares have been planted, only about ten percent of the arable cerrado land. Roberto Peres, chief of the Cerrados Center said the cerrados “have about everything–water, sunlight, a good soil structure and good infrastructure.” Lime and phosphorous, expensive items vital for treating the acid and nutrient poor soils of the Amazon, are also abundant in the region. Already, the cerrados produce 30 percent of Brazil’s 56 million tons of grain a year.

Yet it is one of the cruelties of farm country that what science accomplished over a decade, a sour economy can undo in a few harvests. In early March, when I visited Itamaraty North, most of the region’s intrepid farmers had ploughed over row upon row of soya. The price had collapsed due to oversupply on the international market. At home, freight charges, controlled by an oligopoly of transporters, had skyrocketed. At the same time, a series of price freezes and thaws over the recent years had conspired to artificially tamp down the price of soya.

In its place, the farmers have begun to plant another temperate climate crop, cotton, which has soared on world markets. A truckload of cotton fetches 25 times the price of a load of soya. The cerrado farmers now are counting on cotton to bail them out of the soya slump. “The cerrado is the great agricultural frontier of Brazil,” said the optimistic Peres, of the Cerrados Center.

For the administrators and agrocrats of Brasilia, under increasing heat for allowing the destruction of the Amazon forest, the technology of soya in the tropics was a political windfall. Though most of the cerrado lies within the area known as the Legal Amazon, it does not harbor the botanically rich rain forests for which the region is most famous. The mean, gnarled bush and unlovely squat forests simply do not evoke the same sort of passions as the imperiled jungle primeval. No one marches in London or Rome to save the cerrado. There may be good scientific reasons for such environmental triage. The dense, multispecied rain forest is cast today as everything from a natural apothecary to the regulator of global weather. Though scientists may debate these ideas, to Brasilia such botanical bias is a blessing. “We can expand grain production in the cerrados without deforesting one single acre of rain forest,” exclaimed Murilo Flores, president of Embrapa.

Now that despoiling the environment has been roundly denounced as the dirty work of development, the idea of the endless farm frontier has become unthinkable. Environmentalists are drawing the line, and it stops at the edge of the world’s primary forests, particularly the tropical rain forests. However, science has made possible what may be unthinkable politically. Already, soya has spread like an anchluss through Mato Grosso and has reached southern Rondonia, the northwestern state where farming, ranching, and road building have claimed a swath of forest one and a half times the size of Massachusetts.

Of course, not even the most hide-bound of technocrats advocates clear-cutting the rain forest to plant waves of wheat or soya. That would be both agricultural as well as ecological lunacy. Yet one hardly needs the bullish fantasies of a Roosevelt to appreciate the significance of the cerrado pioneers. For centuries, the deadly Tropics confounded the headiest of ambitions. Now, thanks to the obstinacy of researchers and the sweat of the settlers, the Amazonian frontier is at hand. “We can plant soya almost anywhere in Brazil today, even at the equator,” exclaimed Plinio de Souza. “Exploring the cerrado will be the first step toward the rational exploration of Amazonia.” Now that soya, cotton, and wheat have crossed over into the Torrid Zones it may be difficult to hold them back behind the ever shifting manmade frontiers of politics.

©1991 Mac Margolis

Mac Margolis is a freelance writer and special correspondent for Newsweek in Rio de Janeiro. He is examining the fate of the Amazon.