Eyes in the Rainforest

A controversial, multinational project called SIVAM aims to put an end to anarchy in the Amazon. But what's really behind the military surveillance of Brazil's remotest jungles?

by Marcello Ballve

Photo Gallery Silent watch over the Amazon

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Photos from iStockPhoto, Agencia Brasil and SIVAM/ Brazilian government































The Brazilian magazine Istoé has sharply criticized the government's SIVAM contracts, which were awarded to the US-based Raytheon coprporation, among others.



I. A Fortress in the Jungle

A gleaming military installation rises from the raw earth of a construction site on the outskirts of Belem, a city of one million people in the eastern Amazon Delta. The installation’s futuristic design seems out of place amid homes with tin roofs and rutted alleyways paced by cattle. One side of the four-story building consists of a sloping façade of glass, which reflects the sky and green walls of rainforest surrounding the site.

In the spring of 2002, workmen swarmed the expanse of churned soil littered with yellow backhoes and bulldozers. Inside, laborers clad head-to-toe in red overalls worked in white chambers with the antiseptic appearance of laboratories, illuminated by harsh fluorescent lights. Once the finishing touches were completed -wiring, satellite link-ups, plumbing and equipment installation- the rooms would contain banks of computers manned by military analysts. They would pore over streams of real-time data generated by surveillance jets sweeping over the canopy of the world’s largest rainforest. This building is an important node in a new $1.4 billion radar system known as SIVAM, the Portuguese acronym for System to Guard the Amazon. SIVAM represents the most significant change in Brazil’s Amazon policy since the government’s huge settlement and road building drives in the 1970s.

As with most human endeavors in the Amazon, SIVAM’s Belem installation began with a clearing in the jungle. Even near the city, vegetation had to be pushed back before civilization’s plans could take root. “It took us a long time just to push back the jungle,” said Ismael Pereira, a civil engineer overseeing the site. “We started clearing the area in 1999. It was all jungle, just jungle.” Standing on the roof, Pereira swept his hand over surrounding plots of forest. In the distance, a cluster of high-rise apartments marked Belem’s modest downtown near its sixteenth-century colonial center. The Portuguese city of houses and canals was built behind fortifications intended to defend the Amazon basin from Dutch and French raiders. Pereira, an affable, gray-haired native of faraway Rio de Janeiro, said the SIVAM site-which included a security perimeter, a water well and filtration station, a watch-tower and miniature power plant-encompassed 62,000 square meters, the size of 12 soccer fields. It is a fortified compound for the twenty-first century, meant to control sky, water and earth through computers and satellites.

Back at his small office near the gated entrance to the compound, taking eager sips from a cold glass of water, Pereira kicked off his boots before unrolling a laminated map over his desk. As defined by the government, the Brazilian Amazon covers 60 percent of the Brazil’s land area, roughly equivalent to the size of half the United States territory, including Alaska. This vast area was shaded green on Pereira’s map. Scattered about this diverse, river-threaded region were SIVAM’s components. Belem’s installation was only one of three massive intelligence centers at strategic points in the Amazon. Dozens of fixed radar stations, weather-tracking units, and specialized truck- and plane-mounted radars were also scattered about the territory. Three jets equipped with imaging technology would scan the jungle and feed data to SIVAM’s computers. “I think it’s about time that the Amazon became incorporated into the rest of Brazil,” said Pereira. “(SIVAM) will help that happen. When it’s switched on, the entire area will be covered by radar.”

II. New Eyes for the Amazon
The Brazilian imagination is accustomed to pharaoh-like presidential undertakings. In the1960s, President Juscelino Kubitschek managed the construction of Brasilia, the ultra-modern national capital built on an inland plateau of dusty scrublands. Still, the creation of high-tech radar and data system encompassing the country’s entire Amazon territory is a staggering feat. The $1.4 billion spent on building SIVAM was financed by the Export Import Bank of the United States and the construction costs alone are equivalent to about ten percent of Brazil’s annual military budget. President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who will end his final term at the end of 2002, intended SIVAM as one of the hallmarks of his administration. According to the Ministry of Defense, the president personally authorized infusions of funds so the project could be launched during his presidency. It was an almost unheard-of feat in Brazil: a government ribbon-cutting ceremony held on the scheduled date. This was despite early criticism of the project when it was launched in 1993. At the time, nationalists in the Brazilian Congress warned of U.S. interference, since the project depended on U.S. financing -- and because the Raytheon Company, a Pentagon contractor, built the bulk of SIVAM’s computer and software systems. The government has insisted the data collected will remain in local hands, even as Brazilian newspapers uncovered evidence of intense U.S. government lobbying on behalf of Raytheon. A Brazilian legislative committee also investigated allegations of corruption in the awarding of the contract. It ended with inconclusive results but enough hints of impropriety to force two top officials out of their jobs.

Cardoso pushed on with the project, extolling it as the tool that could unlock the region’s economic potential while taming its drug runners, smugglers, illegal loggers and wildcat miners. The Brazilian military views the Amazon as the country’s most vulnerable region. With its Plan Colombia, the United States began pouring military and financial support to Bogota in 2000. Cardoso’s national security team, seeking to calm widespread fears that the Colombian conflict might spill over to the Brazilian Amazon, pointed to SIVAM as the nation’s best line of defense, capable of detecting any ground, air- or river-borne intrusion into Brazil’s jungles by Colombian rebels. When the September 11 attacks occurred, officials worried that the country’s porous jungle frontiers were near territory infested with Colombian and Peruvian “narcoterrorists.” Four of those groups were on the U.S. State Department’s terror list. Again, SIVAM was touted as Brazil’s insurance against incursions.

At an Air Force base near Brasilia July 24, 2002, Cardoso officially inducted SIVAM’s new surveillance jets into the Brazilian airforce, calling them “the eyes of a complex project that will come to reveal what is occurring in our rich Amazon region.” The next day, Cardoso inaugurated the SIVAM intelligence complex in Manaus. At the ceremony, the president outlined a glowing vision of the Amazon’s future. With SIVAM, the Amazon “would become a full participant in the great push toward development that is only just beginning and will transform the face of this country in the new century.” Cross-border illegal activity would be suppressed, sovereignty upheld, said Cardoso. “This is a project that has suffered from criticism and misunderstandings, but is proving itself as an initiative that is timely and absolutely indispensable to give direction to the future development of the Amazon.”

III. Brazil’s Manifest Destiny
The president was stressing points that were sure to rally support for a plan once regarded as wasteful for a government always struggling to meet debt payments. Some critics have expressed unease that SIVAM will consolidate the military’s dominance over Amazon policy and give short shrift to research and environmental priorities. The general population, however, is receptive to the idea of exerting more sovereignty in the Amazon, which even in Belem is viewed by ordinary Brazilians as an unruly region dominated by criminal gangs and predatory loggers and gold miners. Anderson de Jesus Calvacante, 23, a student and car mechanic in Belem, puts it this way, “Everyone knows there are a lot of mafia-type groups. They have immense power in the jungle. They have secret landing strips and planes taking off continuously for all parts of the country.” This view is echoed in Washington; the Brazilian Amazon is seen as a favored pit stop for South American drug traffickers.

"Eyes and ears of the Brazilian Amazon" -- the goverment's slogan for the SIVAM project on its official Web site.

Other than these threats, Brazilians are alarmed about a trend they call “the Amazon’s internationalization.” Plan Colombia is sometimes perceived as a sort of Trojan Horse -- a vehicle for exerting U.S. dominance over the jungle. European and U.S. biotechnology companies are perceived as modern-day pirates, robbing Brazil of its genetic heritage. This year, a widely circulated e-mail that attracted the attention of a Brazilian legislator purported to show a page from a U.S. textbook. A wide swath of the Amazon was set apart and labeled, “International Amazon Reserve” under the United Nations’ control. Though proved a fake, the e-mail played on fears that were not completely far-fetched. In the 1980s, when large sections of the Amazon were burning, there was an outcry among international environmentalists for intervention. Today, many Brazilians bristle at suggestions they are not competent to manage the world’s cauldron of biodiversity.

A concern for Brazil’s fragile sovereignty runs through the Amazon’s history. In the first years of the twentieth century, Euclides da Cunha, a journalist and government envoy, traveled to Manaus and the Amazon’s far west, where a border dispute brewed with Peru. Euclides, as he is known, was the era’s most celebrated chronicler of the country’s frontier areas. His books remain among Brazil’s most treasured classics. The jungle, Euclides wrote in one celebrated phrase, represents an “opulent disorder.” He called the Amazon “the last page of Genesis, which still has to be written.” He emphasized the region’s isolation. To arrive in the rubber capital of Manaus, Euclides had to sail for weeks along the Atlantic coast and then up the Amazon. His portrayal of a disorderly, faraway Eden that cried out for organization and exploitation of its extraordinary national wealth has helped shape decades of policy.

Generations of military thinkers quoted Euclides as they wrote about a vacuum of sovereignty in the jungle. As a solution, they created Brazil’s version of Manifest Destiny or westward march. The result was decades of intense settlement schemes and highway building,beginning in the late 1960s, when Brazil’s military dictatorship sought to populate the Amazon and develop the regional economy. This vision has managed to hold its grip on the military imagination to this day. In Rio de Janeiro, a Brazilian Navy Admiral put it to me this way, “In Brazil we are 100 years behind the United States. The development of the Amazon is simply part of our national process, just as your governments populated the American West in the nineteenth century.”

IV. Voice in the Wilderness
Belem journalist Lucio Flavio Pinto believes military-led attempts to exercise control over the region will lead to more destruction. Pinto is one of the most outspoken critics of government policy and corruption in the Amazon. He has paid for his outspokenness. He is facing libel lawsuits for exposing fraud in property dealings in the southern part of Pará state, of which Belem is the capital. The lawsuits are meant, he believes, to ruin him financially. Much of Pinto’s work is informed by his thesis that democracy has never become rooted in the Amazon. His column, “Carta da Amazonia,” or “Letter from the Amazon,” is published on a Web site operated by Estado de São Paulo, the country’s second largest newspaper. The column, laced with Pinto’s encyclopedic knowledge of Brazilian history, has lately been a lonely dissident voice against SIVAM. Pinto’s stance stands in contrast to that of most Brazilian media and even the Estado newspaper, considered the most liberal of Brazil’s major dailies. In an April editorial, the newspaper praised the project, saying SIVAM’s capacity to “protect the Amazon will boost respect for Brazil internationally.”

Pinto, a dapper man of short stature who lives in a tidy villa near Belem’s old quarter, sees SIVAM as evidence of weak civil institutions and a powerful police state in the jungle. SIVAM “represents a geopolitical vision of the Amazon,” he said. “The official vision of the government has remained based on the parameters of the national security doctrine,” which sees the region’s low population density and lack of economic infrastructure a dangerous weaknesses.

Pinto regards SIVAM as the ultimate coup in the military’s consolidation of its control over the Amazon. In 1985, President Jose Sarney helped advance Brazil’s transition to democratic rule, but in the Amazon he launched Calha Norte, or “Northern Trench.” The plan introduced military troops to far-north regions, including those bordering Colombia, areas where virtually no government presence had existed before.

“This is a distorted vision of our frontier problems,” Pinto said, sipping dark coffee in his living room while a thunderstorm rumbled outside. He acknowledged that the situation in Colombia is dangerous, but argued SIVAM is an exaggerated response. Although Brazilian troops exchanged gunfire in May with suspected Colombian guerrillas, Pinto believes the rebels’ cross-border trafficking and weapons dealing is a problem for Brazil’s Federal Police, not for the military.

He also bemoans spending $1.4 billion on a radar while scientific research languishes. By his own calculations, SIVAM’s price tag represents twenty years’ worth of government science funding for the Amazon. Mario Jardim, a botanist and ecologist with the prestigious Museu Goeldi, a research center in Belem, agrees that Amazon research has been under-funded. However, his center has been promised access to SIVAM data, and he hopes that it will prove useful in developing sustainable rainforest management techniques. “It’s a great opportunity,” said Jardim.

Pinto insists that with military control, the entire project will focus on bolstering jungle security. He fears SIVAM’s information will lead to road building, human settlement and aggressive economic development, all engineered by state-of-the-art military technology. “It’s false to say that SIVAM is a scientific project,” he said. “It’s a project that uses science to meet a pre-established military objective. I think the price to pay for that is the continuing destruction of the Amazon.”

V. Inside the Brain: Headquarters
The SIVAM project’s headquarters aren’t in the Amazon, but in Rio. They occupy a suite in an Air Force complex next to the domestic airport. The lobby is decorated with vibrant color photos of Indians and monkeys. In a conference room with views of Rio’s postcard-famous Guanabara Bay, Air Force Colonel Francisco Leite Albuquerque Neto echoes the media’s enthusiasm for a project that will allow Brazilians the means to exert control over their territory. Albuquerque, an athletic, balding, middle-aged man with a trim moustache and a well-pressed uniform, is a fount of information on the SIVAM project, where he is the second-ranked officer.

Drawing with a dry-erase marker, Albuquerque described the hardware that will make SIVAM revolutionary. For the first time, infrared technology will allow for night patrols, and jets will fly around the clock. Whereas weather has always made taking satellite images difficult, SIVAM’s jets will buzz under cloud cover. Much of the government’s past mapping depended on LANDSAT satellite pictures; SIVAM images will be 900 times more powerful. In the air, five radar planes will detect unauthorized flights over a 500-mile radius. A rapid-response force will back SIVAM’s real-time monitoring. About two-dozen new Brazilian-made Super-Toucan fighter jets equipped with air-to-air Piranha missiles will fly from jungle bases (The military has taken to naming equipment after rainforest creatures.). Over 3,000 jungle platoons will be on alert, as well as Navy gun ships and armored amphibious vehicles.

For Colonel Albuquerque, SIVAM holds the solution to many of the region’s most stubborn problems. With SIVAM, all the Amazon’s information-including data gathered by virtually every government office and major research institution-will be funneled into one place. “In the past, we’ve had only scattered government actions in the Amazon,” he said. “They were not coordinated actions. That meant we weren’t able to solve the Amazon’s problems, which were growing- the abuse of Indians, deforestation, smuggling, illegal border-crossings, all those problems that everyone is familiar with. In other words, the state wasn’t as present as it should be.” The Amazon’s notoriously violent land disputes will now be defused by the government’s boosted capacity to map and zone the land, he said. Landowners will finally be monitored for compliance with environmental codes on burning, logging and mining.

Critics fear increased government power spells trouble for landless peasants and Indian tribes. The human rights record in the Amazon is far from spotless and military units already have been criticized for disrupting tribal societies as they build new bases. The Indigenous Missionary Council overseen by Catholic bishops has warned that Indians and other vulnerable populations could be targeted by SIVAM as “potential enemies of Brazil.” In the past, tribes such as the 25,000-member Yanomami-who live in Brazil and Venezuela-have been suspected as pawns of foreign scientific and rights’ groups. But Colonel Albuquerque argued that boosted monitoring will protect Indians from illegal intrusions into reservations by miners and poachers.

Greenpeace also has argued SIVAM’s power to detect environmental crimes does not necessarily mean it will be used to halt the ongoing processes of mining, farming and settlement that are creating the “arc of deforestation.” Albuquerque responded: “Look, the fact that we don’t have SIVAM right now, that doesn’t mean the forest isn’t used,” he said. “We just don’t know how it is being used. On the other hand, in terms of the government, it has never had the intention of leaving the Amazon isolated.” What remains to be seen is how SIVAM’s data will be put to use in Brazil’s push to tame the region.

VI. The New Caretaker
In October 2002, Brazilians voted the left-leaning Worker’s Party candidate, Luiz Inacio da Silva, known as Lula, into power. If Lula doesn’t alter the current path of SIVAM, the military will likely maintain its spot atop the information hierarchy. The new president may be wary of intruding on military turf. Lula was an enemy of the military dictatorship in the 1980s, but sought to repair the relationship as he campaigned. He promised a generous military budget and apologized for his former opposition to the Northern Trench plan, the military buildup along Brazil’s jungle borders. This was a nod to the military’s vision of the frontier areas as de-facto military zones.

In its Amazon plan released during the campaign, Lula’s Workers’ Party announced a break with the traditional economic activities that critics accused the outgoing government of backing-logging, mining and hydropower-in favor of economic diversification into sustainable activities such as fruit cultivation, fishing and palm oil harvesting. The Amazon’s history is filled with well-intentioned measures, but they are implemented against a backdrop of destruction. In August 2002, Cardoso announced the formation of the 9.5 million-acre Tumucumaque Mountains National Park, the world’s largest rainforest reserve in the Amazon’s far north. Around the same time, Brazil’s space agency released figures documenting rising deforestation rates in the 1990s. Although the rates began to decline again this decade, the losses are still distressing. Brazil’s Amazon rainforest lost an estimated 15,000 square kilometers between August 2000 and August 2001-an area larger than Connecticut.

The jungle isn’t as pristine as many may imagine it. Estimates are that 17 percent of the rainforest is destroyed-burned, cleared or thinned out for pasture, with the worst deforestation radiating out along the roads between cities that are home to over half of the Brazilian Amazon’s 17 million people. This population is in many ways the legacy of past military-led plans to harness the region’s economic potential.

During the Amazon crisis of the late1980s, when millions of acres burned, the foreign media corps arrived to document apocalyptic scenes of Indian villages displaced by flames. Military technology played a major role in the build-up to the crisis. In 1971, a project called RADAM was implemented. Combining satellite images with aerial surveys, RADAM was carried out to catalog the Amazon’s wealth. The data showed there were billions of dollars in unexploited mineral, timber and hydropower resources. As General Meira Mattos wrote in his 1980 book, A Pan-Amazonian Geopolitics, the RADAM inventory “completely altered our concept of the region’s potential.” Millions were invested to access the newly discovered wealth and the migrants followed. According to the government’s five-year Amazon plan published in 1976, “diverse areas of the Amazon received thousands of families of settlers ...in a process of directed colonization without precedent in the world.”

To realize Colonel Albuquerque’s vision of a sustainable, high-tech jungle policed with jets, data stations and radars, the government will need to discard long-held, increasingly outdated ideas about the need for more roads and settlements to secure sovereignty. Despite the security purportedly afforded by SIVAM, as recently as May 2002, Defense Minister Geraldo Quintão repeated the old military mantra that the Amazon’s population density is too low.

In 1905, Euclides compared the Amazon to the rugged society of California’s gold-rush days in the mid-nineteenth century. Euclides wrote that justice was nonexistent and violence the dominant factor in human relations. “However, all those evils ... will begin to disappear once this exiled society is incorporated to the rest of the country,” he wrote. A century later, SIVAM aims to put an end to anarchy in the Amazon, but order hasn’t always been the rainforest’s friend.


© 2003 El Andar Magazine