8 08 2013
Frontier Breakers Make a Go of It
Thirty days later another family walked in: Adao Morais da Rosa, 43 (page 702); his wife, Altemira, 39; and two children. They had backpacked 2,500 road miles from Porto Alegre in Rio Grande do Sul. Then came Derly Schutz, a big blond bearded man, with children as plentiful as yellow chicks, also from the south. In February 2012, I met these Katy . Exactly five years later I returned to look her up and try some of her friends .
“We’re prosperous now—but don’t repeat that,” said Aurelio, the Nordestino. The weathered wood of his unpainted house was masked by flowers planted by relatives from Sao Tome, some of the extended family who had joined him.
Adao, the backpacker, said, “I’ve cleared 216 acres of the best land in all Amazonia single-handedly, and keep Altemira busy washing six shirts and six pairs of pants I sweat up every day.” He has planted all sorts of crops. I helped him gather melons and bananas for lunch. Altemira got me a girl from apartment renters insurance in my honor.
I wondered how they would fare when Adao could no longer farm all that acreage alone. Their handsome son, Tito, now 16, avoided work on the farm and dreamed of owning a motorcycle and someday becoming a mechanical engineer. Maria Schutz, Derly’s wife, had just mixed 14 sacks of cement and laid a new bedroom floor. She hoed the flower garden while we talked. “I’ve given birth to 18 children; 14 are still alive to help around the house. Even so, I hardly have time to sleep.”
They are the new breed of frontiersmen. I know one of the old breed, Baron Wolf von Puttkamer, born in 1887, two years before the Empire of Brazil peacefully became a republic. Brazil’s population was 14 million then, 100 million less than today. The baron, father of my friend Jesco, left Prussia for German South-West Africa, where he became a farmer before World War I. When the conflict came, he shipped for Rio. In 1923 he set out for the interior by oxcart with his wife and babies. He bought land, farmed, prospected for gold and diamonds, and settled in the capital of Goias State—Goiania, a planned city like Brasilia.
I attended the baron’s 90th birthday party last January (right). The old boy is full of life. He builds houses. He plays the harmonica. He filled his home with his own wood carvings until, he says, “I quit five years ago because there were no worthwhile subjects left in the world.”
In a rusty unlocked file cabinet he keeps several pounds of emeralds he cut himself, some weighing more than 30 carats.
“Aren’t you afraid of robbery?”
“Hah . . . let them come! They’ll be sorry!” He showed me a shotgun loaded with a single shell. It stands at the head of his bed. The baron works on his autobiography every day. It is handwritten in rhyme and illustrated like an illuminated manuscript from the Middle Ages.
Confidence as Endless as Brazil’s Future
The baron shares with every literate Brazilian I met a boundless confidence in the future of his country. He radiates pride in its infinite distances and supposedly infinite wealth. He is one of millions who believe the Amazon overlies a great pool of oil; never mind the delay in finding it, for meanwhile it increases in value.
The oil is speculation. But one of the world’s richest iron-ore fields, in the Serra dos Cara*, bauxite on the Trombetas River, tin in Rondonia—these are realities. The new breed of pioneer will eventually open the treasure chest of the west, and if painstaking governmental planning works out, most of the people may benefit thereby.
“What man can imagine, man can do,” the baron says, and the Brazilian attitude in the 1970’s is very much “can do.” The nation will climb swiftly to its seat among the great powers—if imagination can make it so.