Mato Grosso: still a frontier
In April 1925 the British explorer Percy Fawcett, his son Jack and Jack’s friend Raleigh Rimell left Cuiaba, a frontier town in the Brazilian Amazon, on a journey into the largely unexplored forests of the Mato Grosso (great forest) in a quixotic search for what Fawcett called the ‘lost city of Z’ (subsequently the titles of a book and film). For weeks they travelled towards the north-east, through an area with only a handful of ranches and a small military outpost. Fawcett sent a final message from ‘Dead Horse Camp’, which was only about three hundred kilometres from Cuiaba. The party then moved further into the jungle.
They were never seen again.
Fawcett was an experienced and famous explorer. In the following decades several expeditions went in search of the party. Perhaps 100 searchers died on these expeditions. The jungles were exceptionally dangerous, with rivers and swamps, rampart disease, snakes, shortages of food and unfriendly Indigenous tribes, justifiably suspicious of outsiders, especially rubber barons and slavers. Although there were rumours that the party had been killed by Indians, or that Fawcett or Jack had survived, turned native and survived for years, nothing definite about their fates was ever resolved.
In 1925, Cuiaba was very remote. Fawcett had to travel by river boat to get there. When a friend and I visited about ninety years later we flew on a modern Brazilian-made jet to a city with a population of about a million.
We were visiting the Mato Grosso with Danilo de Urzedo, a Brazilian forester who was writing a PhD about forest restoration in the Mato Grosso. Danilo worked with an organisation called the Xingu Seed Network, which consists of local settler and Indigenous communities who collect seeds of forest trees for sale to supply government mandated forest restoration.
We left Cuiba in a single engine Cessna. The flight to Agua Boa took about two hours. Fawcett had taken weeks to cover a shorter distance. From the air I expected to see large areas of forest with extensive patches cleared for agriculture and livestock. Instead we saw vast cleared areas with small patches of forest.
From Agua Boa we drove to Novo Xavantina, several hours to the south. The main roads are well maintained, built to service agribusinesses. The contrast with what Fawcett and his party travelled through was extraordinary. Novo Xavantina is one of a large network of towns servicing agriculture in the region. It has a university and a wide range of services.
But, for all its comparative prosperity, Novo Xavantina has a dark history. It is named after the Xavante people who were dispossessed and frequently murdered by settlers. The Rio das Mortes (River of the Dead) runs through the town, named after the Indigenous bodies dumped in the river.
In a side street there is an apparently derelict stone house. This once belonged to the famous Villas Boas brothers (Orlando, Claudio and Leonardo), activists who supported the indigenous people against settlers, miners and the government. They were responsible for the founding of the Xingu National Park, now the Xingu Indigenous Territory, a large area of jungle under the control of Indigenous tribes who remain in the territory, supposedly able to live life as they wish. Despite its historical importance, the house has no heritage status. It doesn’t even have a sign explaining its history.
We were not able to visit the Xingu Indigenous Territory, which can only be accessed with permission. We did visit the Kisidje Indigenous Territory and a settlement established by the Kisedje Indigenous Association. The settlement has a tourist shop selling locally made souvenirs, a school and other facilities. There is also a unit which makes cultural videos. The people are very politically aware. During our visit some of the leaders were protesting against government policies in Brasilia, the capital of Brazil.
The settlement is surrounded by an area of forest, regenerated by the tribe, in turn surrounded by cleared agribusiness owned farmland.
In Canarana, another prosperous service town, pride in economic development and the success of agribusiness is obvious. In the town park there is an old DC3 – the first aircraft to service the town. In this celebration of settler history, there is no mention of the Indigenous people.
Looking at the Mato Grosso now, it is hard to imagine that anybody could completely disappear only a few hundred kilometres from Cuiaba. It was a frontier town in 1925, with settlers expanding into the Mato Grosso, beginning to seize land for ranching and agriculture and engaging in struggles with the Indigenous people. Despite massive changes the Mato Grosso continues to be a frontier. Forest continues to be cleared. Under the current president, the Trump-like Jair Bolsonaro, environmental protection and Indigenous rights continue to be trodden on in the name of development.
Robert (Bob) Fisher is an anthropologist and human geographer with a strong interest in people and forests.