In 1943 President Getúlio Vargas created the Territory of Guaporé from chunks of Amazonas and Mato Grosso. In 1981 it became the state of Rondônia, named for Marechal Cândido Rondon, the enlightened and humane soldier who ‘tamed’ this region in the 1920s when he constructed a telegraph line linking it to the rest of Brazil. Rondon also founded the Serviço de Proteção ao Índio (SPI), predecessor of Funai (Fundação Nacional do Indio; government índio agency). He exhorted SPI agents to ‘Morrer, se preciso for, matar nunca!’ (‘Die, if necessary, but never kill!’).
Policies later in the century were not so forward-thinking. In 1981 the Brazilian government, with help from the World Bank, launched an initiative to distribute land to poor settlers. Called Polonoreste, the project spawned a land rush, and Rondônia’s population leapt from 111,000 in 1970 to 1.13 million in 1991. Environmental safeguards were flimsy, and about one-fifth of the state’s primary virgin forest was cut down to make farmland. The rate of deforestation in the 1980s was equivalent to more than a football field a minute, for a whole decade.
Rondônia is a transition zone between dense Amazonian forests and cerrado (savanna), and despite its sad environmental past, it still has a rich diversity of fauna and flora.
Deforestation in Rondônia has dropped considerably from those highs, accounting for less than 10% of overall cutting in the Amazon, down from more than 15% in past years. However, in 2010, a Dutch study conducted in Rondônia showed that that small-time farmers, not medium or large-scale operations, are now the driving force behind deforestation in the state (and, presumably, the rest of the Amazon). Federal law stipulates that no more than 20% of any land grant may be cleared for farming or ranching; corporate farms have proved easier to police than smaller ones, who, the study found, clear as much as 50% of their forest plots. And while political pressure has proved effective against large agro-business, changing the practices of small-time farmers will require a far more nimble bureaucracy – never Brazil’s strong point, especially in the Amazon.