Skip to content

The Amazon Has Lost All Subjectivity

The Brazilian dictatorship’s forgotten Project RADAM
A satellite map of Brazil where it meets the Atlantic Ocean.

In 1970, the president of Brazil’s new military dictatorship, Emilio Medici, announced his National Integration Plan, which he claimed would “link the landless man of the Northeast with the man-less land of the Amazon” (a plan which might have been disputed by the Amazon’s no fewer than one hundred thousand indigenous inhabitants, had they been consulted). One arm of the plan was a joint investigation of remote sensing technologies by NASA and Brazil’s National Commission of Space Activity. Could the tools used to wage the Cold War be used to conquer the Amazon, the vast green mystery in the country’s interior?

The fruits of this effort combined the U.S. military’s “observation-and-attack” OV-10 Mohawk system, developed during the war against Vietnam, with Side-Looking Airborne Radar (SLAR) technology, originally used for reconnaissance along the Iron Curtain. From an altitude of thirty-six thousand feet, the Brazilians’ new system could “scan” twenty-three-mile-wide strips of land at a time while moving at over five hundred miles per hour, all at the low cost of $9.00 per square mile. Within a few years, the initiative had mapped an area spanning nearly seventeen thousand square miles along Brazil’s new Trans-Amazonian highway.

RADAM was a nationalist project that applied military technology to extractive ends. 

The project proceeded with great efficiency. Soon, governmental representatives of the petroleum, cacao, mining, and development industries urged the mapping commission to expand the program to an area of nearly six hundred thousand square miles. In 1975, they broadened the project’s ambit once more, this time to encompass the entire country. It was renamed Project RADAMBRASIL (aka Project RADAM). The following year, RADAM published its findings in a thirty-two-volume collection of maps, diagrams, and charts that provided an inventory of each region’s mineral content, geomorphology, vegetation, and land-use potential—information that directly promoted Brazil’s development interests.

RADAM was a nationalist project that applied military technology to extractive ends. Its maps literally materialized the dictatorship’s vision of land as a resource for exploitation. This precluded any consideration of the Amazon as, among other things, a home for indigenous communities, whose existence RADAM tacitly denied.

The following transcript is of a 1975 presentation by RADAM’s leading technicians before the deputies of the dictatorship’s Amazonian Commission in Brasília. After summarizing the achievements of the project to date, a head technician makes sure to note that “Project RADAM does not have the power to impose concrete action, but it does have the power to propose” development possibilities. This claim, in turn, leads to a heated debate that consumes the rest of the meeting. Deputies (federal legislators) from the country’s neglected interior face off against the technicians and their deputy allies. At stake is a question of the utmost importance for a country in the midst of violent self-invention: What is the value of a plan (in both the forward-looking and in the planar, schematic sense) that is never enacted? Who is responsible for turning Brazil’s self-image into reality? And what is the role of poets in a military dictatorship?

For clarity, I have added, in italics, context of the debate’s proceedings—stage directions of a kind.

—Peter Schmidt

The presentation begins in a self-celebratory fashion. Deputy and president of the Amazonian Commission, Alacid Nunes, crows that Project RADAM has answered the “desires—why not say it?—of the Brazilian population, that needs in truth to describe what exists in that vast region that is the Amazon, a region that is for us an unknown.” Technicians take the floor to recount RADAM staff meetings with Brazil’s state oil company, as well as its cocoa cultivation, agricultural development, mining, and geological surveying departments, in which they agreed to continuously expand the project to encompass a land area equivalent to 58 percent of Brazil and 28 percent of South America.

Discoveries abound: Geologist Roberto Silva Issler highlights “circular igneous structures,” speculating that these could be composed of nepheline syenite, copper, nickel, or even kimberlite, in which diamonds are known to grow. Certainly, he adds, the Amazon is rich in gold, diamonds, niobium, tin, aluminum, iron, and manganese. Meanwhile, Lucio Salgado Vieira notes with dismay that the Amazon’s soils are markedly less fertile than they had previously believed, with only 4.02 percent of its soil cover exhibiting medium to high fertility indices.

Then Luiz Guimaráes de Azevedo unveils the main attraction: the land-use potential map. This document, which represents the superposition of RADAM’s numerous measurements, aspires to qualitatively and quantitatively assess the “economic potential” of the areas surveyed by RADAM. Qualitative data are combined to express the levels of “economic possibility” for a given plot with respect to logging, farming, livestock in planted and natural areas, and foraging. This information is presented in color-coded maps, with corresponding pie charts.

The conversation is momentarily derailed by Antunes de Oliveira, who interrupts one technician detailing the discovery of petroleum reserves to formally request RADAM petroleum maps that had been “anti-Brazilianistically prohibited” by the nation’s armed forces. He points out that bound volumes of these maps have been shared with the United States, Russia, Finland, and Switzerland, and protests that the volumes “are in the hand of the subversives but not mine? Give me a break!”

In response, Nunes explains that the prohibited maps depicted land along the Brazilian border, and that the information they contained was a question of national security. Oliveira cedes the floor with evident dissatisfaction, grumbling, “How pathetic is that?” But his underlying question is palpable: is RADAM, as its technicians claim, in reality a “merely informative” document? Or does it obey other interests? And if so, whose?

It is here that the conversation skews markedly off course. When Deputy Antônio Pontes applauds the RADAM technicians as the height of patriotism, Deputy Juvêncio Dias rushes to dispute the claim—but not without first ensuring, in true bureaucratic fashion, that his name is on the record in support of the project.

Project RADAMBRASIL, 1976. | European Soil Data Center

Deputy Juvêncio Dias:

Mr. President, Messrs. Deputies . . . representatives of Project RADAM, I have the feeling that RADAM may just be our nation’s most audacious project. I believe in Project RADAM because it is very objective. The Amazon has lost all subjectivity . . .

My fear—and here I disagree with the word of my noble colleague Antônio Pontes—is that the technicians of Project RADAM are satisfied with a mere plan. What I see in the Amazon is technicians being satisfied with plans, and not caring to know whether their plan was well implemented, and with what consequences. They are satisfied to behold their own image. They are like the orator who is satisfied with his own voice, or like the beautiful movie star who is satisfied with her own photograph. I don’t know if this occurs in other countries, but in Brazil it is the technician’s chronic disease. And I disagree deeply when the noble Deputy Antônio Pontes says that these technicians are the embodiment of patriotism. Patriotism means to fight for something. The technicians might come up with an extraordinary plan, but if they don’t have the ability to fight for their plan to be obeyed, it hasn’t the slightest value. Plans of this nature exist—imported from Switzerland, from Denmark, from the United States, and from the South of Brazil itself.

Therefore, I want to make it very clear that I deeply disagree with the noble Deputy Antônio Pontes when he says that the technicians of Brazil are the embodiment of patriotism. They are the exception to the rule . . . for patriotism is in the very battle that technicians refuse. The Brazilian technician sits high in an ivory tower; he is the man who cannot bear to be challenged.

I hope, therefore, that Project RADAM is the exception. And that the face of my friend Otto resembles, not a boxer’s, perhaps, but a fighter’s. Thank you.

Deputy Antônio Pontes:

Mr. President, if I may weigh in on a few of the considerations made here by the Noble Deputy . . .

Mr. President (Deputy Alacid Nunes):

Naturally. Your Excellency has the floor.

Deputy Antônio Pontes:

. . . It is evident, Noble Deputy, that it does not fall to these technicians of Project RADAM to ensure that the work that they undertook in the spirit of Brazilianness be executed. It falls, instead, to a higher body, to Project RADAM itself, to ensure that this work be executed . . . It falls, above all else, to us, the members of this government program, to do so.

That is the position that we adopted in this commission, and we believe, Messrs. Deputies, that with the bodies of the Amazonian region we will ensure that the magnificent work of Project RADAM can be—

Deputy Jerônimo Santana:

Pardon my brief interruption, Noble Deputy? If Your Excellency comes to my house, I will show you the square meters of printed paper that they send to us here at the Chamber of Deputies every day—expensive paper, by the way, colorful and sophisticated paper. Here, during the previous government, it was all the rage to produce sophisticated reports, including one I received from the Bank of Brazil which—frankly, I don’t know how they made such a thing with public money.

“The Amazon is full of poets with a bird’s-eye sense of reality.”

But what I want to say to Your Excellency is what I’ve always said in the territory of Rondônia and in my interventions: the Amazon is full of poets with a bird’s-eye sense of reality. I will show Your Excellency the square meters I have in my house of plans for Rondônia. Very expensive plans, plans costing 2.3 million cruzeiros [the dictatorship’s short-lived currency] . . . Public money was spent on the plans of SUDECO, SUDAM, SUDHEVEA, PROHEVEA, PROVOR, and the Amazon Bank. And of a number of other bodies which my memory fails to recall or enumerate. Everybody has their plans, and I have made it something of a hobby to collect them, because at some moment it may pique my interest to conduct a study on the “plans of all plans.”

And these plans are expensive. There’s a planning industry in this country—an industry that cranks out plans. In Rondônia, since 1950, there have been plans for electric energy, like everywhere else in the Amazon, made by French technicians and technicians from the Amazon Bank, and not one was implemented.

The reality is out there, Your Excellency. Go to the territory of Rondônia, where the people are living ragged and hungry and miserable. It’s a land problem, it’s a mining problem, it’s an everything problem . . . and nothing gets resolved in education or in health.

That’s the reality, and I take Deputy Juvêncio’s point, because we are tired of poets in the Amazon. We are tired of planners. We need serious men, pragmatic men who make things happen for the people that are dying of hunger.

But nothing gets done! In that moment, the planner is nowhere to be found. He’s in his air-conditioned cabinet or in his helicopter or his plane. And the people there, dying. That’s the responsibility of the government.

Deputy Antônio Pontes:

Noble Deputy, I fully agree with Your Excellency, but it is clear that I am not holding responsible, nor will I hold responsible, Project RADAM’s technicians.

Deputy Jerônimo Santana:

(Away from microphone) It’s planning-mania. I had to say it: our region is subjected to all that. It’s subject to plans every single day.

Deputy Antônio Pontes:

Noble Deputy, I was speaking to—and I already said this to Deputy Juvêncio Dias—I was speaking specifically to Project RADAM’s technicians. Evidently, we both understand and are living through the same ordeal. Your Excellency knows this very well. We are also defenders of our region, and we also condemn all the absurd spending that goes toward surveying projects. Meaning that when we refer to technicians, I was speaking specifically to the case of Project RADAM. Sincerely, it is good work that they have been doing and it deserves our applause.

President (Deputado Alacid Nunes):

Deputy Antônio Pontes, I’m referring directly to the technicians of Project RADAM. Only their actions matter. That’s where patriotism happens. For technicians to formulate a plan and say “this is it” counts for nothing, since there are a plethora of technicians in this extraordinary nation.

Technicians exist by the hundreds. In Amazonia, we find millions of technicians in the streets. There are more technicians in Amazonia than caboclos [Brazilians of mixed indigenous and European descent] these days. Now, I want to see the result of all that. Before all else, I believe that Project RADAM is objective. It departs a bit from the philosophy, the poetry, the small talk. Any designer can make a map, that’s just photography. That’s photography, my friend! No, they have to fight for their plans to be put into action. If they don’t fight, they aren’t patriots. Plus a technician, minus a technician. Thank you. I hope they are patriots.

Mr. President (Deputy Alacid Nunes):

A word from Dr. Otto.

Mr. Otto Bittencourt Netto:

I want to remind you all that we are, in fact, executing a plan. We executed a plan for aerial surveying. Now we will take on the executive phase. Your Excellency is absolutely correct: everything is left on paper, nothing moves forward, money is spent that, speaking in global terms, constitutes a huge figure, since every project is budgeted at 220 million cruzeiros. Divided by the area, that gives about 50 cruzeiros per square kilometer, divided by seven maps, that gives seven cruzeiros per square kilometer per map. This is one of the advantages of putting all these maps together.

Still, the area is vast, and problems pop up every day. If we were to detour from our work to demand the execution of the innumerable projects that should be carried out in the area—and which are not being carried out—we would cease to work on Project RADAM. It’s a difficult choice. We recognize that there are always interruptions; many things should go forward, but they don’t.

Deputy Juvêncio Dias:

Dr. Otto, I fully accept your explanation, but I believe that the most complementary behavior of a technician is to fight. And nobody has better conditions to fight for your work than you do. . . . Making a plan to be shelved makes no sense. And I’m certain—you are young, sir—that youth would not accept such a result.

I hope that you don’t age prematurely. The old man is comfortable because time has made him that way. His very physiology and his very hormones make him this way. You’re still young. If you lose the ability to fight, you will age early, your very personality will turn gray, and that’s the worst kind of aging. Thank you.

[Unnamed Technician]:

First, I want to request permission to speak to Dr. Otto. Not as a Project RADAM technician, but simply as a technician, I would like to say how much it pained us—us real technicians—the accusation of not being a patriot. . . . We fight, but we can only get to a certain point. I say this because it has everything to do with my map, this most idealistic of maps, this map that attends to preservation, [for which] you even call us poets of nature.

I’m sorry to say it, but at my age—I’m older than the other RADAM technicians—that hurts to hear, I tell you, and I’m certain the other technicians feel the same.

Deputy Rafael Faraco:

That’s the fundamental characteristic of Project RADAM: to be a merely informative body. It surveys reality and informs whoever is responsible for executing projects. Thus far it is totally fulfilling its mission.