In Rondonia’s capital city of Porto Velho, steamy and swollen now with a population of 450,000, there are people who tell of a time not far back when the jungle tightly girded what was then a lightly populated outpost on the frontier. The place lay fast by the Madeira River, a wide and brown tributary of the Amazon with the promise of gold in its sands. Few made their way to Porto Velho then, because access by road was virtually nonexistent.
But then a road was scraped through the length of the state, eventually linking P6rto Velho with Cuiaba, the capital of Mato Grosso state. An ambitious highway through the Amazon, it is called BR-364. At first the 900-mile road was dirt, so when the tropical rains came each year, starting in September, it all went to thick red mud.
Still, the mass movement of people to Rondonia began in those years of the early 1970s; by 1984, when the paving of BR-364 was completed, the migration was turned to full throttle. There has been nothing like it since the rush to the American West by settlers.
The damage to the environment has been severe. As much as 20 percent of the rain forest may have been destroyed. Socially Rondonia has mirrored the excesses of other frontier openings: the undercurrent of lawlessness, the greedy exuberance of pay day loans online entrepreneurs, the guzzling, giggling night music of debauchery, and a haphazard life-style gripped by uncertainty.
And, of course, there are Indian players in this frontier drama. They are being pushed into corners, sometimes murdered.
In a haze of dust at sunset a mule-drawn cart joins traffic on the 300-foot-wide main street of Rolim de Moura, a rowdy town named for an 18th-century Portuguese governor. Trucks laden with logs and lumber roar along this route as they service surrounding mills. Wood products make up more than 60 percent of Rond6nia’s industrial yield.