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Tucson Weekly Pillaging the Amazon

Of river pigs and English prigs.

By Gregory McName

MARCH 9, 1998: 

Amazon Journal: Dispatches from a Vanishing Frontier, by Geoffrey O'Connor (Dutton) Paper, $24.95.

GEOFFREY O'CONNOR FIRST earned his chops as a filmmaker; his last documentary, At the Edge of Conquest, was nominated for an Oscar in 1993. He shows considerable talent as a writer as well, documenting the destruction of Brazilian Indian nations like the Kayapo and Yanomami as thousands of wildcat miners stream into their remote Amazonian territories seeking gold. (The Yanomami, he writes, "refer to the miners as 'wild pigs snorting in the mud' because of the way they press their bodies into the sides of rivers as they search the embankments.")

O'Connor's portraits of Indians, settlers, government officials, and environmental activists are right on the mark, and he writes with a certain offhandedness that verges on, but does not cross over to, smugness. He has a special fondness for needling the rock star Sting, who descends godlike and helicopter-borne from the sky at points in the narrative to deliver homilies about saving the Garden of Eden and helping the Brazilian people solve their problems. Along the way, O'Connor dissects the myth of Chico Mendes, the Marxist labor activist, "the world's first eco-martyr" around whose estate Hollywood scouts whirl to sign hagiographic biographies; and lampoons the commodification of Indian peoples. O'Connor even takes time, blessedly, to poke fun at himself, an interloper in Indian country with camera and mosquito repellent in hand.

Yet, acid-tongued as he is, O'Connor is utterly serious in his view that the gold rush is an unprecedented disaster in the making, yet another threat to the embattled rainforest. And it is huge--the annual yield of the strike, he notes, is twice that of the much more famous Klondike gold rush of the previous century. This is a literate, funny, and ultimately alarming book.


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