White man coming!

May 29, 2002, 01:00 CEST

About 170 years ago, José de Melos ancestors fled from slave plantations in Pará. They ended up in Boa Vista on the margins of the Trombetas river.

Why the runaway slaves chose this place as their hide-out can be guessed from the name of the place – “boa vista” – good view. The green banks rising up from the river plateau offer some good lookouts where the fugitives could observe people approaching without been seen themselves.

“Even today, people here have this tendency to withdraw and check things out before coming forward to greet strangers,” says José de Melo, one of the leaders of the Boa Vista cooperative and himself a descendant of “quilombolas” – fugitive black slaves.

Boa Vista is on the Mineração Rio do Norte list of social activities programs, covering health care and education as well as smaller business projects, including research into the effects of local plants on different ailments. Local people have remedies against gastritis and rheumatism, for example, knowledge that has been passed on from one generation to the next, Melo explains. This is no surprise – after all, it was Amazon Indians who first extracted quinine from cinchona bark to be used against malaria.

De Melo and Ademar Cavalcanti Silva Filho of MRN agree that it is necessary to plan for the future in order not to be too dependent on a single company.

Even though there will still be mining of bauxite in Trombetas for another 55–60 years, people need to think today about how they will support themselves and their families in the future, they say.