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  • In a National Observer article from January of 1963 — the second in a series about electoral politics and the Brazilian economy — Thompson opens by acknowledging Brazil's cultural fondness for witty aphorisms.

    “One concerns the bumblebee,” he writes, “which, according to the laws of aerodynamics, cannot possibly fly. But the Brazilians will explain that the bumblebee doesn’t know the laws of aerodynamics, and so he flies anyway.”

    In the mid-twentieth century, says Thompson, Brazil was the western hemisphere’s bumblebee, “defying most known laws of economics in a headlong rush to ‘development.’”

    Fifty years later, “development” is still a buzzword in Brazil, particularly in the Pantanal, the massive wetland ranch-country I visited last week. Together with a guide (and a pair of German engineers), I spent several days wildlife-watching along the untamed edge of the ecosystem, spotting families of skittish capybaras (the world’s largest rodents), troops of howler monkeys in the trees, and hundreds upon hundreds of caimans, the smallish South American alligators that clamber around the Pantanal in the tens of millions. At night, we looked up at a billion-star sky. In the afternoons, we trolled the wide Paraguay River, a 1,600-mile waterway and the region's aquatic lifeblood.

    The night we arrived in the Pantanal, sitting around a fire at our first camp, an Israeli backpacker on his way out shared with me another aphorism, this one from his homeland. In Israel, he explained, it is said that a person will never tire of staring at three things: campfires, waterfalls, and strummed guitars. It’s a good list, I think, but far too short. For starters, I would add monkeys, star-crowded skies, and big, slow rivers like the Paraguay. It’s possible that I’m just easily entertained, but if being enthralled by a long, lazy current makes me a simpleton, then I would rather not be a sophisticate.

    In the 1990s, a development proposal called the Hidrovia nearly destroyed the Paraguay River as I saw it. Many of the surrounding hills are rich in manganese, iron, and other minerals, and the mining companies who use the river as a shipping corridor pushed for a massive dredging and excavation project, one that would widen the Paraguay and “straighten out” its countless meanders. Straightening the river would have boosted shipping speeds. It also would have drastically and permanently altered the Pantanal's drainage, turning the world’s largest, most biodiverse wetland into something like a desert. The ecological consequences would have been severe.

    There’s another aphorism in Brazil, this one derived from a traditional method of hunting jaguar. Come at the jaguar with a conventional spear, and the cat will feint, dodge, and retreat. But leave some bushy branches at the end of your spear, and the foliage will rustle irritatingly in the animal’s face. A perturbed jaguar will grab at the spear, pulling it closer and allowing you to strike. Use too short a spear, however, and you risk being pulled in along with it.

    The river-straightening Hidrovia proposal was defeated in the early 2000s, but it remains a cautionary tale around the Pantanal, a reminder of the high ecologic stakes that accompany economic development. In Brazil, as elsewhere, when we tamper too drastically with nature, we are poking a jaguar with a very short stick indeed.

    To keep up with new stories from the Hunter S. Thompson Trail in South America, follow me on Twitter.
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