It’s a long way
I was involved in a writing assignment in the Northwest region of Brasil last summer. I accompanied an American investor seeking out new land to harvest Jatropha Curcas, a perennial plant that extracts an oil ideal for bio-diesel refining. It’s a peculiar plant that can grow out of pretty much any type of soil, even in wastelands and beaches. This American gentlemen, a pilot and former Attorney was determined that Brasil was the best option for his newly found passion. I admired the guy and took on the project simply because it was fascinating to see a man on the brink of a ‘new way’. He was all-in, going for broke and needed a decent priced translator to get him to the right people to say the right things to come out with the right results. We set out for Mato Grosso and settled into the capital city Cuiaba. I had some contacts there via an NGO who were excited to take us into the bread basket of the region. Mato Grosso is the central agricultural nervous system for Brasil and an enormous spectrum of importers from around the globe. Soy and Sugar Cane harvests trump as champion cash-crops and ever since Brazil hit the moniker of “energy independent” some years ago there was a clean sense of pride in the ethanol (Alcool) race thanks to Sugar Cane. It was truly an exciting adventure burning through all the forward and backward linkages of these crops. Soy and Cane are two of the highest wielders in the Bio-Diesel market and I was sitting right next to a man who believed he can bring Jatropha to the helm as well. He came a long way, a long and winding way in this life to sit in a 767 with a freak like myself heading straight into the unknown.
Some harsh realities about Brasil bloomed organically over the 10 day trek throughout this region. A political blemish for lack of better words. Brasil has a corrupt atavism hemmed deep into its fabric. The lush money-making nouveau riche delegates in the agricultural trade presented smokescreens confirmed by whistle blowing low level political insiders who tagged along on our journey. At first the attention gave my client a positive sensation, but they were truly there to help me help him understand the dark loopholes and cash grubbing incentive programs. Brasil is based on these incentive programs that aide in progress and innovation. Take the matter of Jatropha. There have been people there before, doing exactly what my client was doing. They went right to the department of agriculture and took multi-million dollar grants to begin an extravagant R&D harvest just 100 Kilometers north of Capital City in Barra dos Bugres. The crops ran next to the biggest ethanol refinery in Northern Brasil – BarrAlcool. We went there to meet with the president thanks to an insider I met and politely check on the developments of this project. I was reluctant to translate what I discovered seeing the American wide-eyed and blissed by projections of his own on the new region. I eventually explained to him while we were walking out of the meeting that the crop had failed and the department of Agriculture was skeptical about releasing new grants for this type of crop. In other words it was a savvy get-rich-from-progress type of racket that ran rampant for the past 3 years. The refinery called BarrAlcool showed skepticism about my clients being there yet played it off as professionals and offered us a tour of the facility along with the area once dedicated to Jatropha some 3 years ago. I personally felt the refinery profited immensely and were so big they could wash their own hands. After the tour of the refinery we were taken by a humble engineer over to the grounds where Jatropha once showed promise – million of dollars worth. It was a crushing scene seeing the American walk along the fields holding dead Jatropha leaves in his hand. He was silent and I could tell it was demoralizing. “They did it wrong” he said. “Something is not right here and I’m going to find out why.” Astonishing. This man was in the snake pit of corruption yet didn’t register it. He didn’t care. All he cared about were the well-being of these plants. This kind of optimism won over many local farmers willing to go into a sharecropping deal. The American was all eyes front and center, ready to make a change that August back in 2009.
I set up some meetings for him back in Capital City with the Governor of the State of Mato Grosso along with the Secretary of Agriculture. Hoping that they can see this man is no crook and all he wants to do is grow the plant and send it off to refining.
Nothing came out of that trip for the American. My translation and knowledge of the culture along with a 5 person entourage wasn’t strong enough to fight the whip of dead weight corruption. Progress is definitely in Brasil. There is no doubt to that. Though the way it propels will be a mystery that reaches back hundreds and hundreds of years back since Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese Colonists lusted after such a magnificent landscape rich with the worlds primary source of fiber and grain.
Some months later back in Los Angeles I met up with the pilot at the Santa Monica airport. I wanted to shoot some shots out of his airplane with a friend of mine. He was gladly open.
I crossed these shots with some urban shots within Los Angeles, hoping to bring out the feeling of the long way in life. The mission each one of us takes from birth to death along these tricky and certainly windy windy roads.
Here is the result of my contact with the pilot. An after-burn of our enigmatic trip to Mato Grosso. I could tell he was humbled by the experience. I sensed it as he fueled up his Cessna while carrying away about our trip jammed with chuckles and sighs. I really thought I could bring him into the eye of agricultural promise down there.
Here is a look into that day flying over Los Angeles.
Don’t forget to take a look at the developments on the plastic expedition across the North Atlantic. Refer to to see the clip from sea.
Here is another take on Los Angeles. Click on “untitled” below.