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Why History Is Repeating Itself Here in the Jungle

by | published November 25th, 2015

Here at Iguazu Falls, the landscape is breathtaking. So is the rainfall. Of course, if you are being drenched by cascades over 300 feet high (in the local Indian dialect, “Iguazu” means “big water”), some precipitation hardly makes much difference. Even if it comes down in sheets.

And judging from the lush jungle vegetation all about us, there is plenty of rain here.

The falls divide the Iguazu River into upper and lower sections. The upper level is in Brazil (as is most of the river’s travels); the lower is in Argentina (with Paraguay’s border close by).

This water delineation was once a major contention between two empires (the Portuguese in Brazil and the Spanish in Argentina), ultimately requiring that Rome intervene. Jesuits on one side of the border had discouraged enslaving the local Guarani Indians; the Portuguese side of the Falls had profited from a heavy trade in humanity.

In the 1750s this came to a head, and a papal emissary was sent to mediate. At stake in Europe was an ongoing power play within the Church and between colonizing nations. The Guarani lost.

But history repeats itself, and today another struggle is ensuing at Iguazu Falls…

Ruiz, Our Guarani Guide

The story of the Guarani Indians and the Jesuit missionaries is told beautifully in the 1986 movie The Mission, starring Robert De Niro, Jeremy Irons, Aidan Quinn, and Liam Neeson. The cinematography centers at Iguazu and is staggering, richly deserving the Oscar it won. It remains one of the most difficult movies ever filmed.

Historically, those Guarani who escaped enslavement and massacre moved upriver and disappeared back into the jungle. To this day, they have a jaundiced view of anything official or smacking of foreign property interests.

Ruiz is one of them. At least, this is what the local Brazilians call him. His real name, one fellow confided, is impossible to pronounce in either Portuguese or Spanish. In his mid-20s with penetrating black eyes, he makes a living on the upper Iguazu River by escorting tourists both on the water and in the surrounding national park. His English is passable, thanks to religious schooling (some things, it seems, have not changed much in over 200 years). But he usually offers little conversation, preferring to keep to himself. I am told this has been a Guarani trait for as long as anybody can remember.

I hired him shortly after we arrived last night to look after our journey’s needs and to offer some advice on local matters. My wife, Marina, has given up trying to strike up a conversation, although she has managed to teach him a few Russian phrases. That may prove interesting to some later tourist.

Bitterness and Bad Omens Over Iguazu Reserves

On the other hand, matters changed abruptly when I switched the conversation to energy prospects. As I noted in the last Oil & Energy Investor, there are considerable shale gas/oil reserves in the Iguazu area. Beneath the cascading water at this intersection of three nations – and extending for some distance above and below the cataracts – there is apparently some significant energy wealth waiting to be harvested.

That is a rapidly escalating problem. Ruiz does not regard it as the path to a new career or better prospects for his family. That’s because there have already been some episodes that the locals have regarded as bad omens. Ruiz quickly became bitter as, he says, have others.

There are not going to be Indians in managerial positions at any of the fields in preparation downriver on the Argentinian side. Thus far, jobs have been manual, low paying, without benefits, and transient. Hours are long, and the work is dangerous.

Despite a few half-hearted attempts by the Brazilian government to provide some protection, the Indians are widely distrustful of the companies making inroads north of the falls. There have been oppositions to timber and other concerns operating there, and this regard will certainly extend quickly to whatever emerges on the energy side.

The Guarani Are Locked in Another Pushback Against Outsiders

Now, as I mentioned in my last letter, there are few operating fields in the area at the moment and many delays in securing, transporting, and assembling onsite the entire gamut of necessary equipment.

Pipelines, terminals, storage facilities, treatment, and initial processing locations are all behind schedule in the Argentinian production network. But the widespread clearing of jungle, diversion of water sources, and soil erosion have begun well in advance of the rigs.

For those like Ruiz, this is not defending the environment or a way of life. The Guarani lost both long ago. This is becoming another pushback against outsiders… whether they hail from Houston, Madrid, Buenos Aires, or Rio.

In the 18th century it was slavers. Today it is gas. For some Guarani like Ruiz, there is little difference. History is a cruel reminder that the more things seem to change, the more they really stay just about the same.

In the next couple of weeks, I’ll be further afield… and will be writing to you about breaking developments in the Persian Gulf. In the meantime, I wish you and your loved ones peace this Thanksgiving.

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