Originally published on 4/3/2008 by O Estado de S. Paulo
Those who arrive in Tomé Açu, in Pará, are impressed by the number of timber and charcoal businesses along the pothole-ravaged road. It is the story of Amazon destruction. A group of farmers is revolting, but does so in silence. Japanese and descendants tend to act that way. They are not accustomed to fighting and are more willing to work. If during the most adverse years of World War II they survived, why would it be different now?
The third largest colony of Japanese immigrants in Brazil, in proportion of inhabitants, is in Pará. It only trails São Paulo and Paraná. In the faraway lands of the Amazon, they are productive farmers. They introduced crops like black pepper, acerola, Hawaiian papaya, melon and mangosteen. In Tomé-Açu, almost an island, where it is easier to float wood down the rivers than fruits and spices over the highways, it was necessary to be creative. One day, Watanabe Imaki had the idea to freeze fruit pulp and sell it to the markets in the southeast and south. The technique began with these Japanese settlers.
Nissei Seiya Takaki, 49, is not an environmentalist, but rather a rural producer who defends the forest as much as possible. This owner of 1100 hectares, which he patiently gathered buying lots of 25 hectares at a time from fellow-countrymen, shows one of his properties. He makes a point of showing the more than 30 year old, leafy Brazil nut trees. Or the mahogany, copal, tonkabean, rubber and ipê trees, the latter more recent. He does the opposite of the lumberjacks. Takaki plants the Amazon trees, and under them, he plants other species, like black pepper, cacao, cupuaçu, passion fruit. They supply the family.
However, these principles that unite work, prosperity and harmony with nature, which the Nikkeis so greatly esteem, are being threatened by the sem-tora – invaders of lands who then settle there and exploit the Amazon’s profitable wood. After facing attempts at invasions, the Nippo-Brazilians resorted to the Tomé-Açu Agriculture Cooperative, which feels like its hands are tied. The state government shows no signs of being on their side. “They only invade for wood or for noble land. Our soil is poor, but the wood we preserve is worth gold,” protests the Issei Mitsuharu Onuki, president of the cooperative.
Forget phrases like “Tomé-Açu is a postcard of Japan”. That is an exaggeration when speaking of just over 300 Nikkei families. The city of more than 60 thousand inhabitants has a majority of Brazilians from the northeast and Espírito Santo. The descendants concentrate in Quatro Bocas, a city district near the properties they have maintained for almost 80 years. That is also the location of the cooperative, the oterá (Buddhist temple), gakko (school) and the golf course. And of course the supermarket, the meeting place for the farmers. On Friday mornings, the men take the women, who prefer to shop, while they stand about talking. In Japanese.
Like in other Japanese colonies, the language is only fluent among the older ones. Tomé-Açu has a slight advantage, since there is still a majority of Isseis and Nisseis (Japanese and children of). The parents still make a point of sending the children to learn Japanese, but without the Ditchan and Batchan (grandfathers and grandmothers) at home, learning is more difficult. “The tomodati (children) have class twice a week. Between one class and another, they have already forgotten a lot,” explains Nissei Lucia Arisa Ito Matsuzaki, 29, teacher of Nihongo.
Hajime Yamada, 80 years old, arrived at the age of 2, with the first group of 43 immigrant families, 187 Japanese on board the ship, Montevideu Maru. He came from Hiroshima with his parents and remembers his arrival in Brazil, on a September 7th. He thought all the festivities were for him, a sort of welcome party. At that time, the independence of succeeding in an inhospitable, hot and forest-filled region was a distant dream.
In the 1920s, Japan saw the inevitable collapse of its agricultural colonies in Taiwan, Korea and Manchuria. They were kept there by force, so no good fruit would result. And it was necessary to export Japanese. An expedition penetrated into the Amazon. They found promising lands and were well received in Brazil. The government of Pará donated 500 thousand hectares in the then municipality of Acará, today’s Tomé-Açu. Between 1929 and 1935, more than 600 families arrived. They lived cloistered in the farms during the first years. They got ill, lost cacao harvests, tried other species and the difficulties only increased.
“Until I was 20, my life consisted only of the field. I had many illnesses, malaria more than once; it was very difficult. We took one year just to build a dike,” recalls Yamada, who today assumes the role of Bonsan, the priest who prays the service at the temple. A widow, he knows that if no one takes on the function, like his father did in the past, the community will begin to lose its ties. Of the six children he had with his wife, Toyoie, three are still alive, but only one lives with him in the wood house that has withstood time.
With all the adversities, many families gave up on the Amazon and migrated to São Paulo, where the reports said the Japanese were even leasing out small farms. During World War II, Tomé-Açu became a land for the stubborn, without any crop that could revive the economy. There was no type of communication, or roads – asphalt only arrived five years ago. Belém could only be reached by boat, a trip that took two to three days. The children’s schools were hidden in the homes. They operated on a rotating basis to escape repression. “The city was always isolated. Without the union of the Nihonjin, who came here with courage, we would never have what we have today,” says Nissei Michonori Konagano, municipal secretary of agriculture.
The colony’s luck began to change by accident. A Japanese woman died on board an immigration ship in 1933. The trip was interrupted with a stop in Singapore. There, Makinoske Ussui, in charge of the embarkation, bought 20 black pepper saplings. He distributed them among the families in Tomé-Açu, but only two plants survived. The two that, years after World War II, would help the city become the largest producer in the world. It became the black diamond of the Amazon. It turned the economy around; fruit of persistence, Oriental patience and a way of life that valorizes the collective good.
New immigrants arrived. Including Germans and Italians with the end of the global conflict. The State felt it best to isolate the immigrants in a city that had difficult access like Tomé-Açu. But those who were there had one thing in mind: to produce. The Japanese settlers realized that for the city’s economy to grow, they had to bring in more countrymen. In the 1970s, they began to plant cacao again, which took some time to take hold. And other crops followed. Crops the Nikkei farmers were pioneers in growing in the country. Today, they have two fruit pulp factories, one of the most profitable businesses, with production concentrated on açai for exportation. And the city is once again the largest producer of black pepper in the world.
The cycles of black pepper and cacao drove a region that could very well have been just one more, like so many others in the south of Pará, with high rates of deforestation. Instead, they brought benefits for everyone, such as the Nippo-Brazilian hospital, which celebrated its 20th anniversary. Seventy percent of the hospital was paid for by the colony. The families grew and also migrated to neighboring cities, such as Santa Isabel and Castanhal. In all of Pará, there are nearly 55 thousand Nikkeis. The younger ones, in search of higher education, migrated to the capital. In the 1990s, almost 400 people abandoned Tomé-Açu and returned to Japan. They became dekasseguis. Few, very few, have returned.