Notes from the Amazon rainforest
MANAUS, BRAZIL — I had the chance to make one detour before teaching at the Universidade de São Paulo’s Department of Anthropology as visiting faculty, and I decided on the Amazon, having always opted for the mountains in my previous trips in South America. As an anthropologist, I know I should not miss out on the chance to see for myself the natural and cultural richness I have only read about in ethnographic texts (most recently, for instance, Eduardo Kohn’s excellent “How Forests Think”).
Of course, part of the motivation was the news surrounding the jungle — that it is burning, and that it is being deforested beyond recovery. Beyond the sharply divided rhetoric between President Jair Bolsonaro and environmental activists, I also wanted to see for myself what’s going on in the world’s largest rain forest, the destruction of which has planetary consequences.
In Manaus, as it turns out, the people have no such worries. “You’re just hearing what is being reported in foreign media,”Luis, a driver, told me. “Every year, there are fires because of the farmers. It may be worse in other parts, like the North or in Bolivia, but here, we have no fires other than the usual.”
“Amazon is vast, like a continent in itself.”
The vastness of the Amazon is beyond question and almost beyond comprehension. The state of Amazonas alone is five times the size of the Philippines; the jungle itself extends into other states in Brazil, not to mention entire regions in Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela and the Guianas. Altogether, the rain forest covers 5,500,000 square kilometers — larger than all of Southeast Asia.
The highways under construction stretch endlessly, surrounded by ranches, newly-cleared land with fallen trees. From Manaus — the rain forest’s largest city of over 2 million inhabitants — one must travel over land and by multiple boat trips just to see the actual jungle.
As if reading my mind as he drove me to my hotel, Luis continued: “Bolsonaro is controversial because he wants to built roads and allow people to establish farmlands. For activists, that’s such an evil. But we think it’s actually good because without roads, we’re at the mercy of the [Amazon] river. And without farms, we’re forced to buy food at high prices.”
In the rain forest itself, the politics is secondary to the ebb and flow of the rivers, the bare life in the jungle. The meeting of the Rio Negro and the Rio Amazonas — two different rivers with different colors and characteristics — was a sight to behold, as it must have been in olden times when ships docked in the city to collect the rubber responsible for its former wealth.
Even more spectacular are the animals: the river dolphins, caimans, snakes (we had a fleeting encounter with an anaconda), piranhas, scorpions and many other fascinating fauna. I had the opportunity to camp in the jungle itself with a hammock, and waking up under the canopy of forest trees to the cacophony of bird calls was magical.
Travelers like me offer livelihood to many locals — jungle guides, boatmen, van drivers, restaurant and hotel staff, aÃ§aÃ juice peddlers, among many others. Tourism, however, remains a limited industry, and there is little impetus for the locals themselves to see the forest other than primarily an economic resource.
This is not to say, however, that the locals don’t care about the jungle. In my limited time here, I have seen their profound respect for the forest and an almost familial concern for animals and plants.
But they don’t sense the urgency in making lifestyle changes; the vastness and abundance of Amazonia seem incompatible with the idea of impending doom. When everywhere you look there are colorful birds, and when in every corner of the river there’s a caiman, I suppose it’s hard to believe that they are endangered species.
As Luis put it, “They have been saying that the Amazon will be destroyed in five years for the past 20 years. The forest is still around.”
But what if, as the latest scientific data suggests, he’s wrong?
“Come back in five years,” he replied. “And ask me again.”
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