It’s difficult not to talk in superlatives when writing about the Amazon Rainforest; Amazonia, as this vast region in northern South America is called (roughly one-third of the continent), is the world’s largest river basin, covering over 1.7 billion acres (2,656,250 square miles). The actual tropical rainforest is spread over nine countries: Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana. Home to the world’s richest biodiversity and to over half the remaining rainforests worldwide, the Amazon has rightfully earned the moniker “Lungs of the Planet” since it’s continuous recycling of carbon dioxide supplies up to 20% of earth’s oxygen.
There are several aspects to the issue of climate change in The Amazon Rainforest. The decades-long practice of deforestation* contributes to climate change via the increase in harmful greenhouse gases from two primary sources: carbon dioxide released by fires used to clear the forest for agriculture and cattle ranches, and methane from belching cows that replace many of those trees. In addition, this removal of large swaths of the jungle has diminished a valuable carbon sink for the world. Yet, The Amazon, like many natural environments, is primarily a victim of climate change. I had read about severe droughts (in 2005 and 2010) causing problems in some areas of the forest and was curious about what other effects I would uncover once there.
* Ironically, The Brazilian Forest Code is one of the most rigid in the world. The problem has been a very deficient and corrupt inspection/monitoring system. The good news is that since 2005 there has been a sharp decrease in deforestation due to more thorough monitoring especially in the Brazilian states of Pará and Mato Grosso, the most heavily deforested areas. The state of Amazonas, where I visited the rainforest, is the best-preserved stretch of the Amazon rain forest: to this day.
It is not easy to travel in the real Amazon as a tourist. There are plenty of “adventure” tours that promise piranha fishing and a trip to a rubber tree museum, but none can take you up river to visit the indigenous communities. Much of Amazonia is off-limits to non-indigenous people for a number of reasons: difficulty of access (limited number of roads, places accessible only by boat during the months of rains, uncharted regions), demarcated indigenous territories, unsafe areas etc.
I was lucky and privileged to have Luiz Eduardo Pontual Marx, a native Brazilian now living in Barcelona, acting as my conduit to the Indian* communities of the Rio Negro region. I met Luiz, aka “Lalado,” through my dear friend Carolina Freitas da Cunha who also joined us on our trip. Lalado had developed many connections in the Amazon through his studies of the healing properties of the flora, assisting on archeological digs, and running art workshops with the Indians. Through his connections he was able to bring us on a journey that most could not do on their own.
*Since in the US it has become customary to use the term “native American” I asked what the politically correct term is for natives of the Amazon and was informed that “Indian” is what is most often used.
We three started our expedition in Manaus, home of the famous Teatro Amazonas and Encontro das Águas – the Meeting of the Waters – the Rio Negro and Rio Solimões (what the Amazon river is called in this stretch of Brazil). During the rubber boom years at the turn of the 20th century, Manaus was a wealthy and happening hot spot in the jungle, known as “The Paris of the Jungle“. Today, its population is the only thing that is booming. Currently at 2 million it’s expected to grow to 5 million in the next 10 years. Although there are remnants of its glorious past peeking through here and there, the soot and mold covering many of its former mansions makes for a sad sight. When I asked Lalado’s son Pedro (a lawyer in Manaus) if he thinks the city will be ready for the 2014 World Cup, he replied, “Ah yes, that’s a good joke.”
The first leg of our journey involved taking the Genesis III, a typical Amazon river boat, up the Rio Negro as far as Santa Isabel. There we would meet up with Marivelton Barroso, an incredibly focused 21-year-old who is a coordinator for the Association of Indigenous Communities of the Middle Rio Negro (ACIMRN). He would be our guide and pilot our canoe the rest of the way to São Gabriel da Cachoeira (population 13,000), the northernmost city of the Upper Rio Negro. We were excited to learn we would also be joined by Ely Sarmento, another bright and motivated Indian who is a project coordinator with ACIMRN. He joined us to learn more about The Witness Tree so that he could write an article about my project and our expedition for the local journal O Povo.
Even though the Genesis was to leave Manaus at 6pm and we arrived just after noon, the two decks of the boat were already crammed with hammocks. (The boat’s maximum is supposed to be 84 passengers but I counted about 112 hammocks with some of those holding a parent and child.) We managed to find spots to hang what would be our “homes” for the next few days and then watched the activity of the small port. Three of these river boats would be leaving that night and it was fascinating to watch them being expertly loaded with food for the journey, luggage, sacks of flour, TVs, motorbikes and even a fridge.
Our crew ran a very tight ship over our three-day voyage sweeping and mopping the floor and cleaning the bathrooms several times a day. It was certainly not a Princess Cruise, but I was impressed. They managed to feed over 100 people three full meals from a kitchen that was about the size (4 x 8 feet) of my own aptly named galley kitchen in NYC. Being the only native English speaker on board I was a curiosity for the children especially one doe-eyed boy who shadowed me around the boat. Although I was fortunate to have Carolina and Lalado translating for me, I wished I knew Portuguese so that I could communicate more with my neighbors on the boat. Despite the jam-packed conditions, everyone was very pleasant and polite. I wish I could say the same about the New York City subway at rush hour. One woman commented to Carolina, “The boat is like a mother’s heart, it can hold all of us.”
The crowded conditions of the boat didn’t really bother me during my waking hours as I spent most of my time either on the top deck or up in front of the pilot’s station taking in the unfolding scenery. After all, I was there to photograph the Amazon and I never tired of looking at it; the river, the trees, the ever-changing sky.
The water of the Rio Negro, the “black river,” is dark like a cup of black tea. Although the river is very wide at spots it does not run very deep and the pilots of the boat need to be on watch for rocks, sandbars, and small islands. Lalado asked one of the pilots if we could see the river’s charts so that I’d have a better idea of where we were but was told they don’t keep them on-board. I was amazed how well our two pilots knew the river… mysteriously veering from the middle to the left bank then the right to avoid obstacles I certainly couldn’t see. They didn’t have any fancy gear to guide them – just years of knowledge gained from traveling along it.
Our mid-January trip came at what is normally the very beginning of “winter” – or the wet season. Even though I’d never been there before the river looked swollen to me. A few people on the Genesis commented that over the past several years the heavy winter rains started earlier than usual. Generally “winter” starts in late January or early February but some locals noted the rainy season has begun as early as November in recent years. This year, the La Niña effect is partly to blame for more precipitation but as we continued our journey up river, we heard again and again that the rains had annually been getting worse.
I had thought that the recent droughts were a primary concern for the region but given that the Indians are so dependent on agriculture this excess rain is more problematic. One Indian mentioned that the rains had come so early this year that they missed the opportunity to burn an area of land for crops.* Now that the ground is so damp they will probably not be able to prepare it and plant this year.
* Unlike the destructive practice in other states of cutting and burning large swaths of the forest to clear the land for industrial agriculture and cattle ranches, the Indians use a more sustainable method of just burning small areas with superficial surface fire to prepare the soil. These areas are called “capoeiras.”
We spent a couple of days in Santa Isabel, a sleepy town of about 8,000 with fruit trees in every yard and dogs wandering the streets looking for love and affection. From there our posse of five traveled in an aluminum canoe with a small outboard engine to visit Indian communities* to ask them about their experiences with climate change.
North of Santa Isabel we entered Indigenous Territory, a legally demarcated area that is generally off-limits to non-indigenous people. When I saw these “Indigenous Territory” signs posted I realized how privileged we were to have Marivelton and Ely leading us on this journey. When we pulled up to a community, Marivelton would first go up to find the chief of the village and ask permission for all of us to visit. We were not once turned away and were generally greeted with freshly made açaí juice, a variety of fruits, coffee and even a delicious traditional fish stew a couple of times. The places we stayed at night also gave us a place to hang our hammocks and a breakfast of coffee and bijú ( a cracker-like bread).
*Most of the Indians we visited consider themselves to be of the Baré tribe although they may come from mixed Indian blood. There are also some cablocos (those of mixed Indian and European descent) living in these areas.
The communities varied in size, scale, and architecture but in all of them agriculture and often fishing was a key component of their daily life. In Brazil there is an ongoing battle over who owns the rights to the lands along the rivers of the Amazon. For now, much of it has been granted to the Indians, who their supporters call “The Forest Keepers.” Strongly rooted in the forest, this population is considered extremely important for conservation because they know the forest best and are increasingly aware of its importance.
Opponents say that the land along the river banks is too sandy to grow food and since it is flooded six months out of the year that it is not a viable place for people to live. (The recent discovery of oil in the Amazon is sure to add more fuel to this side’s fight to take land rights away from the Indians. However, there is evidence from recent archeological digs that the land of the Rio Negro has been cultivated by the Indians for over 15,000 years. Archeologist Eduardo Neves* was one of the first to discover the rich humus-like terra preta de índio (Indian’s black earth) layered with shards of broken pottery that is proof of the early Indians being farmers and not just hunter-gatherers. Who better than to tell me about changes in the climate than the people in these communities where the oral tradition and connection to the land is so strong?
* For a great film on the Amazon and Neves’ work there check out National Geographic’s “The Lost Cities of the Amazon.”
Despite the western clothing, satellite HDTV, pay phones, and even generators at some of the communities we visited, the lifestyle of the Indians of the middle Rio Negro is still fairly traditional and revolves around the river and the land. I watched açaí berries being smashed in a bucket to release their nutritious juice, saw farofa and tapioca being made from manioc flour*, heard a parrot being shot for that day’s supper, met a traditional boat builder, and saw children and adults fishing along the river’s banks. I also saw fields of manioc, smelled the sweet scents of a variety of ripe fruits, and heard the calls of a diverse array of birds.
* Manioc, also known as cassava or yuca, is an endemic root vegetable that is a staple of Brazilian diet. Even before I’d arrived in Manaus I’d sampled at least 2 different forms of it in the traditional dish Moqueca de Peixe that used farofa and pirão.
The farms I photographed in Costa Rica (Verdenergia and Rancho Mastatal) were started by Americans who were consciously choosing to create sustainable living environments. But the communities I visited in the Amazon are natural agro-forest communities. Besides using the plants and trees to create utensils (bowls, sieves, platters) and build canoes and homes, they have a great knowledge of and respect for the medicinal properties of the plants. Lalado told me that in the Santa Isabel region alone there are over 3,000 medicinal plants, most of these endemic to the Amazon.
All the Indians we met noted changes in the climate but as one missionary worker told us of her community, “Even though they may not understand the science of it, it has affected them psychologically.” In Manaus I bought a catalog from a 2008 conference entitled “Impacts of Climate Change on Manaus and the Rio Negro Basin,” sponsored by the Social and Environmental Institute (ISA), the Environmental Secretary of Manaus (SEMA) and the Sustainable Development Secretary of the State of Amazonas (SDS). This sense of emotional uncertainty among the Indians to climate change is further underscored in the catalog. Carolina translated sections of it for me and connected it to what we were witnessing:
Over the millennia, the close observance of the cycles of nature has informed much of the Indian’s habits, from cultivating to hunting and fishing, passing through rituals of all sorts that celebrate the delicate balance between community life and nature. It’s like they’ve built their cosmology on top of that observance. The ensuing confusion and distress caused by the shifting climate must be really enormous on those communities, more so than in modern societies…[The catalog says that] the climate functions as one of the great organizers of decision-making in the life of communities. Take the Baniwa Indians for example, in order to find out someone’s age, it is not uncommon for them to ask “How many summers do you have?”.
Besides the heavier and earlier winter rainfall (which we experienced firsthand), some of the other changes that the Indians noted were an increase in both ant populations (which destroy their young plants), and mosquitoes, especially those that bite. At one village we saw signs posted warning of symptoms of dengue and malaria. Both infectious diseases are carried by mosquitoes and are expected to spread more as temperatures around the world increase. One study found a direct link to an increase in malaria in Amazon’s deforested areas.
One village chief also told us that the direction of the wind had shifted. “It would only come from the North right before the river was going to flood and now it comes from the North all the time.” For a culture not only dependent on the land but also extremely respectful of it, I wonder if they imagine that “the gods might be angry with them” in throwing them these environmental curveballs. I sometimes think Mother Earth is sending us warning signals to watch our behavior.
Another important concern noted in the ISA catalog states that the Amazon region is expected to suffer a 5 degree Celsius increase by the end of the century as compared to a 2-3 degree increase in the rest of Brazil. With most climate change predictions it is difficult to create solid models for future projections because of feedback loops that can affect or amplify changes. The difficulty of creating a “definite model” for climate change prediction in that region of the world is a valid problem and ends up creating two very opposing projected scenarios: one of increasing severe droughts and loss of humidity and another of massive increasing precipitation. This difficulty arises precisely from the intricate interconnection of a variety of life forms, including the human presence. As Carolina commented on this in an email to me: “From what we’ve heard, it seems like both things are happening. I, for one, sure got confused with what seemed at times like contradictory information, didn’t you? It’s like an uncontrolled yo-yo.”
As perplexing as it seems, the existence of opposing extreme weather conditions in many areas of the globe is an all too common scenario with climate change. As explained in the 2007 United Nation’s Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report:
In a warmer future climate, most Atmosphere-Ocean General Circulation Models project increased summer dryness and winter wetness in most parts of the northern middle and high latitudes. Summer dryness indicates a greater risk of drought. Along with the risk of drying, there is an increased chance of intense precipitation and flooding due to the greater water-holding capacity of a warmer atmosphere. This has already been observed and is projected to continue because in a warmer world, precipitation tends to be concentrated into more intense events, with longer periods of little precipitation in between. Therefore, intense and heavy downpours would be interspersed with longer relatively dry periods.
Like many developing regions, the Indians of the Amazon have not significantly contributed to the causes of climate change. But because of their close relationship with the land they are more affected than those in industrialized societies who are responsible for higher greenhouse gas emissions. Since the Amazon is home to so many valuable natural resources (oil, gas, minerals, gold, trees, fish etc) it will certainly be fought over in economic and political arenas for years to come. But the over 30 million people from 350 indigenous and ethnic groups that live there and depend on the land should have priority over corporate interests. If the health of the Amazon continues to be compromised, all the world will suffer the loss of its important role as The Lungs of the Planet.
I’d like to express a special thanks to Carolina for her excellent role as translator, traveling companion, and sounding board in helping put this blog post together.
For more pictures from my journey up the Rio Negro … see the gallery below.