issue 219 - May 1991
MARK EDWARDS / STILL PICTURES
Hell hath no hammock
An editor in distress is like a skipper with no spanner.
Rubber smells. I’d say it smells of ancient cheese and sewers, but my companions insist it is the odour of unwashed human sex organs. There’s about a ton of it, lying in enormous balls (I’m sorry to say), right across the floor of the boat which is within an inch or two of sinking. The rubber is the same stuff I saw being sold at the tappers co-op and we’re taking it for sale to the processing factory in Cruzeiro do Sul.
This boat belongs to the Union of Indigenous Nations (UNI) – and while the Chico Mendes carried no rubber tappers, this one carries rubber tappers but no Indians. As well as the rubber there’s a family with four children (a fifth on the way) and two grandmothers camped in the bows. In the stern are the skipper, two sisters and sometimes a new-born baby. In between are four elderly tappers keeping their rubber company, a young deaf man with whom I feel an intimate bond, and myself.
As long as we keep moving the stench of the rubber is not intolerable, and it gives added point to the journey. I do a quick calculation in my head. The co-op buys the rubber from the tappers at $0.5 a kilo. That means our cargo is worth about $500. The co-op produces about 500 tons of rubber a year, and there are some 500 families in the co-op. That means an average income of $500 per family per year - not enough to live off. On top of that, the goods they buy from the co-op have to be marked up by at least a third on town prices to cover transport costs. No wonder they are hungry and sick.
By the morning of the next day I am getting just a taste of what it feels like. The record in my diary reads as follows:
‘Reasons to be fed up:
1. Camera jammed following jungle jaunts. Is it taking pictures or not?
2. Cracked a rib; despite Marinilza’s expert attention yesterday, searing pain if I try to move while breathing in.
3. This I can’t avoid doing while clambering over rubber – straighten up, bounce, strike balding pate on roof repeatedly. Redundant instruction book for camera placed inside hat for protection.
4. No tobacco – and no sympathy likely for this either. Large granny, only fellow pipe-smoker met so far, has just enough for herself wound round curious bent sticks on which it is sold here. Damn. This is where the stuff came from in the first place – wonder if there’s any growing out there in the forest somewhere?
5. Heat, sweat, dirt, bites, hunger, headaches.
6. No hammock, left on Chico Mendes.’
The worst of these is the lack of a hammock. It’s hard to describe how utterly lost one feels without a hammock on the Amazon; nowhere to sleep, read, write or just rest and nowhere to ‘belong’. What is more we don’t travel through the night. We stop off at a rubber tapper’s house.
It is perched at the top of the bank, looking like an old garage on stilts, lit inside by oil lamps. There is no furniture. We sit around on the cork-like floor, some 16 of us, silently eating another meal of rice and warm tinned sardines. The smell and grunts of domestic animals (I hope) beneath us rise up through the floorboards.
Everyone repairs to their hammocks, slung like the cocoons of insects from the rafters, a testament to the strength of the house. In the lamplight their bodies seem somehow stronger, smoother, more graceful as they prepare for sleep. The children are rocked vigorously in their mini-hammocks and go to sleep immediately.
If, that is, they have a hammock. And I don’t. João, the strikingly good-looking father of the large family, gives me his. But what will he do? He’ll be all right. He’ll sleep in his wife’s hammock. But she, hugely pregnant, doesn’t want to sleep with him. She gets out and stomps around, complaining bitterly about the gringo who’s stolen her hammock. I swing in it feeling like a complete bastard, gazing up at the pelt of what looks horribly like a freshly-killed jaguar hanging from the rafters. The daughter of the house, displaced from her room, tunes into the local radio station which sends out messages and requests for Brazilian pop favourites across the jungles of Acre.
Next day things get worse. We leave one of our two motors with a new boat that’s being launched for Macedo, and shortly after we’ve done so the other motor stops. The skipper (whose name I can’t catch – he can’t spell it either) repairs to his hammock with the two sisters who both seem to be his girlfriends. He doesn’t have a chave, a spanner.
Now, a skipper with no chave on the Amazon is like, well, a gringo with no hammock. We drift helplessly in the dancing current. Alarm spreads through the boat. João takes charge. I’m not sure quite what danger we might be in, but the chances of reaching Cruzeiro in time to catch my plane seem as remote as we are. One passing boat ignores entirely our plaintive cries of ‘Chave! Chave!’ and I write in my diary that the Amazon is full of bastards like me.
I repair to the perch I’ve found for myself on the roof, sitting on a wooden crate, resting my diary on a gas stove. A cock crows from inside another crate behind me, the sound bouncing off the hard forest with a clear echo. And, in the silence, the forest comes alive. Suddenly there are flocks of parrots flapping across the river, chattering away to each other – a pair of coã, elegant grey heron-like birds with breasts of white and brilliant yellow, settle on the trunk of a fallen tree.
There is a puffing sound to one side. I turn sharply but see just ripples on the surface of the water. A few seconds later a small grey bôto, the Amazon river dolphin, slips its back into the air, blows through its breathing hole and disappears into the muddy water again. Then, on the other side of the boat, another one, a third and a fourth, a fifth – this one pink.
The dolphins of the Amazon are rarely caught, except sometimes by shamans for their eyes, which have magical properties. They are, as it were, sacred. Pink dolphins are held responsible for unexplained pregnancies among the women of the forest and therefore, perhaps, are too useful to kill. They gather around the curious spectacle of a silent river boat, puffing, blowing and making a belching noise I take for a laugh.
And so we drift helplessly along for several hours, accompanied by the dolphins, until a Good Samaritan paddles out to us from the bank with a spanner. The motor is repaired in seconds. My feeling of gratitude to him is modified a bit when he returns to pick up a chain saw to saw away at the huge trunk of a hardwood tree lying like a beached whale on the bank.
I have a slightly more tutored eye now. What I had once taken for ‘virgin’ forest is often no such thing – the hardwoods have been removed, the canopy of the forest broken, the understorey cut back at regular intervals by ragged trails through which the hardwood has been torn out. Moisés told me that once the Juruá was lined with mahogany trees. I am never to see a single one. As if to reinforce the point, we overtake a larger boat towing behind it a train, at least 100 metres long, of hardwood logs.
João joins me on the roof and, watched by Expedito, who is deaf, he sings plaintive rubber tapper songs for me to record. As I talk to him in faltering Portuguese, he unfolds another tragedy. For the case of pots and pans on which I am sitting, the gas stove where I rest my diary to write, the cock in the crate behind us, are his family’s worldly possessions.
João – who talks of his love for the forest – and his family are leaving. There is, he says, no future for them in the forest, no education for his children, no health care for his family, little prospect of anything but a violent, relentless, intensifying struggle for survival. Macedo’s only fear is being realized. I think: if João is leaving, who can remain? And for what? To join the ‘gold rush’ as a small-time miner, destroying the forest and polluting its rivers with the mercury used to extract gold?
We arrive in Cruzeiro in a storm. The great river, which rises and falls in response to climatic events in the distant Andes where deforestation and erosion are growing apace, has flooded some of the poorer houses by its banks. The skipper, who has finally emerged to show his face as we arrive, delivers his girlfriends into the care of a nun – and promptly runs the boat aground. We are in danger of sinking as we struggle to free ourselves. The wind catches the hat I misguidedly gave him at the start of our journey and it floats off down the river towards Manaus. He insists on carrying my bags through the downpour to the Plinio Hotel.
There, switching on the air conditioning, diving triumphantly under a hot shower, opening a can of Coca Cola from the ‘frigobar’, I lie on a bed at last and reflect on what I have left behind. Can it really be that this great forest – the largest living thing on earth – now depends for its survival upon some of the most disregarded people it is possible to imagine? Is this what all the international concern, the solemn pronouncements, the glossy reports, the conferences and the campaigns have so far amounted to?
Well, perhaps there’s no harm in that. Not if we come to realize that there is, finally, some link between the exploitation of nature and the exploitation of people. It’s not, as I have sometimes thought, a question of one or the other. Or perhaps I’d not thought it through properly at all.
The new El Dorado
The search for the City of Gold (El Dorado) has haunted the history of the Amazon – but so far has never been rewarded. Today, however, the Amazon is the focus of intense exploration for mineral resources.
There has been a ‘gold rush’ in Brazilian Amazonia since the discovery of significant deposits at Serra Pelada in 1980. Up to 40,000 garimpeiros (gold panners) were working there in a huge open pit by 1983. Activity declined at Serra Pelada in the late 1980s, but increased in Roraima on Yanomami Indian land to the north. At one stage 40,000 garimpeiros were working in the vicinity of Surucucus.
Gold mining has created a major environmental catastrophe. An estimated 1,000 tons of mercury used to amalgamate the gold has entered the Amazon river system, with unknown long-term consequences for human and animal health.
Larger multinational companies, like the South African Anglo-American Corporation, are now moving in to force out the panners and begin large-scale operations. Total gold production in Brazil was about 100 metric tons in 1990, of which two thirds was undeclared and smuggled over the border with Uruguay in the south.
Oil has also been discovered in the Amazon. In Ecuador 6,300 square kilometres of Amazon rainforest are within petroleum claims already being exploited and a further 30,000 square kilometres are being prospected. The companies involved include Texaco, Petro-Canada, Occidental, Arco, Conoco, British Gas and British Petroleum. In 1988, oil accounted for 44 per cent of Ecuador’s exports and 40.3 per cent of the Government’s income. A much-heralded ‘environment friendly’ nine-kilometre road built by Petro-Canada, which was designed to preserve forest ‘canopy’ over it, failed.
Brazilian aluminium production, meanwhile, has increased from less than 300,000 metric tons in 1981 to more than 900,000 tons in 1990. Most of the major world producers are involved, including Alcoa and Alcan; there are 10 bauxite or alumina mines in the Amazon and seven smelters using hydroelectric power from dams.
In Rondônia, 20,000 garimpeiros are used by 64 small mining companies to produce tin at the Bom Futuro mine; environmental damage from the tailings has reached alarming proportions.
But the damage caused by the rush to extract resources is felt most keenly by the indigenous people of Brazil. Throughout the country there are 77 mining claims – covering an area of 520,000 square kilometres – in indigenous people’s land. Most of this is in the Amazon.
Sources: Judith Kimerling, Natural Resources Defense Council, Quito; Minewatch, London; Mining Journal, 23 March 1990; Mining Annual Review 1990; CEDI, Empresas de Mineracão e Terras Indigenas na Amazônia, São Paulo 1987.