“Do your grandparents ever talk about the way things used to be?” questions Francisco in his churlish Portuguese. “My grandpa used to tell me that, when he was a boy, he couldn’t put his oar in this river without nearly hitting a fish this big.” He turns around to show Ale and I, his arms spread wide, accidentally flinging droplets of luke-warm water across our faces as his oar soars above his head. The canoe rocks, we all laugh. We’re sopping wet as it is from the daily downpour already, a little more Amazonian river water never hurt anyone… right?
This scene occurs on day two of what may be the most awe-inspiring camping trip of my life. I am gazing out across vast tracks of pristine Amazonian Rain Forest as our canoe glides silently through the brown waters of a tributary that feeds into the Rio Negro river, one of two rivers that combines at the world famous phenomenon Meeting of the Waters (Encontro dos Aguas). Day one in Manaus, Amazonias had us gazing into the turbulent mixing waters of the Rio Negro and Rio Salimoes, which due to density and constituent differences swirl in artistic arrays without combining for 11 km. Botas, pink dolphins endemic to the rivers of the Amazon, joined us to witness the phenomenon.
Francisco, Alejandra, and I are engrossed in conversation regarding the realities of daily life deep in the Amazon. Though my back is a little sore from hours of silence animal-watching in our wooden canoe, and my shoes slosh unpleasantly when I gingerly reposition my feet, wet socks and muscle aches do nothing to discourage my enthrallment. Francisco’s expertise has already granted us the opportunity to encounter a handful of giant snakes, hold a juvenile jacare (Caiman in English – small alligator like reptile), photograph vast numbers of wild monkeys, and identify hawks, eagles, water birds, and parrots. Now, I am finally learning how he came to develop the skills that have awed me for the past 48 hours.
Franciso is everything one may hope for in an Amazonian guide, and more. By day-two, I am accustomed to actions that dealt me a decent blow of shock the first time around. Peaceful glides through the water are punctuated by his rapid thrust of a spear into the murky river to catch our dinner, his trusty machete is always at hand to slash through underbrush or peel an orange, and within minutes he can construct a beautiful and highly functioning bow-and-arrow out of forest wood and palm fiber. He is patient with our questions, drinks water straight out of the river, and is comfortable enough in his Rainforest home to walk us in circles for hours pretending to be lost or feed us horrible tasting plants or insects just to raise a good laugh. 3 days of constant trekking, rowing, guiding, and short nights of sleep in hammocks punctuated by animal screams and insect bites has left him un-phased or diminished. He laughs at my constant “oohs” and “aahhhs” and unending streams of question. What is the greatest experience of my life is his day-to-day. He may be one of the most capable and wise human beings I have ever met.
But now, his gentle eyes framed by tell-tale wrinkles of life in the most biodiverse and pristine Rainforest on the globe, are filled with frustration. He is explaining the intense complications and injustices that affect his village, family, and forest.
As is the case in a vast majority of the Amazonas, Brasil, the land on which Franciso lives is privately owned. The caboclos (river people) in his village of Nossa Senhora de Fatima lead simple and often difficult lives. As Francisco puts it, “Survival is our rhythm.” As has been made evident by his incredible knowledge of the forest and its apparent unlimited resources, here in the Amazon, land, not money, is life. Here, families own a few cows and chickens (that often are taken advantage of by lucky Jaguars or other jungle cats), raise their own endemic crops, fish, hunt, and reuse. Lifestyles are sustainable and deeply linked with the environment because they must be. Though electricity arrived in Nossa Senhora de Fatima 4 years ago with the implementation of the Brazilan government’s “Luz Para Todos” program, life here is still steeped in natural functions. Houses are built by hand, food is gingerly harvested and prepared, and the value of family reigns supreme. Life is slower here, but to an outsider accustomed to the world of fast food, internet, and conversation, it is beautiful. So is the smile of Francisco’s baby girl.
Now, Francisco and his community’s lifestyle is threatened by expanding city growth and agriculture. Removed private owners, without true understanding of the potential of the Amazon for research or resource harvesting, are burning vast tracks of land for unsustainable agriculture and leaving families and entire communities homeless. Francisco relates the story of two families whose homes were burned and now live in the streets of the Amazonian capital, Manaus. “Everything I know, everything we know, all of our abilities depend of the forest,” he laments. “I know nothing of city life. I cannot use the internet. I do not have business connections.” More conversation reveals that the guide agency Alejandra and I used to find Francisco and arrange our camping adventure, run by a childhood friend of Francisco, is highly exploiting his lack of applicable internet and networking skills. He is being paid next to nothing.
A large part of my motivation to study abroad in Brazil, learn Portuguese, and integrate myself into culture has always found its source in my passion for biodiversity conservation. The sights, sounds, and explosion of life that constituent the Amazon Rainforest are beyond my ability to describe. Housing more than 50% of the world’s known species, conservation here matters. As one ecologist I interviewed while in Manaus expressed, “Here is different, unique in all of the world. We still have huge areas of pristine, untouched land. We need to emphasis prevention over damage control and display the intrinsic value of biodiversity. If we do this [conservation] right, there is a glimmer of hope that it could be different here…”
For the sake of Francisco, his family and friends, and for the whole world – I hope he was right. Conservation is complicated, but necessary now more than ever before. Francisco did not love the forest. He spoke with agitation and occasional hate of several forest dwellers: wild boars, jaguars, caiman, and poisonous plants that threaten his crops, livestock, and children. Francisco was not part of a wild, uncontacted Amazonian tribe receiving government funding and protection. He wears t-shirts and camo-pants and was rarely without a cigarette in hand. But Francisco and hundreds of thousands of others inhabiting the Amazon basin need effective biodiversity conservation as much as any endangered animal species. As construction, destruction, and expansion draw ever nearer, they hold to what they know they are biologically and intrinsically bound to : the natural world and life-filled Amazon Rainforest.
As the light draws dim on day-two, we slide silently into camp for the night. Our hammocks and mosquito-nets are inviting, but Francisco walks off silently to collect dry brush for a fire. The deafening scream of the cicadas commences as the last rays of sun leak through the dense overhead canopy.