(Adapted from my travel journal, summer 2013)
(Adapted from my travel journal, summer 2013)
Early morning on the Rio Amazonas. The sun has cleared the layers of mist that shrouded the waters this morning before our departure from Nauta. Mahlo has swept up the mess from last night and is now mopping the deck. Only a few of us remain. Almost all the Peruvians on our deck left at Nauta for a taxi into Iquitos.
We joined another large river shortly after Nauta: the Ucayali. The main stem of the Amazon. The river here, less than halfway from source to sea, is comparable in width to the Mississippi at Memphis, with still the better part of a continent to run.
We pass small boats—motorized canoes with roofs—that glide low against the surface of the water, almost unnoticed against the black wall of vegetation behind them. Yesterday we came upon a waterborne hovel of a raft: a floating beaver lodge in which lived a family, bound up in sod and branches, plying the river with their wares. Their little floating island could have been mistaken for one of the many mats of vegetation that we’ve passed, if not for the two long oars reaching out from each side, that rose listlessly into the air and fell with a plop back to the water.
|Cattle: One of the primary motives for deforestation in the Amazon.|
“We’re trying to give people jobs,” Willy told us yesterday, shortly after coming aboard. “There’s no jobs in the jungle.” He’s got cattle, pigs, chickens, logging, a lumber operation, and, of course, Bible services. He tithes 10% back to the people, he said. I asked him where the other 90% went. “Paying the overhead. Keeping the operation going.” He’s got 10 employees now and he hopes to have 50 once he gets his permit to log 300 acres of the Indians’ land. “And a lot of it goes back into the NGO.” Which NGO is that? It’s the missionary organization that funds it all, set up as a tax-exempt organization for taking donations.
Willy is trying to convince the people in his village to quit drinking and quit beating their wives. He grew up watching the same thing happen in his own family. “I’m not telling you anything that I haven’t seen in my own life,” he tells them. I ask him if that means that he’s mostly working with the men. “Yes, we find that it works better if we separate the sexes.” He pauses for a moment, and then says to me, “We don’t want to change their culture. We want them to keep their culture. We just want to change the parts that don’t serve them well.” It’s as if he’s trying to justify his work. It’s as if he knows that somewhere out there is a criticism of what he’s trying to do. He doesn't even know I'm an anthropologist.
Willy is on his way now to Iquitos to pick up some equipment and get ready for his and his wife’s yearly trip back to the U.S. “She loves the jungle,” he tells us. “I can hardly get her to leave.” He’s investing in a water filter that will pump, I think he told me, 18,000 gallons a day. Can I have heard that correctly? “We can never use that much water,” he says. I’m trying to picture how much water a village of Amazonian ribereños would use per day, when I realize he’s just talking about himself and his wife. “So we’re going to trade the rest to the people.” A little yuca here, some plantains there, whatever they’ve got extra of.
Selling clean water to poor people. The wave of the future.
On the other hand, I can’t say that I’m immune to that same desire that Willy feels to change what he sees around him. For as long as white people have been coming to these parts, they’ve wanted to somehow refashion the local people in their own image—and I’m no exception. I saw someone throw a styrofoam food container off the deck and into the river while we were still in port in Yurimaguas. It floated down there, spilling rice and chicken into the muddy brown water, fish rising to feed. Yesterday, I saw two guys standing at the rail of the deck below me unwrap their candy bars and toss the wrappers into the river. Unhesitating. I yelled down at them, but it turns out people don’t speak much English around here.
There’s a man on board from Spain, a tanned, wiry, scrappy looking man with a backpacker’s hammock and stubble on his head to match his chin. His wife is a nurse and his daughter a dancer (and very good translator), both from Majorca. He is an engineer and travels to villages throughout the Amazon, helping people build schools. I told him (through Avatara, his daughter) that I was an anthropologist, and he said “Good. There’s a lot to do here still.” The farther upstream you go, he told us, the more isolated—and traditional—the people are. “The government officials don’t go there, the missionaries don’t go there, it’s too hard to get to,” he said. “So no one helps them.”
He told us that he took a movie projector with him one time and showed some movies to the people in the communities where he stayed as he traveled upstream. He said it was interesting to see how their interests changed with their level of exposure to the outside world. In very isolated communities, they loved the movies with lots of animals. In communities where some of the men had migrated out to work and returned, they liked the movies with lots of fighting. “But the women always stay the most”— he searched for the right word—“authentic.” (He grimaced as he said it. Nobody likes using the words "authentic" or "traditional"—too much ideological baggage and inherent inaccuracy.) “Probably because they don’t travel as much,” I said. “Yes, probably.”
I told them this was all good information, as I am looking for an area to work in. “The Upper Marañon,” he said. “There are rapids in the river, these big boats can’t get upstream. People don’t go in there. There are places that are very hard to access.” I took my map out and we looked at it. He pointed to an area very high on the Marañon. “Montaña baja,” he said. Low mountains. “Hay communidades de la selva?” I asked. Are there people of the jungle? “Si, de la selva.”
Anthropological work of this sort creates a profound conundrum. I’m deeply interested in indigenous cultures: the materials and methods, stories and beliefs of peoples who live in intimate relationship with a particular piece of land, whose existence depends entirely on that land, on each other, and on the culture that has grown up as a product of the relationship between the two. And yet, by my very presence, I’m introducing change: new tools, new toys, new clothes, a new language. A window on the outside world. And possibly, a new disease: the common cold, or an unknown strain of flu.
During my first trip to South America, a 1996 mountaineering expedition in the Andes, I had the uncomfortable feeling that I was contributing to the spread of a new disease: materialism. And if not materialism precisely, then that sense of impoverishment and envy that happens when the have-nots suddenly come face to face with the haves. We came across a group of Quechua high on the plains of Chimborazo, Ecuador's highest mountain. The men rode horses and greeted us brusquely in Spanish. The women, on foot, bent under the weight of loads tied to their backs with woolen mantas, didn’t speak to us at all. But everyone stared: Clad in Gore-Tex, with ice axes and crampons strapped to backpacks full of precious toys, we might as well have been aliens from outer space. We were certainly much better dressed for the cold than they were.
|Just another cargo boat in the port of Iquitos. It is estimated that up to |
90% of logging in Peru is illegal.
My friend Matt, who has lived in the Ecuadorian Amazon for 15 years and works on river conservation, writes about his experiences with uncontacted peoples: “The only indigenous people that I have encountered who lived in isolation and were real, fled upon seeing me in the river…where nobody had ever come before…long before we had a chance to meet…as they should have. Now that satellite TV, internet and cell phones have connected just about everyone to the world, the impact on culture and communities will be permanent and whatever baseline existed has now been completely altered. Finding an undisturbed niche in 2013+ is tough. The Amazon has been opened up to foreign exploits since the 1540's, and the rubber boom in the 1800's pulled out the plug. Oil development has taken its toll, but has generally been more organized and controlled…while logging is a free for all, and mining is the trump card. I think that during the last 5 years the Amazon has faced the most intense pressures and demands on its resources since the rubber boom years, and it looks like things are only going to get worse.”
|PetroPeru's presence in the port at Yurimaguas.|
Sounds dire. And it is indeed.
On the other hand, during one long sleepless night outside Iquitos, lying awake listening to the insects sing, I realized that, in fact, the jungle and its people are resilient. Like Matt said, they have endured hundreds of years of exploitation, wave after wave of incursion, massive changes to their social and ecological landscape. And still, there is incredible beauty and diversity to be found—both ecological and cultural. The jungle is alive. The challenge now is to keep it that way.
It’s easy to give up fighting when you think that all is lost. All is not lost in the Amazon. Right now, we’re watching yet another wave of devastation roll across the land. This is not the time to give up hope. Yes, there’s been massive deforestation in the past, there’s been burning, there are some roads. AND—the biodiversity and cultural diversity are off the charts. There are more tree species growing in one hectare of Ecuadorian rainforest than in the entire continent of North America. The jungle remains a dense, rugged place. There are plenty of people back in there who still want to be left alone. Others appreciate the health care and the education, but would prefer that we leave our oil spills, strip mines and palm oil plantations behind. I see no reason not to humor them. Our own lives may depend on it as much as theirs.
|Port of Iquitos. From a 2012 NatGeo news article: "Under provisions of the 2007 U.S.-Peru Free Trade Agreement, U.S. buyers are responsible for possible illegalities incurred in the production of their wares even if they did not intend to purchase illegally produced goods."|
|These guys are loading a cement mixer onto the boat at the bottom of the ramp.|
|Stacks of firewood and palm thatching at the central market inYurimaguas.|
|A coconut seller in the plaza at Yurimaguas.|
|See the load these guys are carrying? And they weren't walking,|
they were RUNNING, ferrying loads all day and into the night.
|Waiting, and enjoying the local entertainment: watching cargo being loaded and unloaded.|
|In port at Yurimaguas.|
|Our deck, our hammocks, the day before departure. We got tired of waiting and went back into town to go shopping in the market.|
|Turtle eggs and dried fish.|
|The resentful glare of a captive parrot.|
|Bruce French documenting the irony inherent in the regional government's official seal.|