Sunday, September 22, 2013

La Lancha

Date unknown
(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.
            The forest on this journey, at least the part that we can see from the river, has been a succession of villages and chagras, both in production and those abandoned to fallow, as well as long stretches of forest that appear to be otherwise disturbed—scraggly balsas towering high over a thicket, for example, or a thick stand of palms with one or two other species trying to squeeze in. There, for example, I see an open stand of trees that looks like it tried to be a pasture once. A few spindly and dying arboles are all that’s left of the forest, with a thick vine that, like kudzu in the south, spreads across the turf swallowing old chest-high stumps. Just below that is a grassy clearing with a cornfield and a solitary thatched hut. Mud steps rise from river level, reinforced with sticks. There’s no boat at the landing. And just below that is a long and narrow plain of glowing green grass. The sandbar fronting it shows that the river still has a ways to go before high water floods the varzea. Willy told me yesterday that the river is high for this time of year, with the rainy season still to come. He’s worried about a repeat of last year’s flooding, when there was water in the streets of Iquitos and his missionary operation upstream was under water for months.
It's a grand occasion in the village when the lancha shows up. Rice, salt, cane alcohol and other supplies are offloaded, while women and girls board to sell fruit and other jungle delicacies, such as roasted grubs, to passengers. The butt-end of a sidewalk is evidence of last year's flood waters. We docked at one village that, according to Willy the missionary, had lost an entire soccer field to erosion. 
            “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.
Frenchie and I were aghast at the felling of this tree. It wasn't in anyone's way, it wouldn't have fallen on any houses, they weren't clearing the land to make a chagra or a cattle pasture. Why would they have cut this tree? And then it dawned on me: Money. They might have had a kid get sick, or some other emergency, and needed to come up with some cash. 

            I’m pleased to see that the little thatch-roofed village is alive and well in the Amazon. We passed lots of places that had a building or two with a tin roof—I’m assuming the school, and maybe a health clinic—but it looks like sticks and thatch are still the preferred roofing materials. While there’s a lot of status associated with tin roofs, and they probably last longer than thatch, they’re also extremely hot. The metal heats up in the sun and radiates heat downward. Thatch, on the other hand, insulates from the sun’s heat and allows a better flow of air. A well-made thatch roof doesn’t leak water, and some of my indigenous research collaborators proudly emphasized that, depending on the type of palm, a thatch roof can last 20 years or more.
            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.”
The trade in wild animals and bushmeat is alive and well
in the Amazon. This parrot head was for sale in the market
in Yurimaguas; the same woman also had a spotted jaguar
pelt for sale for a mere 100 soles, or 35 dollars. She started
getting nervous as I started getting interested. She wouldn't
let me take a picture. She knew it was illegal. Folks, please
 say no to the illegal trade in wild animals and animal pro-
ducts. The survival of these species depends on it.
            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. 
Even then, indigenous peoples of the Ecuadorian Oriente, some of the most remote and inaccessible jungle in South America, were writing open letters to the outside world, begging people to leave them alone: As if the pressures from oil, mining and logging weren’t enough, eco-tourists were coming to their villages and bringing contagious disease with them. At the time, I thought it might as well have been North America in the 1800’s. Now I know that the waves of contagious disease, and the genocidal epidemics that resulted, have been the superstructure on which the entire post-contact history of the Amazon has been written. And it’s a history still in the making. (See here for one brief article on the modern conflict between isolated peoples and extractive industry in Peru.)
            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.

Yeah, right. It should have read "Mañana."

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.

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