November-December 2014 … The Global Online Magazine of Arts, Information & Entertainment … Volume 10, Number 6
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Lifeblood of Brazil/CNF

Photo 1

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The Amazonian Water World


 by Robert Walker

 

“One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus

 

The barge slogs forward, dodging the silhouettes of the islets that lead to the main channel of the Xingu River.  I stand at the bow, a gray glow filming the banks of the ferry ramp of the small Amazonian town, São Felix do Xingu, now ten minutes behind us.  My two Brazilian colleagues, Eugenio and Rita, are back in our pick-up truck bracing for the 100-mile drive to Vila Central, a tiny hamlet in a region of Pará State called Terra do Meio, covering some 30,000 miles2

Our hope is to find active logging in Vila Central, so we can talk to loggers about the roads they build, which lay waste to the Amazonian forest by opening it to development. How do they choose their routes? How much equipment do they need and how many men? 

And most importantly for us, although something we dare not ask, how do we stop them?

Such questions we’ve been trying to answer for the past three summers of Amazonian field work for the National Science Foundation. Eugenio, whose grant dollars fund our project, is fortyish and of Japanese descent. A former student of mine, Eugenio now holds a faculty position at the University of Texas in Austin. Rita, a few years younger than Eugenio, hails from Salvador, the Brazilian capital of candomblé magic. Rita’s chosen the path of science, however, and is close to finishing her PhD at Michigan State University. As for myself, the comfort of meditating on my past experiences will soon trump the adventure of accumulating new ones. But not today.    

On leaving at 5:00 a.m. to catch the ferry, Chico, the hotel owner, greeted us at the reception desk. “So where you off to?”

            “Vila Central,” Eugenio said.

 

Brazil Map Hi Resolution

Map made by Joshua Stevens, a Ph.D. candidate in Geography at The Pennsylvania State University. Click on image to enlarge.

 

A hearty man in his fifties with a shock of white hair, Chico proceeded to give us the lowdown on Vila Central. Its leading citizen, an acquaintance of his who owned the only hotel in town (where we’d have to stay), had killed someone in a bar fight. The brother of the victim wanted payback and hired two pistoleiros, or gunmen, to even the score. And so it was that only two weeks before, there’d been a shoot-out in broad daylight, both hired guns going down before the superior firepower of the hotel owner’s bodyguards. The aggrieved brother had sparked a Kill Bill convergence of pistoleiros on Vila Central, with promises of a reward for whoever could complete the job.

Talk about his old friend got Chico loquacious about the past. He’d started out in Terra do Meio too, but his wife talked sense into him, so they sold their claim and bought the hotel. Chico said the forest was beautiful but deceptive. You never heard gunshots, only monkeys and squawking parrots. You never saw bodies, only trees and colorful flowers. For every murder that made the local papers, another five went unreported. The forest was filled with hidden bones.

A horn blasted outside.  Jefferson, the driver, telling us to hurry. 

As we left, Chico called after us, “Watch out for Carlos Ferreira.  Big time rancher.  His pistoleiros communicate with walk-talkies and any strangers show up, they wanna know why.”

            “How do we know it’s Carlos Ferreira?”  I asked over my shoulder.

            “100,000 head of cattle.  A ranch as big as the world.”

 

Photo 2

The Xingu River in morning mist.

We’ve driven for four hours over a rutted dirt road, the main thoroughfare through Terra do Meio. Officially dry season, the sky’s nevertheless begun sucking up moisture through shades of gray, from the silver-blue morning to the pewter of massing clouds, with rain. Dry season’s only a little less wet than rainy season in the Amazon Basin. Heat in the humid tropics hardly needs description. Suffice it to say that as we bump along, I pass in and out of thermal stupors. I feel like what water must feel like as it evaporates, a sweaty mass being boiled into humidity.   

Over the past few days in São Felix do Xingu, we’ve gathered intelligence on Terra do Meio. Of specific interest is that a logging firm, Peracchi, built most of the smaller roads around here about ten years ago. These small roads, so-called unofficial roads, are the ones we’re studying. The federal government has crisscrossed the basin with maybe 50,000 miles of “highways,” just glorified tracks of dirt that every once in awhile get graded. This might seem like a big number, but loggers have built ten times that amount, literally shredding large parts of the forest. This is perhaps the single most important factor in bringing basin-wide deforestation to an area the size of Texas.

Unfortunately, Peracchi’s left, so our objective is to talk to other sawmill operators (the reason for our trip to Vila Central), or to antigos moradores, “old residents,” typically poor subsistence farmers who’ve long lived in the region and can be quite informative. It’s proving hard to find them in Terra do Meio, though. Here, almost all the land has been fenced by ranchers.

But now we drive along a rather wild stretch of terrain. We know from our maps and satellite imagery that smaller roads form a spidery network only a mile or two off the one we’re on, and we’re getting damn anxious to find someone to talk to about it. Miraculously, the roadside vegetation opens with a cut. We stop to reconnoiter, then drive in.

The cut widens as the trees rise to a tall, emerald canopy. But this doesn’t last, and we quickly reach a large slash field still smoking in places, burnt debris in broken heaps. The lonely wattle shelter stands two hundred yards away, its dun color blending with the burnt forest behind it. A clothes line tells us that people live there, so Eugenio, Rita, and I get out, leaving Jefferson to tend the vehicle.

On approaching, Rita claps her hands, and an old woman and teenage girl appear at the doorway. The old woman has a face so wizened it looks like it might crack. The teenage girl, no more than fourteen, is dark-skinned, pregnant, and holds a baby boy at her hip. Eugenio explains the purpose of our visit to the old woman. When she doesn’t respond and continues staring off into space, he switches to the girl, who invites us in. We sit as best we can on the hardpan floor, using sacks of rice as elbow props. Rita pulls a bag of candy from her backpack and hands out pieces. It’s dark inside, and a dirty sheet partitions where we sit from the bowels of the house.

Eugenio extracts the satellite image from the map-tube and spreads it on the ground. To the girl he says, “This is a satellite image.  Do you know what a satellite is?”  

Nodding yes, she squats beside Eugenio, and in a moment brings her finger down to the slash field out front, plainly visible on the image.

“This is Peracchi’s land, right?” Eugenio asks.

“Absolutely not,” claims a tired male voice, rising in mysterious utterance from behind the sheet.    

This startles us, and we pause to see what else the voice might utter. Finally, Eugenio asks, “Then who’s land is it?”

“It’s our land,” comes the tired, worn voice again.  

With this, the sheet ripples and an old man staggers out. Dressed in raggedy shorts, he’s close to seventy, and years of tropical light have burned his freckles into cancerous tattoos. 

“I am Jorge, Jorge Silva de Bom Jesus, from Maranhão.”

He shuffles up to each of us, taking our hands in his. “So you want to know who owns our land?”

Eugenio tries to reassure him. “Señor Jorge, we’re just researchers –”

But Jorge cuts him off. “We arrived twenty years ago and claimed this land, as God is my witness. We came when there was nothing but dense forest and jaguars, malaria.” Jorge pauses to swat a fly. “We survived by the grace of God. My poor wife broken down by hardship in Maranhão –”

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AMAZON V10N2

Robert Walker's Amazon V10N2: My photos are shot with a Nikon D90. Sometimes, I can afford a leisurely approach, as when composing shots of the natural world. The photography of human subjects requires greater care, and empathy, however. Issues of personal security also arise, in which case photographs may be taken in haste from a moving vehicle. On this trip, several indigenous tribes had barricaded parts of the Transamazon Highway passing through their territories, where they demanded a toll for passage. We were warned in advance about this, and told in no uncertain terms to keep our cameras hidden. In such a situation, photography can be regarded as a hostile act, and lead to sequestration.

“My photos are shot with a Nikon D90.  Sometimes, I can afford a leisurely approach, as when composing shots of the natural world.  The photography of human subjects requires greater care, and empathy, however.  Issues of personal security also arise, in which case photographs may be taken in haste from a moving vehicle.  On this trip, several indigenous tribes had barricaded parts of the Transamazon Highway passing through their territories, where they demanded a toll for passage.  We were warned in advance about this, and told in no uncertain terms to keep our cameras hidden.  In such a situation, photography can be regarded as a hostile act, and lead to sequestration.”    

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Rita interrupts, backing all the way up to where we should have started the interview. “Señor Jorge, we’re from the university, and we’re here to do research on roads. Who builds them, how they benefit the community. We only have a few questions, but you’re under no obligation to answer.”

Jorge smiles agreeably, showing pink gums, and nods. Eugenio kneels beside the image again. “Señor Jorge, we only want to know about the roads. How they got built, who built them.”

Jorge scratches his head. “Roads?  Why would I have a road?”

Before I realize it, Eugenio’s rolled up the satellite image and standing. Rita and I exchange glances; this isn’t the patient Eugenio we know and love. Still, it’s obvious there’s no useful information to be collected here, so we get up too and take our leave with Eugenio.

Stepping from the shack, we turn to say good-bye, seeing that the family has followed us out. Señora Silva de Bom Jesus wants more candy, and giggles when Rita gives her the bag.

“Where you going?” Jorge asks, like he’s only just now aware of our presence.

“Vila Central.”

“Vila Central!” he shouts. “You can’t go there. Only pistoleiros go there.”

“We’re only researchers,” Eugenio says.

Jorge shakes his head. “You see the hotel owner, don’t touch your belt, your pocket. He’ll get the wrong idea.”

“How will we pay for our room then?” Rita wants to know, worried.

We drive for an hour without saying much. It’s starting to feel like last summer, and the summer before that. In fact, our past two summers in the field have been a bust. Luckily, Rita’s dissertation doesn’t depend on the information we’re collecting. But Eugenio? As an untenured assistant professor, a botched-up project for the National Science Foundation could spell professional doom. And me? I’m tenured, but that’s never stopped Bill O’Reilly from making a scapegoat of someone. 

As recently as five years ago you could talk to anyone out here. You always got a cup of coffee, a slap on the back. But then the Brazilian government cracked down on illegal logging and the recession hit, and thirty thousand sawmill workers found themselves without jobs. Now, anyone with the appearance of a researcher, carrying laptop computers and satellite imagery, is suspect, probably an environmentalist, who loggers blame for not being able to steal as much wood as before. The fact that Eugenio, Rita, and I are environmentalists makes it ethically questionable to deny it if asked, but essential for reasons of personal safety.     

In the midst of my brooding thoughts, I wake to the changing landscape. Giant hands seem to have yanked the trees out, then carpeted the soils with luxuriant pasture grasses that stretch to dark lines of forest on the horizon. And all of this beneath blue savanna skies without the clouds that are massing elsewhere in Terra do Meio. The glint of new barbwire speaks of deep pockets, as do the healthy-looking Zebu cattle clustered around mahogany drinking troughs. Carlos Ferreira. It’s like a tropical Montana with its stunning contrasts of greens and blues.

The odometer shows that the ranch goes on ten miles.  Once we’ve passed it, the blue gives way to thickening clouds.   

Not long after, a small store appears on the edge of an abandoned pasture. We stop for a break and enter. A middle-aged man stands behind a scuffed-up counter, and a middle-aged woman, presumably his wife, sits off to the side, making notations in a spiral notebook. We ask for soft-drinks, which the man retrieves from a rusty ice-chest.

“Where you going,” he asks, on serving us. It’s a question with an obvious answer, since Vila Central lies only three miles ahead.

“Vila Central.”

“You know what’s happening there?” He chuckles like we might be idiots.

“Of course.” Rita says. “But it’s obvious we’re researchers from out of town.”

The man shakes his head. “That’s the problem. The best pistoleiros aren’t obvious. The hotel owner’s already killed two. You’re dead-ringers for what he’s probably worried about now. Government research-type pistoleiros.”

“Is there any logging there?” Eugenio asks.

“Oh yeah. They’ve had a big run on coffins,” the man says, although nobody laughs. 

As we pay and start for the door, the woman adds, “Even if you don’t get killed in the cross-fire, you think those pistoleiros are gonna leave witnesses?”

We climb into the truck and head-off.  But Jefferson hardly gets onto the road before he pulls over and stops. Sitting up front, Eugenio asks, “We gotta problem?”

            Jefferson hesitates, says, “Maybe we should put this off.  You know, for a better time.”

            The words come out hard, but they express my own doubts.

            “There’s not gonna be a better time.”

“We can always come back next summer. Think Sisyphus here,” I say, immediately sorry for making light of our situation.

“There’s not gonna be a next summer.” Eugenio’s referring to the end of the project’s contract period.

“Don’t be so uptight. There’s always a no-cost extension,” I say, which is true, thank god. 

“Eugenio, let’s just head out to the Western Transamazon,” Rita says.

Indeed, we’d discussed this option last summer, on leaving the field with maybe two paragraph’s worth of useful information. But everyone said we’d find what we were looking for in Terra do Meio, namely active logging. The Western Transamazon?  No one even knew if the road still existed.    

“When’s the last ferry back to São Felix do Xingu?” Eugenio asks Jefferson.

“Nine p.m. We can just make it.”

The interior of the truck compresses. I hear Eugenio breathing as I gaze out my window, watching vultures wheel through the gray sky.

“OK, the Western Transamazon it is,” Eugenio says, although not too quickly and in a voice that’s barely audible.        

Rita and I are sitting in the Marabá airport lounge. It’s hot and crowded, and the chairs jab your back. Eugenio’s off at the men’s room, where he’s been for the past half hour. He woke up sick yesterday in São Felix do Xingu, and our overnight bus ride to Marabá was sheer misery for him.   

We’re waiting for a flight to Santarém, to get past our fiasco in Terra do Meio. Our plan is simple, to drive the Western Transamazon Highway. This requires that we fly to Santarém, where we can pick up another truck and a new driver.      

“I think we should go to Belém for a few days. Let Eugenio get his strength back,” Rita says. Belém, the big city at the mouth of the Amazon River, has physicians, hospitals, etc. Rita’s right. You simply can’t fool around with an ailment out here, far from medical attention.

“Good idea, but he’s never gonna go for it.”

Rita frowns at the truth of the matter. “I know.”

“At the very least, we keep a close eye on him,” I say. 

“Agreed.”

Eugenio rejoins us and sits down. His face has a spectral look, and I can’t tell if it’s from stomach pain or because the toilets are backed up. 

After a minute, I cast a sidelong glance his way and say, “Let’s go to Belém. Just for a few days. You gotta get your strength back.”

Rita piles on. “Come on Eugenio. This could be bad out in the field.”

But Eugenio, project leader, cuts us off. “We’re going to Santarém.”  

Rita and I have yet to pinpoint how Eugenio got sick. I’m betting it has to do with the return from our ill-fated trip to Terra do Meio. As a consolation prize, Chico invited us to go fishing. I declined in order to work on my field notes, but Eugenio and Rita spent the next day heading up the Xingu in a small runabout. Upon their return, they dropped off their catch to be cooked for dinner at a local restaurant owned by one of Chico’s friends, Lúcia.

It was with great expectations for fresh fish that we set off later that evening. The restaurant was a modest place, perched atop the riverbank, with two dining tables in front of a flat screen TV showing the latest Brazilian soap opera. Across from the dining area was a scratched-up pool table still doing good service. This meandering structure was quite open to the elements, and raised on a cement foundation over pounded dirt. The owner, Lúcia, a buxom woman with the energy of a breaking wave, helped us make our cachaça choices at the bar, its varieties set out in mason jars beneath a fifteen-foot anaconda skin.

Cachaça, a cane-based liquor that tastes like sour rum, is a Brazilian national pastime, and Lúcia prided herself with the best selection in São Felix do Xingu. For starters, there were the juice-based mixtures featuring cachaça flavored by all manner of tropical fruits. But there were also the zoological cachaças looking like laboratory specimens, the clear amber of the alcohol discolored by animal fluids. Thus, in addition to the botanical cachaças, we improved our palate with crab cachaça (a very big crab), snake cachaça (possibly venomous), turtle cachaça, armadillo cachaça, and monkey head cachaça. 

Perhaps it was the discovery of a taxonomy of cachaça that had eluded science to this point that encouraged me to drink more than normal, as did Eugenio. Rita remained smart about it and only sipped mineral water. As for the food, this was long in coming, and involved a rather labor-intensive process, with all manner of people walking in and out of the kitchen, girls, boys, men, women.  Lúcia came to our table repeatedly, giving us hope that the food was close at hand, exchanging pleasantries with Chico, and bringing with each excuse another shot of booze.

The food arrived as the evening deepened towards midnight. Rather small plates were set before us, piled with what looked like deep-fried chips. The appetizer. Ravenous, I dug in, allowing myself to suck through the greasy crisps of whatever it was that had been carbonized beyond recognition.

When another serving of the appetizer came our way, I turned to Eugenio and Rita, suspicious. “What did you catch?”

Before they could answer, Lúcia charged our table to ask with chefly pride, “So how do you like the fish?”  

Seven days out of Santarém and 1200 miles from São Felix do Xingu on the Western Transamazon, we’re waiting for the ferry now loading on the left bank of the Aripuanã River, the final crossing on our jog to Vila Santo Antonio do Matupi. We left the small town Apuí this morning a little before 8:00AM. Now it’s early afternoon and the yellow blue sky is glowing. I’ve hiked upstream along a narrow trail. Rita’s down at the ferry ramp, while Eugenio remains in the vehicle with our driver, Paulo, still sick, but mobile. 

On reaching a boulder, I hop up for a look. The water’s the color of brown jade from the amber sands beneath. Just offshore, it spills over a granitic table graced with vegetation that looks gardened. A Mercedes-Benz truck stacked with sawn wood has just boarded the barge, about a quarter mile across the river. This is our first hint of logging since leaving Santarém a week ago optimistic, an optimism that diminished each day with the towns we passed through, none of which revealed even a fleck of sawdust, Ruropolis, Miritituba, Itaituba, Jacareacanga, and Apuí.   But now it looks like maybe, just maybe, we’re close to the logging frontier. I breathe a sigh of relief.

 

Sawn wood on the Aripuanã River.

Sawn wood on the Aripuanã River.

In fact, we met two loggers in Apuí just before leaving. Ivo, the owner of the place we stayed, Hotel Guarani, introduced us to fellow guests, João and Miguel, while drinking coffee on the breakfast patio. As with Chico in São Felix do Xingu, we’d come to know and like Ivo, and ended up telling him a lot about the work we do. 

“You’re interested in logging,” João said after Ivo described our research in an innocuous way that suggested loggers provide a social service with the roads they build.

“Yes,” came our eager response.

João leaned back in his chair. He wore wire-rim glasses, and his fingernails were manicured. “You know, we get blamed for a lot, but it’s not us.”

“We’re not environmentalists,” Eugenio said, trying to reassure him.

“It’s the rancher who does the damage. Just so he can show productive use to grab land.” João glanced at Miguel, who wanted to eat, not talk. Miguel made up for the muscle mass that João lacked, and was dressed in a pair of worn jeans, tee shirt, and work boots. 

“We’re the ones teaching the government how to manage the forest,” João continued. “We only take a tree or two, so the rest remains behind for the ecosystem.” 

“That’s certainly the way it needs to be done,” Eugenio said.

“You’re heading for Vila Santo Antonio do Matupi?” João asked, whiplashing us with his change of topic.   

“Yes,” we said. 

João picked up his napkin and dabbed his lips as if they were sore. “You’ll see logging there but be careful. The government has made the loggers feel very insecure, so they’ve had no choice but to hire pistoleiros for protection.” 

We arrive in Vila Santo Antonio do Matupi at 5:00 p.m. Its unpaved streets release clouds of dust at the slightest provocation, and the businesses look like a spaghetti western set built cheap. We find a hotel, easy given lack of choices. Ours, the “Tropical Hotel,” is a concrete horseshoe pitched around a courtyard fortress-style, barricaded by the front-desk. The rooms have metal doors. I unpack to take a shower.

The water falls from a piece of PVC piping, neither hot nor cold, which is fine by me. As the pockets of hidden heat dissolve from my body, I feel myself condensing into the coolness of my own private rain. But I also feel a new wetness licking my ankles, and look to see the water surging, the sewer regurgitating its contents back at me. I jump out fast and scrub my feet in the sink, then douse them with rubbing alcohol.

We head out for dinner at 7:00 p.m., the only restaurant in town, a cinder block cube attached to a wing of rooms available at hourly rates. We choose an inside table to escape the dusty street, and the patrons drinking beer on the slab of concrete out front that serves as a porch. Dinner sits behind the scuffed plastic of a pint-sized buffet, chunks of vegetable matter, limp spaghettis that look like intestinal worms, and chards of meat floating in ooze. 

We serve ourselves. The waitress, an attractive woman in her thirties wearing spandex shorts and a sports bra beneath a sheer tee shirt, takes our drink order. As I pick through my food, I soon find that what I’ve set aside for the trash bin (or to be recycled through the buffet) forms a larger pile than what’s edible.   

Shouts outside distract us. The slurred profanity of a man, the high-pitched anger of a woman. Our waitress storms in from the front porch and disappears out back, just as a shirtless man materializes at the entrance. About fifty, his black hair glistens with gel, and his once muscular frame has sagged. He dances his bloodshot eyes about the dining room, then leaves, his first step uncertain.

Eugenio looks at my plate, sees me lifting a fork with farofa. “Don’t eat that.  It’s bad.” 

In that I’m already chewing a mouthful, I feel betrayed by the belated warning. Thank you, Eugenio. And you too, Rita. Thank you very much. I discretely empty my mouth into a paper napkin, but the rancid taste remains like a tattoo of formaldehyde.

We finish eating. Paulo, who’s smartly tracked down a street-side grille, drives us back to the hotel. I brush my teeth, then collapse in bed wondering when the nausea will hit. I wake next morning surprised I haven’t spent the night near the toilet. I grab my camera and head out at 6:30 a.m. 

Photo 4 Motel in Santo Antonio do Matupi

Our home for a day, in Vila Santo Antonio do Matupi.

Across the Transamazon Highway in front of our hotel, I contemplate a crooked two-story building with a sign indicating the presence of a homeopathic specialist capable of adjusting spines and reading fortunes. Gazing east and west, I note something curious, which is the complete absence of dogs. Most of these small frontier settlements have more dogs than people. Then it hits me. The rubbery meat of the buffet last night. People here eat dog. And their customers, too.     

We begin day one in Vila Santo Antonio do Matupi driving its dusty streets at 7:30 a.m.  They lead us past the usual assemblage of raised wooden shacks beneath shady mango trees. Trucks loaded with logs sit in front of a couple of them. Eugenio lifts his camera to take pictures, something we’ve done hundreds of times. But the town has put us on edge, and I’m nervous as Eugenio starts shooting.

When I hear the motorcycle coming from behind, I give the warning, moto. Eugenio snaps his camera down, and we turn to look. Pistoleiros use motorcycles to approach their targets fast, and escape with ease, off-road if necessary. Rita notes with relief that he isn’t wearing a helmet, de rigueur for pistoleiros. Many Amazonian towns have ordinances against them because of the anonymity they provide drive-by shooters. 

Done with our photography, it’s time to get to work. Eugenio instructs Paulo to head east on the Transamazon Highway, where our satellite imagery indicates an easily accessible network of logging roads. Just outside of town, we stumble on an active sawmill, its patio stacked with mocha-colored logs, mahogany, which is now illegal to cut and incurs a very large fine. We turn down the road beside the mill to reconnoiter the primary forest, only a hundred yards away.

As if to punctuate this happy turn of events, a motorcyclist roars past. That he isn’t wearing a helmet puts us at ease. We follow, and once inside the tree line come immediately upon a logging truck allowing narrow passage beside a bushy hedge, several men tending to a tree they’ve just felled. Past the truck, we turn our attention back on the road, a trail really, noticing the motorcyclist again. He’s stopped and turned his bike around to face us, maybe fifty yards away, and there isn’t room to pass on either side of him.

Unsure as to what to do, we inch ahead, and once in earshot he informs us we’re on private property and must leave immediately, which is ridiculous because all of this land, every square inch of it, is terra devoluta, land belonging to the federal or state government that hasn’t yet been declared for public or private use. 

Paulo negotiates a three-point turn, and we come back upon the logging truck, still situated across from the hedge. At that instant, a skidder charges the forest, followed by a pick-up truck, and there we are, trapped. 

Maybe a minute passes, I don’t know. But after what seems like a long time, Paulo puts the truck in reverse and backs up, at which the skidder shoots ahead, its metal claw raised. Just before smashing into us, the driver veers to the side and nearly rolls over. Now the pick-up comes forward and stops, giving us barely enough space to pass beside the logging truck. Paulo shifts into gear and releases the clutch. 

I’m riding “shot-gun,” the irony of which isn’t lost on me, and have a good view of the guy in the pick-up, who’s heavy through the shoulders, in his mid-forties, and wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat. Behind him is a dark space where he’s covered the back cabin windows with aluminum foil, creating a void of perfect concealment. As we bump towards him in first gear, and as I prepare my perfunctory smile to be directed his way through a window I plan to keep shut, I keep thinking about what a splendid target my teeth will make, a gleaming bull’s eye through the tinted glass.

The man we face, the logger who’s claimed the land we’re trying to leave, land he has no right to claim, stares through his open window slightly hunched, watching us pass with shark eyes. This man, and his companion in the back whom I conjure out of fear but who certainly exists, are no doubt little concerned about the consequences of shooting university professors, because it would never occur to them that university professors might be out here doing research. The only people snooping around out here would be other loggers. Or worse, government “researchers” of some sort, looking for environmental crimes or land fraud. 

We drive by slowly, under a flag of truce.

Once back on the Transamazon Highway heading into town, Eugenio says, “I think that was probably a close call.”

Coming from Eugenio, the most imperturbable person I know, the admission chills me.  

Vila Santo Antonio do Matupi isn’t a place with the restraints to human impulse you need to build a sense of community. And the absence of law has undermined any willingness to give the benefit of the doubt to strangers. No high school football team. No cops. We manage to escape the logger and his men because he fears reprisal.

But our escape presents an immediate dilemma about what to do. We can’t stay in Vila Santo Antonio do Matupi under the circumstances.  Our truck is easily identifiable and in all likelihood the logger has taken us for rivals he’ll have to confront. If he suspects we’re researchers (i.e., “environmentalists”), it could be even worse. Thus, we have two options. Either go back the way we’ve come, or push west for the Madeira River and the town of Humaitá, close to Porto Velho with its airport. Humaitá was our destination at the outset, but we don’t know road conditions in that direction, and now have a friend in Apuí.

We opt to head west and leave, after less than an hour’s worth of research on the frontier it’s taken us three summer field campaigns to discover. Stopping at the hotel for our bags, we clear out by 9:30 a.m. Five minutes later, the forest engulfs us, and soon it’s as if we’ve joined one of the first penetrations of the basin, so wild does it feel. In fact, we’re passing through the indigenous territories of the Parintintin and Tenharim peoples, somewhere hidden in wild seclusion.

Although I revel in the green majesty of the forest, cut through every half mile by streams of crystalline water running over beds of golden sand, I begin to doze from fear-induced exhaustion. It’s as if gravity has sucked me into a dark capillary. I surface to Eugenio’s shout, Macaws!

Paulo pulls over, and we come to rest beside a swamp where Buriti palm trees stand like totem poles, their tent-sized fronds glowing green in the morning light. Husky squawks draw my attention to a rotting palm with a knocked off crown. At the very top stands a majestic blue macaw, its chest feathers with a burst of yellow against the bright blue sky. Another bird clings to the bark with claws and beak, inching to the summit to join its mate.

As they squawk at each other fifty yards away, other macaws fly from the background forest, pulling their huge wings through the air like swimmers doing laps. We’ve already seen a fair number but this is different. These birds don’t know enough to be afraid.

On watching the macaws, I’m a boy again in the woods with my father, feeling the magic of nature with its happy connection to all living beings, which I still know exists and try to show my children, time permitting. On watching the macaws, I want to shout for joy, to express myself in raw wonder. I want to blow bubbles and be bubbles, riding on the wind.

But I settle for lifting my camera and taking pictures until my finger hurts. One macaw, then another, and another. Macaws individually and in multiples, climbing up and down the palm trees, buzzing us so close we can practically touch them. After maybe half an hour of this, I bring my camera down, see that Eugenio and Rita have also finished. We climb back into the truck and after a few exclamations fall into private meditation.     

Photo 5 Macaws

The ever-playful macaw.

Sometime later, we arrive at the landing for the ferry across the Madeira River. On the banks over a mile away, we see buildings in the hazy distance beneath a watchful church spire, all of it dun-colored in the humid light at 4:30 p.m.. We’re going to make it to Humaitá, and knowing we’ll be on the other side of the huge river by nightfall puts my mind at ease. I wonder how many forest bones we’ve driven past today, how closely we’ve come to finding our own final resting spot in a hidden patch of forest.

We bump our way into the outskirts of Lábrea, after slogging 120 miles through mud, the only vehicle on the road out of Humaitá.  Although the Generals of the military regime that opened Amazonia in the 1970s intended to traverse the entire Brazilian portion of the basin, they stopped in Lábrea, where they woke from their grandiose dreams to behold a malarial floodplain of interest to no one but mosquitoes. We hadn’t planned to go there and it makes no sense whatsoever in terms of the project. But none of us could resist the end of the road, even Eugenio who’s still feeling bad.

It was the worst drive of the trip. By 11:00 a.m. the sky had already faded from yellow-blue to the battleship gray of rain, not that it mattered because the Transamazon had already dissolved into ruts two to three feet deep in places. Ahead of us lay tracks where other drivers had fought their way through liquefied clay. Not all made it, and a few abandoned vehicles sat in the middle of the road like animals waiting to fossilize. As the rain began, Paulo engaged the vehicle traction and plowed ahead deliberately, pushing the wheel hard to correct the sliding, digging through the slop, zigzagging to avoid the roadside swamps and always moving forward without a moment’s rest, just grim concentration. When the road finally smoothed out about ten miles from Labrea, we were glad that Paulo was driving.    

Emerging from a drizzle on the edge of town at 4:00 p.m., we see a jumble of shacks strewn beneath what appears to be a sizable monument. As The Transamazon Highway peters out, once and for all, beside a tiny plaza lined by empty vending stands, the monument comes into focus as a twenty-foot concrete statue of Mother Mary holding baby Jesus. 

Paulo parks at the plaza. It’s late afternoon, so I’m content to sit here. But Eugenio and Rita jump out and head for a path leading away from the plaza. In a minute, I get out to follow. The path takes me to wooden stairs and a view across a shanty-town raised on stilts, stretching across the floodplain to the Purus River, half a mile away. I hurry after Eugenio and Rita, who’ve disappeared among the shacks, and find them on the edge of the shanty beside another stairway, this one to the floodplain. They’re both rubbing on insect repellent, which can only mean one thing, that they’re going down, which is outside the rule book because malaria hour is upon us.

I try to catch Rita’s eye. She’s supposed to be watching Eugenio with me, and a bout with malaria isn’t what he needs. But Rita wants to go down, so she ignores me.   

Eugenio says with wonder, “This is incredible.”

“Eugenio, you’re sick for god’s sake.” 

“How many Brazilians have seen this?” he asks, undeterred.   

“Not many, and they all got malaria,” I say.

It’s getting late, and the proper course of action would be to find a hotel. But Eugenio and Rita descend the stairs without hesitation. I stew in my annoyance for a moment, then rub repellent on and follow down the stairs.

Grasses grow in profusion on the muddy soils, but leave a trail that snakes to where Eugenio and Rita are waiting for me beside an uprooted Brazil Nut tree that’s washed ashore. The Purus lies just ahead, and in five minutes, we’re there. 

My first impression is of mud and of ugliness, but the river’s also beautiful in its raw natural power, the cut-bank on the other shore rising 100 feet, looking as if someone has chopped it with a knife, the trees above much taller than the bank, the openings between them with caverns of green light. This isn’t the Xingu or the Tapajós, where water runs through hilly valleys and cascades across gardens of rock. No, the Purus River is a powerful current boiling through sunken terrain, the sideline vegetation reaching high to keep from drowning.   

I rise early, no more rested than when I went to bed.  We head for Porto Velho this morning, where we’ll fly out, putting an end to our third summer of field work. It’s 6:00 a.m. as I walk to the roof of our three-story hotel, to the empty breakfast patio with its view in all directions. Downstream half a mile, ant-sized people walk up and down gangplanks, preparing the riverboats to cast off. Upstream not far from where I stand, humidity screens the river, dividing the Purus into a mundane workaday world where boats are prepared for journeys, and a water world where land dissolves into steam.

I look east back the way we’ve come, across green flatlands beneath gray skies, wondering if they will clear today or melt directly into rain. I’d have never guessed on leaving Santarém that the forest I’ve come to know in the lower basin, with its rolling terrain like ocean swells, would ooze into mud-slicks with upland giving way to swamp and back again, following changes in elevation invisible to the human eye. Here, algal meanders seep into ponds where gigantic Buriti palm trees stand like totemic idols. Then, the land rises, the water drains, and the Brazil Nut trees cluster, their crowns in a high canopy. But the swamp returns with its watery catacombs and palm trees, set beneath steamy overcast.

I now see how deluded I’ve been in my long-standing presumption that the Amazon is just a very big Mississippi River dominated by the land on its edges, land under agriculture, land where children ride bicycles and factory workers produce their goods.   

Because it isn’t.

The gigantic river can’t be separated from the banks of its overflow, the marshes and swamps that ooze in all directions, the super-saturated air. 

I know this now because I’ve felt it in my pores, the cycle that drenches every map point. It starts at dawn as the forest roots suck the deep soil moisture, releasing the morning mists that fill the ravines with fog. Then, the sun boils the fog into clouds and the clouds into thunderheads that implode with torrential but short-lived downpours, so the moisture can replenish the trees before settling back into the soils again, to wait for dawn. 

A muffled clanging draws my attention from thoughts of water to the Purus River itself, where a double-decker chugs by, the noise of its engine like someone banging metal with a hammer. Seeing the vessel underway at sunrise brings me back to the summers of my youth, working fishing boats off the coast of Florida. I remember the balls of moisture, barely clouds, condensing through the morning, low enough to touch, practically, then the sucker punch of heat with the flaring of the thunderheads, the afternoon rain as certain as sunset, each stage a Buddha face in the unity of water. Then I “see it,” what the trip out here has taught me, which is that Amazonia is a water world, an ocean.

But there’s something else, too, which is that as an ocean perched on land, Amazonia is extremely vulnerable.

I’d witnessed the potential for catastrophe far to the east, on a ranch stretching for ten miles. It might have been our timing, which got us there after the sun had burned the forest mists completely off of Terra do Meio by the natural heating of the earth. But it might also have been that the pastures had broken the cycle, meaning the trees weren’t there to suck the water from the soils, so the vapor wasn’t there to form the clouds, leaving the sky a savanna blue, devoid of the moisture that had fed the forest ecosystem for millennia with rain.

My fatigued mind has run with its thoughts, which crash at last on a harrowing question, namely, that if this is happening in Terra do Meio, what about the rest of the basin, so much of it cleared already? Has enough of the forest vanished to push the whole system past its tipping point, to a gigantic briar-patch of fire-prone scrub? Or, do a sufficient number of trees remain to keep our hopes alive, to give us the time we need to walk back from the brink we seem so intent on hopping over?

I don’t have the energy to think about it right now. I need to get to my room and pack, to start scheming with Eugenio about how we can justify a no-cost extension for next year.

But before leaving the roof, I gaze across the Purus River for the deep relief of knowing that a part of the world remains intact on the other side of its muddy water, an ecotone that civilization has yet to transgress. For me, the Amazonian water world isn’t just an intellectual prop on which I’ve based a career. It’s also a siren call to my primitive self, one I resist by turning from the river and bringing my thoughts back to the journey home, to the recognition we still haven’t finished our project and now have new questions that need to be addressed.  One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

……………………………………………………………………… 

About the Author:

Robert Walker is Professor of Geography at Michigan State University, with a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania.  He divides his time between the U.S. and Brazil, where he holds a visiting appointment at the Federal University of Pará, in the Center for the Environment (Nucleo do Meio Ambiente). Walker was born in Hawaii, grew up in Florida, and has always looked south, not north, for inspiration.  The views expressed in The Amazonian Water World are his alone, and do not necessarily reflect those of the National Science Foundation.

Contact Walker at rwalker@msu.edu

Academic website:  http://web2.geo.msu.edu/amazonia/index.html

LiveScience Bio:
http://www.livescience.com/14753-robert-walker-fighting-deforestation-sl.html