Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Amazon Dreams

The Rio Tapajós meets the mighty Amazon

The mighty Amazon, the queen of all rivers, flows inexorably from the Andes to the Atlantic taking with it the imprint of its people, its fish, its forests, its floating plants, its boats, its beasts and its birds.  I’ve just returned to the state of São Paulo, Brazil after almost three weeks in the Amazon rainforest.  My heart and mind are filled with a mosaic of colors, textures and ideas.  The incredible river and its huge watery presence dominate everything except the warmth and imagination of the many wonderful people I met on my visit.  As you know, traveling alone is not my favorite way to go.  However, it has the delightful advantage of giving me the opportunity to meet people and experience places that I would never encounter otherwise.

Wild Brazil nuts, castanhas, in their case as shown by guides
WIld cacao (chocolate)

Baby bananas!
There is no ecosystem in the world that surpasses the Amazon for diversity and indigenous species.  It is like no place else – the river and its rainforest are immense, contributing more than 20 percent of the whole world’s freshwater supply where it flows into the Atlantic Ocean.  The Amazon forests cover more than half of Brazil, as well as much of Colombia, Venezuela, and parts of Ecuador and Peru.  A significant percent of the pharmaceuticals used in the Western developed world and an incredible array of the developed world’s food – common everyday food items originated from rainforest (not just the Amazon rainforest) plants.  The list is delicious and includes bananas, rice, corn, tomatoes, potatoes, yams, sugar, oranges and lemons.  Do you like cashew nuts?  Guess where they come from?  What about the latest fruit juice craze acai?  Also an Amazon native.

A more than 200 year old Amapá tree  
that has an edible, non-elastic latex "milk" 
with many medicinal properties
The Amazon rainforest is a place of legends, of beauty, of life and death.  Its history is complex – it is a rich land with much to give but its environment can be unforgiving.  Who hasn’t heard of its poisonous snakes, its black panthers, and its venomous and horribly abundant insect life?  The jungle is seemingly impenetrable with fast growing vines that can choke giant trees to death.  At the same time, the jungle embraces its people, bringing shelter, food, medical remedies and wealth to all who choose to respect it.  The river and its tributaries provide not just plentiful water but amazing fish, the delicious tambaqui, the giant pirarucu, the vicious piranha, tacunaré, filhote and hundreds more species; a transportation and shipping corridor for everything from global freighters to dugout canoes; water to drink, irrigate crops, dispose of waste and increasingly, to power hydro dams that feed the energy hunger of the modern world. 

Our guide's nephew having fun
It is this last reality – the many proposed hydroelectric dams throughout the Amazon region that worries many of the people who live there and many who don’t.  It is a legitimate concern.  I spent almost two weeks of my time in the Amazon in the village of Alter do Chão on the Tapajós River.  As I described in my last post, the Tapajós basin is an area of incredible beauty and richness.  Its clear waters drain a forest full of fruit and nut trees that have supported thousands of years of indigenous tribes and hundreds of years of caboclos – persons of mixed indigenous, European and West African ancestry.  Many natives, caboclos and more recent settlers from the Northeast and South of Brazil live along the river and depend for their livelihoods on the abundant fisheries and diverse plants and trees that are native to this area.  Wild cacao trees and wild rubber trees were discovered and used by indigenous tribes long before the Portuguese and other foreigners discovered the tasty delight of chocolate and the industrial strength and extraordinary properties of rubber.  But the rest of the world depends on the Amazon too – for its water, its abundant and yet to be fully realized plant, food and pharmaceutical resources.

On the Tapajós River there is a sense of peace – white sandy beaches bordered by swaying palm trees can bring happiness to almost anyone.  The concern now is that these beaches, which bring important tourist dollars into the local economy, will disappear after the upstream dams are built by reducing flows so much that, during the dry season, backwater from the much bigger silt-laden Amazon will flood the lower Tapajós and ruin the clean beaches.  One can argue that this concern is local – what is the loss of one small piece of paradise?  Unfortunately there are literally hundreds of large and small hydro dams being proposed on many tributaries in the Amazon region. 

No one can deny that hydro dams are a cheap source of power.  I live in the Pacific Northwest in the United States – there are more than 20 gigantic hydro dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers combined that provide cheap energy for Washington, Oregon and several nearby states.  These dams, which were built 50 to 100 years ago have permanently changed the ecology of the rivers.  And no matter how beautiful and how important the Columbia River system is, it does not have the global influence of the Amazon River system.  Once built, hydro dams change the landscape radically and forever, flooding vast areas and displacing people, animals, birds, and plants.  Far be it from me to understand the complexities and economic drivers that push for hydro dams in this vast natural reserve of global importance.  The balance between energy generation and the preservation of an ecosystem of global importance will be impossible to achieve if most of the currently proposed large dams are built.  

Soy fields stretching south of Santarém
I heard first hand from folks who live on the Tapajós about this difficult situation.  I also heard that the economic benefits that the dams will bring primarily benefit people who do not live in the area.  This is equally true about some of the recent agricultural changes that are occurring in near Alter do Chão, Santarém and other parts of the state of Pará.  This region has had active agriculture for more than 300 years, starting with floodplain groves of wild cacao in the 1700’s, tapping of native rubber trees during the nineteenth century, then floodplain jute farms during the 1930’s until the 1990’s.  Unfortunately a lot of the current agriculture development depends on rainforest conversion (read de-forestation) into soy and, to a lesser extent, corn fields.  While the previous agriculture booms benefitted the locals – I met several people my age whose families had been able to transition into a middle class existence and provide them with a good education as a result of jute farming, the current expansion of soy farming is not benefitting local people.  Instead it is benefitting large companies and big scale farmers who move into the area for investment purposes, often coming from Mato Grosso and other areas outside the state of Pará.  The clearing of the rainforest, often done illegally, is resulting in huge changes to the landscape in the Santarém region.  Statistically Pará has already lost 20 percent of its rainforest.  That number may not sound large but the fragility of the system is such that almost any loss is significant.  This is also in contrast to the other important Amazon rainforest states, Amazonas and Amapá, both of which have lost about 2 percent of their rainforest cover.  So while my mind is filled with the colors and culture of the rainforest, it is also worried about the future.  Brazil has some strict environmental laws including a Forest Code that requires maintenance of a significant portion (often up to to 80 percent) of native forest cover.  The problem, as is true elsewhere in the world including in the United States, is lack of compliance with the law.  That is a very big problem in the remote Amazon rainforest.

Sunset over the Tapajós
All of this said, the determination of the delightful, smart people I met – Karim, Cidia, Gabriel, Zeila, Maisa and many others – to protect the Tapajós region, the boats, the birds, the forests, the water, the flowers, and the sheer wonder of the whole Amazon ecosystem fill me with hope.

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