We must demystify Amazonia

Lea la versión en español aquí.

By Daniel Alejandro Martínez

Conocer es resolver.

—José Martí, Nuestra América


The image of the wild Amazon jungle full of snakes, monkeys and alligators, is more a Hollywood creation than anything to do with reality. Truth is, it is rare to see wildlife in the Amazon; and it’s not because animals are scarce in one of the most biodiverse places in the world. No. The reality is different. In general, animals hide from people and in Amazonia, so extensive and full of life, wherever you search in its immensity, you can find humans. For hundreds of years (or perhaps even thousands of years earlier than expected), indigenous communities, quilombos and mestizo settlers have found ways to survive and make the jungle their home. 

Estos dos hogares son ejemplos de casas construidas en medio de la selva usando palma, madera y latas de cinc, Belém, PA. // These two homes are examples of houses built in the middle of the jungle using palm, wood and zinc roofs, Belém, PA.
In the past, the Amazon was considered a forbidden paradise, a green hell, an archaeological black hole, a territory too hostile to allow large-scale human settlements. However, in recent decades, archeological findings—such as Terra Preta have questioned established notions about the Amazonian past. Likewise, the rock paintings of the Pedra Pintada and innumerable remains of ceramics that are commonly found in the whole region have called attention to how and when humans populated, modified, and cultivated the rainforest. Scholars have even raised the possibility of numerous indigenous settlements in the Xingu River area that were connected by roads in the middle of the jungle.

Thanks to the Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Fellowship, a scholarship awarded to Harvard College alumni to fund a year of purposeful postgraduate travel, I had the opportunity to explore the Brazilian Amazon as a volunteer in several social projects in the fields of education, public health, and environmental conservation. During my travels, I beheld the magical—almost unreal—beauty of the region, which has borne fruit to countless legends and ideas about the area, as a mystical place (almost utopian), that is steeped in mystery, where life and reality are of a different kind. 

Pinturas rupestres de más de 11.200 años en el sitio arqueológico Caverna da Pedra Pintada, Monte Alegre, PA. // Rock paintings of more than 11,200 years old in the archaeological site Caverna da Pedra Pintada, Monte Alegre, PA.
In my wanderings, I encountered social realities and natural environments vastly different from what I was used to. There, sea-like rivers extend to the horizon. Entire communities float on the water or rest on wooden platforms along the embankments. The environment is continuously changing as the rain-water from the Andes floods the forests, plains, and entire islands for months, which then resurface during the summer. Flora and fauna are surreal. There are gigantic and prehistoric fishes such as the Pirarucu and the Tambaqui, or almost human mammals such as the Boto and the Peixe-boi, and supernatural trees such as Sumaumas. However, I also confronted a land affected by underdevelopment, overwhelmed by endogenous difficulties such as deforestation and lack of economic opportunities beyond illicit economies

Tipos de comunidades en la Amazonía: comunidades ribereñas en la várzea (o tierras bajas) de Santarém, PA (arriba), Estrecho de Breves, PA (centro), y en la costa de la Isla de Marajó, PA. // Types of communities in the Amazon: riverside communities in the Várzea (or floodplains) of Santarém, PA (above), Strait of Breves, PA (center), and on the coast of Marajó Island, PA.

Upon arriving in Brazil, at the beginning of 2018,  I began to inquire about the region and look for contacts of organizations and professionals who worked in the Amazon. In the midst of the excitement of carnival in Rio de Janeiro, I remember telling a man, well into his sixties and a retired member of the army, about my plans to visit the jungle. He answered, though almost sardonically.

—You will see! In Manaus, there are more gringos than Indians.

Puerto de Manaos durante el verano o la seca. // Manaus’s Port during summer or the dry season.
That term “gringo”—used in many parts of Latin America to refer to foreigners, often from the United States—was part of an assertion (although exaggerated and prejudiced) with a degree of truth, at least in the city of Manaus. Considered as the portal of the Brazilian Amazon, Manaus is a cosmopolitan city overflowed by non-profit organizations, tourism companies, and many foreigners looking to visit, work or volunteer in the Amazon. Not all foreigners, however, are U.S. gringos. Actually, most of them come from Europe, Latin America, and the south of Brazil—the whitest and wealthiest part of the country. Unfortunately, this idea has played into a stereotype of an “invasion” of the Amazon by foreigners and NGOs, has become a prejudice that the powers in Brazil—mainly the reactionary right that has been encouraged by the Bolsonaro government—have begun to use in an alarming manner to declare war on social organizations. And this has had disastrous consequences.

Recently, a Brazilian friend, whom I met as a volunteer in the city of Santarém (known as the “Caribbean of the Amazon”), was arrested along with three other members of the Brigada de Incêndio Florestal de Alter do Chão—a group of volunteer firefighters who have helped to combat forest fires—under hasty assumptions. Within a few days, without any clear explanation, they were released. This event raised numerous criticisms from civil society and the international community about the hostility of the authorities and the current Brazilian government against environmentalists and social organizations that defend the rainforest and its people. 

Playa al lado de río Tapajos, Santarém. Región considerada como el «Caribe de la Amazonía». // A river beach next to the Tapajos river, Santarém. A region considered to be “The Caribbean of the Amazon.”

This paranoia is not restricted to the reactionary powers on the right. Sadly, there is some widespread hostility (and one could even say xenophobia) against foreigners in the region. In my days in Brazil, while attending a private event with some politicians, I personally heard an important leader of one of the main leftist parties in the country, without noticing my origins or my work, complain about the presence of “Americans” who sought to seize the Amazon and its wealth. The man's unrestrained opinion made me understand that possessive and nationalist prejudices are on both sides of the political spectrum. This is disconcerting, considering circumstances such as the arrest of the Alter do Chão Brigade, unsubstantiated opinions can cause harm and are counterproductive to the actions of those who seek the development and well-being of a region that faces harsh setbacks and painfully avoidable inequalities. Given the problems, the urgency of acting must prevail over who acts. 

El equipo del navío hospital Abaré (arriba), cuenta con estudiantes, académicos, enfermeras, doctores, veterinarios y tripulación, entre ellos varios extranjeros. Comunitarios hacen fila para recibir atención medica (abajo). Río Tapajos, Santarém, PA. // The team of the Abaré hospital ship (above) comprised by students, academics, nurses, doctors, veterinarians and crew, including several foreigners. Community members lined up to receive medicalcare (below). Tapajos River, Santarém, PA.

After a year of traveling through the Amazon (from Belém do Pará, where the jungle meets the Atlantic coast, to the triple frontier between Brazil, Peru, and Colombia), I was fortunate to volunteer and travel with multiple social organizations that seek to improve the well-being of the region and its people: from an NGO that gifts books and builds libraries for children and youths in riverside communities, to centers that provide environmental research and technical agricultural assistance for farmers, and even a hospital ship that brings medical care and medicine for free to remote villages where electricity or mobile signal still do not reach. Through these organizations, community members, compatriots from all over Brazil, and foreigners come together to make life more bearable and fair in places where the state has no presence or resources to act. However, injustices prevail throughout the region where it is not uncommon to see symptoms of malnutrition, child exploitation, illiteracy, and preventable ailments that today should not condemn anyone to death.

In my interest to observe healthcare in practice, I managed to volunteer on the hospital ship Abaré—a model of healthcare access for riverside communities throughout Brazil. For two weeks, we sail along the Tapajós river from the towns of Boim to Vila Franca. Since the Abaré appeared at the bottom of the river to dock at the shore of the different communities, dozens of people were already lined up to receive medicines or be treated for various reasons from pregnancies follow-ups to toothaches. Other community members waited in barracks, school halls, or huts, signing up to receive social assistance (Bolsa Família) or listening to the talks of the tutelary counselors—a government body responsible for combating child abuse. Occasionally, the heavy and serious air of the meetings was interrupted by the cries of the children and the pets being vaccinated, or by the chatter of adults bragging about their ability to withstand the pain of the injections. 

The hospital ship Abaré was undoubtedly the best way to serve, but also to understand the importance of proactivity in public health—to go to the people and look for the problems directly—and the significance that the fundamental rights of citizens (particularly of the most vulnerable) are taken care of without compromising their way of life. Life in the midst of nature should still be compatible with decent well-being, with access to quality education and healthcare. 

Navío hospital Abaré anclado al lado de la Villa de Boim, río Tapajos Santarém (PA). // The hospital ship Abaré anchored next to the Vila de Boim, Tapajos river near Santarém (PA).
Months before my trip in the Abaré, I had experienced a tragedy that showed me the difficulties of living in the jungle. While traveling in a catamaran from the small town of Breves to the city of Belém, I witnessed the dying battle of a newborn and his indigenous mother to reach medical care. The baby was born with a deformity in his stomach and needed surgery in the nearest city, days by boat or several hours traveling by speedboat. After some hours of travel, the baby began to suffer complications. Desperate, everyone on the boat watched with frustration and grief as the crew tried to ask for help at several health posts in the region. However, most of the posts were closed without anyone to attend them, after Cuba had withdrawn the thousands of doctors who participated in the program Mais Médicos following a diplomatic dispute with the newly elected government of Jair Bolsonaro. After ten endless hours of anguish, we arrived in Belém. By then, it appeared to be too late. The mother´s grim look foretold a tragic end. This was a painful teaching of how the isolation and the abandonment found in the Amazon can be a deadly trap. 

Niño disfruta del nuevo acervo de libros donados por la ONG Vaga Lume a su comunidad, cerca del Estrecho de Breves, una de las regiones más empobrecidas de la Amazonia brasileña. // Niño enjoys the new collection of books donated by the NGO Vaga Lume to his community, near the Strait of Breves, one of the most impoverished regions of the Brazilian Amazon.

In recent days that Amazonia has been in the front pages of world news because of the large number of forest fires, increases in the rates of deforestation and the violence against social leaders and indigenous communities, I think we could use some education about the region to consciously try to demystify it. Although magical and beautiful, the Amazonian territory of more than 7 million km² among nine countries is not a deserted place or a forbidden and intact paradise. Although it is still a remote region, covered by imposing rivers and centuries-old trees, it is a fragile place not at all exempt from the socio-economic evils and injustices that plague the rest of the continent.

If the Amazonia is demystified, we can see it as a territory comparable to the rest of the continent. An extension that needs the same level of attention as cities or agricultural areas. Also, we will see a place of priceless existential value for the entire world, which is often treated as a monolith, but it is not. It is a vast territory, which needs differentiating help according to each area. However, the problems that Amazonia faces are real and colossal, and no country can solve them alone. Multilateral commitments such as the Leticia Pact and, above all, more action are necessary. Not only because the region, as a biome, belongs to multiple nations, but also as an essential natural resource for the existence of humanity, its survival must matter to all of us. At the moment, as individuals, the best we can do for Amazonia is to learn about it; because ignoring its reality and potential not only helps to feed the myths and prejudices that hold back the region but also makes us indirect accomplices of its destruction.

Contraste de comunidades y su entorno: un caserío ribereño en Breves (arriba), Vila Franca una de las comunidades más antiguas y pobladas de Santarém (centro), y un aserradero cerca de Belém (abajo). // Contrast of communities and their surroundings: a riverside hamlet in Breves (above), Vila Franca one of the oldest and most populated communities in Santarém (center), and a lumber camp near the city of Belém (below).

Daniel Alejandro Martínez is a Colombian (sonsoneño) trained at Harvard in Social Sciences and Philosophy. Fellow of the Gates Millennium Scholarship and Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Fellowship. He traveled the Brazilian Amazon working with social projects on education, health, and environmental conservation. You can follow his trip on the blog: danielmgsa.comRead his student view here. (Spanish version here).