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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.com. Read his student view here. (Spanish version here).