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The last stand of the Amazon

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The last stand of the Amazon


The Observer (London) April 3, 2011


The last stand of the Amazon


Novelist Edward Docx has spent almost a decade

travelling to the Amazon, watching as

multinational companies ravage the land he loves.

Here is his heartfelt dispatch on the forest's

final frontier - still home to as many as 100

tribes of uncontacted Indians


By Edward Docx


In the forest, there are no horizons and so the

dawn does not break but is instead born in the

trees - a wan and smoky blue. I twist in my

hammock. The total darkness, which has been

broken only by the crazy dance of the fireflies,

is fading and now shapes are forming - branches,

fronds, vines, bushes, leaves, thorns, the

soaring reach of the canopy, the matted tangle of

the understorey. The crazed clamour of the night

- growls, hoots, croaks - has died away and for a

moment there is almost hush. This is also the

only time of cool and I can see thin fingers of

mist curling through the trunks and drifting

across the river beyond. A butterfly passes in

the quavering grace of its flight. Then,

suddenly, the great awakening begins and the air

is filled with a thousand different songs,

chirps, squawks and screeches - back and forth,

far and near, all around. So loud and so raucous

and so declarative of life is this chorus that

nothing anywhere in the world can prepare you for

it. I am camped deep in the Brazilian Amazon with

my guide.


Like most people, the first time I arrived in the

Amazon, in 2003, I knew almost nothing about it.

I had only a vague first-world notion of

"deforestation" and this being bad. I did not

know why, specifically, it was bad, or for whom,

or how, or in what way any of this actually

mattered. But in a place called Puerto Maldonado,

a forest-frontier town in south-eastern Peru,

a woman told me a story about a scientist who

disappeared in terrifying circumstances. And I

knew that I was at the beginning of a long

process of self-education.


In the past few months, the Amazon has made a

return to the news for several reasons. In

February, startling aerial footage of uncontacted

tribes on the Brazil-Peruvian border, brought to

us via the great Brazilian anthropologist, José

Carlos dos Reis Meirelles, was released (you may

have seen the footage on the BBC's Human Planet).

A subsequent letter from the Peruvian government

"recognised the situation of the peoples living

in isolation and/or initial contact" and

promised, for the first time, that five new

reserves for indigenous communities were "in the

pipeline". We shall seeŠ


In March, three tribal leaders arrived in London

to make their case against several huge

hydroelectric dams being built in Brazil and

Peru, which they argue will force their people

from the land and threaten their way of life. And

within the past few weeks, Peruvian security

forces have launched an unprecedented operation

to destroy the unlawful gold-mining dredgers that

are now killing off river habitats by pumping up



Part of the reason we struggle to understand the

region is that there is so much to take in. And

because there has been some (partial) good news

on the headline problem - deforestation - it has

faded in our collective consciousness in the past

few years. So it's worth stepping back and

reminding ourselves of some of the fundamentals.


The area of the Amazon rainforest - roughly 2.3m

square miles - is larger than Western Europe and

the forest stretches over nine countries: Brazil,

Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador, French Guyana,

Guyana, Surinam and Venezuela. There are

approximately 1,250 tributaries that service the

main river, 17 of which are more than 1,000 miles

long. The river is bigger in volume than its six

nearest rivals combined and discharges into the

ocean about 20% of the total freshwater of all

the rivers in the world. Roughly a fifth of the

earth's oxygen is produced in the Amazon

rainforest ("one breath in five" as a guide once

put it to me) and more than two-fifths of all the

species in the world live there. You can find

over 200 species of tree in a single hectare of

Amazon rainforest and one tree can be home to 72

different species of ants alone. Over its

4,000-mile length, no human bridge crosses the

Amazon river.


Ignorant as I was, the most surprising discovery

when I first visited was that oil is one of the

main resurgent threats to the region. Since my

first visit to Peru in 2003, the amount of land

that has been covered by oil and gas concessions

has increased fivefold - almost 50% of the entire

Peruvian-owned Amazon. This means that the

government has effectively sold off half of the

rainforest it owns for the specific purpose of

oil and gas extraction in return for taxes,

bonuses, royalties - 75% is forecast by 2020.


Every time there is oil exploration, there is

major disruption and destruction to the forest,

starting with seismic testing and following

through with helicopters, roads, oil wells, crews

and so on; each development brings a chaos of

unplanned settlement and more deforestation. And

inevitably, whenever oil is found there are

catastrophic spills and accidents. A lawsuit is

being brought to court by members of the

indigenous Achuar tribe for contaminating the

region. Health studies have found that 98% of

their children have high levels of cadmium in

their blood, and two-thirds suffer from lead



There are hundreds of Indian groups from one end

of the forest to the other - many of them now

enmeshed in legal cases or "integration projects"

or other demoralising fiascos - but those that

most often capture international attention

(ironically) are the uncontacted. There's some

dispute as to what exactly is meant by the term.

Beatriz Huertas Castillo works out of Lima and

(along with José Carlos dos Reis Meirelles in

Brazil) is one of the people who knows most about

the subject, having spent much of her life

travelling in, researching, documenting and

writing about the very remote areas these peoples



"The uncontacted are indigenous peoples," she

explains, "who, either by choice or by chance,

sometimes as a result of previous traumatic

experiences, sometimes not, live in remote

isolation from their national societies. There

are at least 14 such tribes in Peru. We think 69

in Brazil. Maybe 100 in the Amazon area as a



The best way to think about the remaining tribes

in 2011 is to imagine a series of concentric

circles, all of which interact on each boundary.

There are the tribes that stay on their own

homelands in the forest (or seek to do so), but

who have regular relations with the outside.

These retain a strong tribal identity, but they

are coming to know the world all too well; they

will travel to fight legal battles for their

territories and their children will leave for the

cities. Then there are a good number of tribes

(or parts of tribes) who have been contacted, but

who have very circumscribed dealings with the

outside world; while no longer in isolation,

these live (or try to live) as they always lived.

Then, in the heart of the forest, there are these

few remaining uncontacted peoples. They may have

heard rumours from their grandparents, but they

are among the handful of peoples left alive on

the planet who have next to no idea of what the

world has become. They live as they have done for

thousands of years - before the internet, the

world wars, the United States, the Tudors,

Christ, Aristotle or Abraham.


"I spoke to Mashco-Piro women when they were

first contacted," says Castillo. "And they were

terrified of disease, of being slaughtered, of

their children being taken into slavery. In the

past, every encounter has bought terror for them

- they have no immunity to our diseases and they

were thought of as animals, even hunted. And now

they see the loggers and the oil companies coming

in a little further every year. And for them it's

the same thing so they flee into neighbouring



Then there's the ongoing damage caused by illegal

logging, and of course the cocaine problem.

Besides the loss of the trees themselves, it is

the incursions and what follows that have the

most impact. (Although it's important to note

that there has been a victory of sorts in Brazil

- the mahogany trade, in particular, has been

tackled.) It is estimated by the UN that coca

plantations in the area of the Peruvian Amazon

increased by roughly 25% between 2003 and 2008.

Leaving aside all the other issues that swirl

around narcotics, the way the cocaine base is

prepared leads to the dumping in the water of

millions of gallons of kerosene, sulphuric acid,

acetone, solvent, and tonnes of lime and carbide.

The extraction of gold is equally toxic because

of the use of mercury.


But it's what the explorer, writer and Amazon

expert John Hemming calls "the bloody mess of the

dams" that is causing the latest round of

acrimony, fear and dispute. A series of new

hydroelectric dams (more than 100 in total) are

planned across Brazil and Peru, including the

most controversial of all - the Belo Monte

Project on the Xingu river, which is intended to

be the world's third largest hydroelectric plant.

It was to raise awareness of these that the

indigenous leaders toured Europe last month.

These really caught me out. Surely a good idea, I

thought, but, sadly, it's not so straightforwardŠ


The problems, as Hemming explained, are these

that: they will flood the territories of the

tribes; the dams release vast amounts of the

greenhouse gas methane, due to rotting

vegetation; they release all the carbon in the

forest that is destroyed to make way for them;

they bring further roads and colonisation in

their wake; they change the flow and run of all

the river systems, which affects untold numbers

of aquatic species, not least the fish that so

many people in the Amazon eat, meaning that they

will have to import more food, meaning more

roads, more beef, and so grimly on.


It is important to acknowledge that not

everything is getting worse. Some of the

campaigning in the past 20 years has worked and

there are cautious grounds for hope and good

reasons to continue. When, in 2006, I was in

Manaus, the great river city right in the heart

of the Amazon, I heard contradictory accounts of

progress and regression. Paulo Adario is

a veteran ecologist who lives there. He is

probably one of the individuals to have done most

in the service of conservation alive today, and

he is happy to bring me up to date.


"Since the 2004 peak of 27,000 sq km of forest

destroyed, matters have improved with regard to

deforestation," he says, when I call him. "Last

year we lost 6,500 sq km. You can say

productivity is better with cattle and with soya.

We're seeing more yields in existing areas that

have already been cut. You can also say that the

Brazilian government's approach to the

uncontacted people is very enlightened. And that

- yes - the satellites have helped combat illegal

logging: there have been arrests and maybe we are

winning the mahogany battle."


The 6,500 sq km lost last year is still an area

more than four times the size of Greater London.

Adario is also very worried about imminent

changes in the laws in Brazil, which will once

again relax the strictures against forest

development. "They are going to send out a big

message that if a law does not work for you, then

don't feel you have to respect it. Only an idiot

would follow the rules in the forest if all his

competitors were making fortunes by ignoring



Time on the river is like time at sea. It's not

measured in minutes, but in the way the light

changes the colour of the water. At dawn, there

are mists and the river appears almost milky. By

noon it is the colour of cinnamon. And then, in

the evening, when the trees seem almost sinister

in the intensity of their stillness, the low sun

shoots streaks of ambers and gold from bank to

bank before the dusk rises up from the forest

floor and the shadows begin to stretch and

everything turns to indigo.


One such evening, we went to visit a fisherman

whose grandfather had been among the first of his

tribe to be contacted. His own sons were wearing

football shirts and his eldest was training to be

a guide. Using his son as an interpreter, he put

it like this: that the Amazon matters because

right now it is where humanity - you, me - is

making its biggest decisions: raw, hard, critical

decisions. We shouldn't think of these threats as

"issues", but rather as daily actualities, real

and kinetic and witnessed - actualities that have

an impact first on the lives of his children, but

eventually on the lives of ours, too. To have no

view, I realised as I left, amounted to much the

same as being a hypocrite.


I am not much of an anti-capitalist, nor am I

much of an environmentalist. Sure, I recycle, but

in some ways I have a great deal of sympathy for

the governments of South American countries. I've

talked to their officials and - believe me - it's

all they can do to stop themselves choking on

their fairtrade coffee when they hear people from

Europe and North America telling them how to use

their country's resources after centuries of

cutting down all of our own forests,

exterminating Indian populations from coast to

coast and drilling for oil. And let's not forget

that President Lula actually reduced Brazil's

poverty rate from 26.7% in 2002 to 15.35% when he

left office in 2009 - that's 20 million people's

lives changed.


But the bottom line is certainly not a bank - it

is communal human wellbeing in concert with the

rest of the species on the only planet we have -

or are ever likely to have. Making profits while

endangering people's lives and livelihoods is

immoral, and it is happening in the Amazon today.

It doesn't have to be that way. We can do better.


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