The allure of the Amazon: real or imagined?

May 19th, 2014

Commentary by Nick Werber

Photo by Nick Werber.

What is it about the Amazon that fires the imagination? For as long as I can recall it has been a symbol for the Earth as it wants to be; a flourishing paradise perhaps, a place of explosive variegation, the jungle in full bloom.

Like the untamed areas outside of the cities in Brave New World, The Heart of Darkness and The Lost World, the jungle has formed an archetype for all that is natural and untouched by man. It offers us adventure and escape, as far removed from tarmacked roads and rigidly planned towns as one can imagine.

Alan Watts, the philosopher, talked of the chaos of nature, the absence of straight lines, the negation of geometrical form, the forest is “squiggly” as he might have termed it. To some this knotted mass is anathema, it offends the neat dissection of their reason, to others it is a liberation from a tyrannical mind, hell-bent on order and destruction. Through the wilderness they seek the dissolution of the ego, transcendentalists for a new age. Despite a century or more of western exploration the jungle remains tenebrous, unknowable. A thousand Victorian explorers are replaced each generation with people seeking out something, a new tale to tell, the discovery of a new tribe perhaps.

Photo by Nick Werber.

Where once we looked at native forest dwellers as quaint but primitive, there is now a new movement, looking to them for insights and hints on ways to live. Have we got it right? We ask. Our culture is not so sure of itself as it once was. In the jungle too lies hope: new medicines and new species. Scientists revere the forest for its fecundity, for every new discovery we find there is much, much more to learn. Its vastness promotes humility and yet for all its scale it is delicate nonetheless. Logging, mining and agriculture are tumorous.

“We know this” we tell ourselves: it is the stuff of a hundred lachrymose news programs, images of burned out forests branded in our minds; we have become inured and so we get on with our lives, it being just one more thing to worry about…

I dreamt of the Amazon as a child. I heard about its beauty and its imminent destruction and wanted to do something about it…but what can an 11 year old do? So, I dreamed some more…. When I actually arrived it was vastly different to the images I had seen on the news. In Manu I can see no grand scale farming, no sweeping clearances, just flecks of damage, like sun spots on an otherwise unblemished face. And yet I know that much worse is happening. In Huaypetue there is a gold mine so sprawling it can be seen from space; Hunt Oil’s unctuous presence has undermined native communities land rights; and the completion of the Pan American highway, stretching from east coast Brazil through the Madre de Dios region, threatens to enable Peru to enact a scale of destruction comparable with its neighbor.

But for all that I can do nothing but film and write. As a journalist I do not make policy or conduct scientific research. And yet I appreciate the beauty of the forest and can only communicate my reverence in the hope that others may offer change.

Red bromeliads (Racinaea) in Manu cloud forest. Photo by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay.com

After just a few weeks in the jungle, I had forgotten what it was like to wake up without the sound of Oropendulas dropping their calls from palm tops or a night spent without chirruping cicadas, balmy heat and fireflies flickering in the darkness. Here, for the first time in my life I saw the Milky Way streaking across the night sky, and each morning watched trees held in relief against a fuchsia dawn.

Don’t get me wrong. It is not all pleasant, far from it. Trails turn to mush at the slightest sign of rain and the insects are relentless. Walking at midday seems like wading through boiling sap, my shirt turns into a sodden rag, my backpack a sponge for sweat. Still, I count myself lucky. A dream fulfilled does not always live up to the dream, but it can get pretty close, and in life I suppose that is as much as we can hope for.

Phoebis philea and Anteos menippe butterflies in large group feeding on minerals in mud in Manu. Photo by Rhett A. Butler / mongabay.com

A jungle day-trip: studying brazil nuts in the Peruvian Amazon

October 30th, 2013

By Eleanor Warren-Thomas

Ladybird, Amazon-style. Photo by Eleanor Warren-Thomas.

The day begins at around 5 a.m., when the sounds of motorbikes revving, dogs barking, wood being chopped and shouting men start to permeate the room. I haven’t needed to set my alarm for weeks.

I am here to help run a project on Brazil nut harvesting from lowland rainforests in Madre de Dios, in the Peruvian Amazon. Brazil nut collection from these forests forms a huge part of many people’s livelihood in this area, and the project aims to improve knowledge about the variation in Brazil nut production, which changes among trees and between years for as-yet unknown reasons.

Brazil nut trees, known locally as castaña, take decades to mature and start producing nuts in the wild, so the majority of the productive trees in these concessions are enormous – at least a meter across at the base – and are some of the tallest trees in the forest. Brazil nut trees are protected by law, and in some areas they stand alone in areas cleared for pasture. In many other areas, they form part of standing intact forest within concessions owned by local people, who walk well-managed trails through the forest each year to collect the nuts by hand.

Today we are starting out from the only hospedaje in the little town of Alegria, and will travel about 20 km along a dirt road to visit a castañero who lives in his Brazil nut concession. My colleague and I load the rear pannier of the motorbike with two rucksacks full of tents, food and multiple pairs of socks. Calling in at our favorite breakfast spot, we find that there is ‘no quinoa in town’ so make do with sweet bread and strawberry yogurt from one of the grocery shops. Sitting outside the shop, we attract the attention of two kittens who attempt to scale our trousers, and a puppy who finds he doesn’t have the ability to climb, but is happy to make do with finishing off the yogurt pot.

Motorbike loaded and ready to go. Photo by Eleanor Warren-Thomas.

Squeezed onto the motorbike, we head along the tarmac road out of town, and turn off onto a red dirt road. After rain, these roads take on the texture of butter and are perilous for motorbikes, but today it is dry and fine. The morning is cool and the clouds are low, rubbing out the tops of trees and swirling across the road. We fly along the road and the plastic bag full of eggs and bread that I am clutching flaps madly in the wind. The road is full ofhazards – soft rivulets of mud, hidden bumps, the occasional wooden bridge – requiring expert driving.

The red road. Photo by Eleanor Warren-Thomas.

Forty minutes later we arrive, windblown, under an enormous mango tree dripping with fruit that guards the front of our host’s house. Set in a field of tough tropical grass are several wooden buildings that house grandparents, a daughter, a son and their spouses. Ducks and chickens roam about amongst the fallen fruit, and two dogs bark in cautious greeting. It is mango season here, and the soft thumps of fruits hitting the ground are frequent. We are invited into the kitchen, an airy building with a handmade thatched roof, where a neat three-ringed charcoal burner made of compacted mud is roaring. Two cups of hot “chapo” are handed to us as a welcome second breakfast – sweet plantain mashed with sugar and spices using a specially selected stem of a young “quillabordon” tree that naturally forms a whisk-like shape.

Under the mango tree. Photo by Eleanor Warren-Thomas.

Photo by Eleanor Warren-Thomas.

As the day starts to heat up, our 77-year-old host dons his canvas shoes, picks up his machete and leads us into the forest. We quickly leave the strong sun behind on the open road and enter a perfect green corridor as we follow a narrow logging road into the forest. The huge tire tracks have formed long-lasting puddles in the soft clay soil, that are filled with tadpoles. This part of the forest feels special – we walk for about half an hour without encountering any logged trees, and the forest seems particularly dark green. Hidden birds shout from all around us, and the soft mud reveals the presence of deer, peccary and agouti. The soft ground after rain tells all sort of secrets – in other forests we have seen fresh tapir tracks only hours old, and even ocelot prints.

Ocelot prints. Photo by Eleanor Warren-Thomas.

We veer off the road onto a carefully cleared path, the ground cloaked in big brown leaves from the towering castaña trees. As we crunch along, I have the odd impression of being on a walk through an English woodland on a summer’s day, until my eye is caught by a 6-inch electric blue butterfly floating along the path. Blue morpho butterflies seem to be found everywhere here, often in what seem to be leks of male butterflies flashing their wings at each other in clearings and on paths.

Blue morpho butterfly wing. Photo by Eleanor Warren-Thomas.

Brazil nut trees tower over us at regular intervals, some more than an arm-span in diameter and 40 meters high. The carefully maintained paths lead from tree to tree, each trunk cleaned of lianas and giving the appearance of columns holding up the green canopy. Piles of emptied “cocos” – the hard outer shells that contain sets of individual brazil nuts – lie at intervals along the paths, partially hidden under leaves and ready to twist the ankles of unwary walkers.

A castañero makes a temporary shelter from the rain. Photo by Eleanor Warren-Thomas.

High-pitched squeaking from the trees betrays the presence of saddle-backed tamarins which peer inquisitively at us as we respond with our own squeaky noises. They seem reasonably confident around people despite the fact that they are often taken from the wild as pets here. In the past week howler monkeys, titi monkeys and spider monkeys have all also come within earshot, or even partially into view.

The presence of so many animals despite so much human activity in the forest is wonderful, and seems to demonstrate how fundamental the economic value of brazil nut trees is for the health of these forests. Although selective logging and hunting of local wildlife continues, the presence of producing castaña trees preserves patches of forest where its structure is undisturbed and the shade is deep and cool. Wildlife is persisting well into disturbed areas, but for me the dark green patches feel like safe havens.

After five hours of walking along forest trails our host leads us back to his house in time for lunch, where we are served rice, beans and fried plantain washed down with sweet tea. His wife and daughter spend the day in the house, preparing food for us strangers along with the family without a thought. At 77-years-old, our host understandably prefers to spend the afternoons napping on a bench in the shade of his mango tree, leaving us free to visit the stream that runs past the house and bathe in the sandy bottomed pool they have created through clever use of a log dam. Tiny fish swim about, palm trees provide shade overhead and the musical song of oropendulas drips from the trees. More tamarins swing past to peer at us, as we nibble on mangos and cool our feet in the water. I can’t help but smile as I think back on the day and hope to myself, long may the dark green persist.

Brazil nut flowers. Photo by Eleanor Warren-Thomas.

Final House vote on Brazil’s Forest Code likely delayed

December 14th, 2011

Last week Brazil’s Senate voted in favor of the new Forest Code, which regulates how much forest a property owner is required to maintain. But before the new Forest Code becomes law, it must pass the lower house and then win approval by President Dilma Rousseff.

With Congress going on recess this week, it now appears the vote will be delayed until after lawmakers return in February.

Environmentalists are gearing up for a fight over the new Forest Code, which they say will grant amnesty for illegal deforestation. President Rousseff, who said during her campaign she would not let deforestation rise on her watch, is expected by pressured by green groups to veto the bill.

Last chance for the Xingu River and its people? (video)

June 7th, 2011

Brazil recently announced it was going ahead with building the hugely controversial Belo Monte dam, although the construction is set to flood rainforest, change the character of the Xingu River, and displace at least 16,000 people, although transforming the lives of many tens-of-thousands more. Indigenous people along the Xingu have been fighting the dam for decades.

Mongabay.com has been following the Belo Monte dam closely:

Brazil’s shame

(06/03/2011) As an American I know a lot about shame — the U.S. government and American companies have wrought appalling amounts of damage the world over. But as an admirer of Brazil’s recent progress toward an economy that recognizes the contributions of culture and the environment, this week’s decision to move forward on the Belo Monte dam came as a shock. Belo Monte undermines Brazil’s standing as a global leader on the environment. Recent gains in demarcating indigenous lands, reducing deforestation, developing Earth monitoring technologies, and enforcing environmental laws look more tenuous with a project that runs over indigenous rights and the environment.

Amazon mega-dam gets final approval

(06/01/2011) Brazilian authorities gave final approval to the controversial Belo Monte dam, reports AFP.

Controversial Brazilian mega-dam receives investment of $1.4 billion

(05/02/2011) Brazil’s most controversial mega-dam, Belo Monte, which is moving full steam ahead against massive opposition, has received an extra infusion of cash from Vale, a Brazilian-run mining company.

Bill Clinton takes on Brazil’s megadams, James Cameron backs tribal groups

(03/28/2011) Former US President, Bill Clinton, spoke out against Brazil’s megadams at the 2nd World Sustainability Forum, which was also attended by former California governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and film director, James Cameron, who has been an outspoken critic of the most famous of the controversial dams, the Belo Monte on the Xingu River.

World’s most controversial dam, Brazil’s Belo Monte, back on

(03/06/2011) A recent injunction against controversial dam, Belo Monte, in Brazil has been overturned, allowing the first phase of construction to go ahead. The ruling by a higher court argued that not all environmental conditions must be met on the dam in order for construction to start.

Indigenous leaders take fight over Amazon dams to Europe

(03/02/2011) Three indigenous Amazonian leaders spent this week touring Europe to raise awareness about the threat that a number of proposed monster dams pose to their people and the Amazon forest. Culminating in a press conference and protests in London, the international trip hopes to build pressure to stop three current hydroelectric projects, one in Peru, including six dams, and two in Brazil, the Madeira basin industrial complex and the massive Belo Monte dam. The indigenous leaders made the trip with the NGO Rainforest Foundation UK, including support from Amazon Watch, International Rivers, and Rainforest Concern.

Judge suspends Brazil’s monster dam: contractor ‘imposing’ its interests

(02/27/2011) Construction on Brazil’s planned mega-dam, the Belo Monte, has been ordered suspended by a federal judge, citing unmet environmental and social conditions. Just last month, the hugely controversial dam, was handed a partial license from Brazil’s Environmental Agency (IBAMA). However, the judge, Ronaldo Destêrro, found that the partial license, the first of its kind in Brazil, was granted under pressure from the dam’s contractor, Norte Energia or NESA.

Brazil’s largest miner to fund destructive Amazon dam

May 5th, 2011

Vale, a Brazilian mining company that frequently touts its environmental stewardship, will invest $1.4 billion in the controversial Belo Monte dam. The project will flood nearly 200 square miles (500 square kilometers) of rainforest and impact up to 50,000 indigenous people.







Some 600,000 people worldwide have signed petition opposing the dam.



More information



Controversial Brazilian mega-dam receives investment of $1.4 billion


(05/02/2011) Brazil’s most controversial mega-dam, Belo Monte, which is moving full steam ahead against massive opposition, has received an extra infusion of cash from Vale, a Brazilian-run mining company.

Half a million people sign petition against Belo Monte, Brazilian mega-dam


(02/08/2011) In a protest today in Brasilia, Brazil, indigenous people delivered a petition to authorities signed by 500,000 people calling on them to cancel the controversial Belo Monte dam. They hope the petition, organized by online activist group Avaaz, will help convince Brazil’s new president, Dilma Rousseff, to cancel the project. However, actions by Brazil’s first female president have pushed the dam forward.

Brazil’s environment chief resigns over controversial Amazon dam


(01/14/2011) The president of Brazil’s environmental agency IBAMA has resigned over pressure to grant a license for the Belo Monte dam, a hydroelectric project on the Xingu River that faces strong opposition from environmental groups and indigenous tribes, reports O Globo.

Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Cameron visit indigenous community threatened by mega-dam (video)

April 26th, 2011

Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Cameron visit an Arara village on the Big Bend of the Xingu River, which is imperiled by Brazil’s mega-dam Belo Monte.

For more information on the Belo Monte:

Bill Clinton takes on Brazil’s megadams, James Cameron backs tribal groups

(03/28/2011) Former US President, Bill Clinton, spoke out against Brazil’s megadams at the 2nd World Sustainability Forum, which was also attended by former California governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and film director, James Cameron, who has been an outspoken critic of the most famous of the controversial dams, the Belo Monte on the Xingu River.

World’s most controversial dam, Brazil’s Belo Monte, back on

(03/06/2011) A recent injunction against controversial dam, Belo Monte, in Brazil has been overturned, allowing the first phase of construction to go ahead. The ruling by a higher court argued that not all environmental conditions must be met on the dam in order for construction to start.

Half a million people sign petition against Belo Monte, Brazilian mega-dam

(02/08/2011) In a protest today in Brasilia, Brazil, indigenous people delivered a petition to authorities signed by 500,000 people calling on them to cancel the controversial Belo Monte dam. They hope the petition, organized by online activist group Avaaz, will help convince Brazil’s new president, Dilma Rousseff, to cancel the project. However, actions by Brazil’s first female president have pushed the dam forward.

Green dams in the Amazon? (video)

April 3rd, 2011

Video looks at how to save the Amazon in midst of rising pressure to build massive hydroelectric power in the region.

WWF (with aid from Nature Conservancy) looks at what rivers must be preserved from hydroelectric power in order to keep the Amazon ecosystem thriving using ecosystem-wide modeling.

For more information on dam projects in the Amazon:

Bill Clinton takes on Brazil’s megadams, James Cameron backs tribal groups

(03/28/2011) Former US President, Bill Clinton, spoke out against Brazil’s megadams at the 2nd World Sustainability Forum, which was also attended by former California governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and film director, James Cameron, who has been an outspoken critic of the most famous of the controversial dams, the Belo Monte on the Xingu River.

World’s most controversial dam, Brazil’s Belo Monte, back on

(03/06/2011) A recent injunction against controversial dam, Belo Monte, in Brazil has been overturned, allowing the first phase of construction to go ahead. The ruling by a higher court argued that not all environmental conditions must be met on the dam in order for construction to start.

Indigenous leaders take fight over Amazon dams to Europe

(03/02/2011) Three indigenous Amazonian leaders spent this week touring Europe to raise awareness about the threat that a number of proposed monster dams pose to their people and the Amazon forest. Culminating in a press conference and protests in London, the international trip hopes to build pressure to stop three current hydroelectric projects, one in Peru, including six dams, and two in Brazil, the Madeira basin industrial complex and the massive Belo Monte dam. The indigenous leaders made the trip with the NGO Rainforest Foundation UK, including support from Amazon Watch, International Rivers, and Rainforest Concern.

Rivers worldwide in peril: society treats symptoms, ignores causes

(09/29/2010) Dams, agricultural runoff, pesticides, sewage, mercury pollution from coal plants, invasive species, overconsumption, irrigation, erosion from deforestation, wetland destruction, overfishing, aquaculture: it’s clear that the world’s rivers are facing a barrage of unprecedented impacts from humans, but just how bad is the situation? A new global analysis of the world’s rivers is not comforting: the comprehensive report, published in Nature, finds that our waterways are in a deep crisis which bridges the gap between developing nations and the wealthy west. According to the study, while societies spend billions treating the symptoms of widespread river degradation, they are still failing to address the causes, imperiling both human populations and freshwater biodiversity.

The importance of good tree-climbing skills (video)

April 2nd, 2011

Imagine for a moment that you live in a tropical rain forest and that calorie-rich palm tree fruits are an important part of your diet.

Cutting a palm down for its fruit would be pretty shortsighted, right? Still, you might do just that–if the fruit dangled 20 meters above the rain forest floor, you lacked climbing skills, and you were hungry.

But, if you had climbing skills–and gear when you needed it–and if everyone else was climbing to harvest fruits, that would be a different story. You could climb the palm, harvest only the fruit, and return someday. That’s the way it was for generations in South American rain forests.

Climbing to harvest fruit is a life-sustaining tradition now in steep decline throughout the greater Amazon Basin. At Caura Futures, we are helping to bring climbing back.

Text by Tarek Milleron

Photo: the shadow cast by a tree frog

March 23rd, 2011


A tree frog photographed in Amacayacu National Park, Colombia, 2010. We have been unable to identify this species, if you know please contact us. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

Volunteer opportunity in the Peruvian Amazon

March 6th, 2011

 Chanti waterfall. Photo courtesy of: The Amazon Waterfalls Association.

Chanti waterfall. Photo courtesy of: The Amazon Waterfalls Association.

Have you ever dreamed of visiting the Amazon? How about touring little-seen jungle waterfalls—one of which is three times taller than the Eiffel Tower and 17 times taller than Niagara Falls?

The Amazon Waterfalls Association is looking for a few good volunteers to help develop walking paths passing by a series of astounding waterfalls in Peru.

“The trek follows a fairly level ledge through an uncut Amazon forest with cliffs soaring above and below 300 meters. The zone has few pests, mosquitoes, or poisonous creatures. Virtually no unusual diseases exist at this altitude,” according to the site, which adds that “archaeological ruins are ubiquitous, both well known and recently unfolding discoveries. It is blessed with rare plants such as orchids, bromeliads, prehistoric fossils, caves, monkeys, etc.”

And for birders? “There are more spectacular species of birds than in both Europe and North America combined,” reads the website.

For more information:
The Amazon Waterfalls Association

To contact: adventure@amazonwaterfalls.org