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
The Andean bear (Tremarctos ornatus) is the only endemic bear on the continent of South America. The IUCN lists the species as Vulnerable to risk of extinction, with habitat loss and hunting as drivers behind its dwindling numbers. This elegant species is sometimes referred to as the spectacled bear due to occasional markings around the eyes that resemble glasses.
The Wildlife Conservation Society’s Queens Zoo has welcomed an ambassador of the Andean bear, a 2 year-old male named Bouba. Hailing from a zoo in France, Bouba will share his new home with a female friend of the same species, Spangles.
WCS conducts research on Andean bears across multiple countries in South America and aims to develop local habitat conservation of the Andean bear and mitigate threats such as human-wildlife conflict. WCS works in tandem with Cleveland Metroparks Zoo and Cleveland Zoological Society, the Andean Bear Conservation Alliance, and other supporters to protect the future of the Andean bear. You can learn more about their efforts or donate to the projects by going to wcs.org.
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.
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:
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
The International Institute for Species Exploration at Arizona State University has selected its top ten new species from 2010. While all the species are extraordinary, one was discovered in a most baffling, manner: taken from the nasal mucous membrane of a person in a Peruvian clinic. This 2-inch leech is named Tyrannobdella rex, which means ‘tyrant leech king’, because of a resemblance to the extinct T-Rex: both share a massive jaw and gigantic teeth. Imagine having that up your nose! The image above shows the Tyrannobdella rex’s anterior sucker exhibiting velar mouth and longitudinal slit through which the dorsal jaw protrudes when feeding. Scale bar is 1 mm. .
The T-rex nose-embedding leech is not the only species though. There’s also the Mozart glowing mushroom, the fruit-eating giant lizard, the spider that weaves the strongest silk, the antediluvian cockroach, among other biological marvels!
(05/23/2011) If we had to characterize our understanding of life on Earth as either ignorant or knowledgeable, the former would be most correct. In 250 years of rigorous taxonomic work researchers have cataloged nearly two million species, however scientists estimate the total number of species on Earth is at least five million and perhaps up to a hundred million. This means every year thousands of new species are discovered by researchers, and from these thousands, the International Institute for Species Exploration at Arizona State University selects ten especially notable new species.
South America’s great savanna the cerrado is under siege by agriculture and cattle ranching. Half of the ecosystem has vanished in the last 50 years. Now the first ‘green’ soy is being released by the International Round Table on Responsible Soy (RTRS) a multi-stakeholder initiative that has set environmental standards for the soya industry. WWF is asking UK consumers to push their supermarkets to carry RTRS produced foods.
According to WWF: “The Cerrado isn’t as high-profile as the Amazon, but this vast Brazilian savannah is being destroyed even faster than that famous rainforest. Yet the Cerrado is rich with thousands of wild plants and unique animals, on its own responsible for 5% of the world’s biodiversity. And right now, you and your supermarket can help save the Cerrado and other places like it. ”
(12/03/2010) Banco do Brasil, Brazil’s largest state-owned bank, announced it has joined a zero deforestation pact for soy grown in the Amazon. The bank will now require farmers applying for credit to certify the origin of their soybeans.
(09/15/2010) Brazil announced a plan to protect the cerrado, the vast woody savanna that covers 20 percent of the country but has become the nation’s biggest single source of carbon emissions due to conversion for agriculture and cattle pasture, reports Brazil’s Ministry of the Environment.
Males gobbling babies. Wiggly tadpoles bulging beneath the skin. Yeah, okay, that’s bizarre, but it’s also the lifestyle of Darwin’s frog (Rhinoderma darwinii), an endangered species that was found by Charles Darwin himself. While the females carry the eggs, the male Dawin frogs carry the young tadpoles in its vocal sac (of all places!) for a fortnight. The footage was filmed and produced by EDGE Fellow Claudio Soto-Azat.
The film follows the struggle of indigenous people to save their Amazonian home from the Peruvian government and industrial corporations, especially focusing on the role of Alberto Pizango, hero and leader to indigenous people, who was arrested last year in Peru for sedition and rebellion.
According to the film’s website: “The hazardous journey of an Amazonian leader confronting rules of the globalization game created by developed countries in order to protect corporate interests. With the rainforest in jeopardy, this apocalyptic story presents two colliding visions that shape the climate future of our world.”
Mongabay.com seeks to raise interest in and appreciation of wild lands and wildlife, while examining the impact of emerging trends in climate, technology, economics, and finance on conservation and development.
Carbon dioxide gas emissions generated from mongabay.com operations (server, data transfer, travel) are mitigated through an association with Anthrotect, an organization working with Afro-indigenous and Embera communities to protect forests in Colombia's Darien region. Anthrotect is protecting the habitat of mongabay's mascot: the scale-crested pygmy tyrant.