The Amazon Jungle and a New York City Girl: The Natives

On a four-hour hike, Janu (pictured left), a native friend of Eugenio's, uses his machete to chip off a few pieces of what look like ordinary tree bark. He hands me a sliver. Janu is way too cute to be the poisoning type and since I'm on a once-in-a-lifetime press trip in the Brazilian Amazon—I'm in an adventurous mood. I pop a piece into my mouth. It's bitter and it tastes like tree. But when he says mosquito and "medicino" in the same sentence, I realize I'm chewing on something extraordinary, the source of malaria antibiotics. Just when I think Janu's grand tour can't get any wilder, we run into a snake—a huge, yellow snake.

I would later thank my lucky stars for Janu—who prevented us from ending up in Boa's belly—and Projeto Saude e Alegria, who helps native folk and forest experts like Janu continue to thrive in their home, the Amazon. Until arriving in the jungle, I had always focused on helping save the forest's threatened critters, never its human inhabitants. I realized that by not taking the natives into account, I hadn't been viewing the protection of the Amazon as one huge holistic process. I started to wonder where else this incomplete outlook had crept up in my other efforts to live sustainably...When Eugenio says, "You can't think about a sustainable environment without thinking about sustainable health, social and economic systems," and then I find out that thriving communities, like, actually live in the Amazon, and that I've been neglecting to factor them into my whole scheme to help "Save the Rainforest," his words hit home. It was evident that I hadn't been taking a holistic approach towards saving the Amazon and I started to wonder where else this incomplete approach had crept up in my other efforts to live sustainably.

The disjointed, Amazonian fantasyland that media, friends and family had shaped in my mind was proof of this, so looking back; my ditzy, "lipstick jungle" moment doesn't come as a surprise. I think my cluelessness about the significant population of Amazonia's people may have even been planted in grade school with the help of science textbooks, illustrating the rainforest's funky snakes and frogs, but never humans. So that, coupled with the fact that supporting indigenous communities is rarely profiled as a mainstream way to help save the forest, I excluded faces in the little Amazonian landscape that I had etched—quite a miscalculation considering I'd find out not only millions of people live there, but that people of the Brazilian Amazon are as diverse as the forest's flora and fauna.


Pedrino and his wife, an Amazonian native couple.

15 million people call the rainforest's urban enclaves their home and three million people live in the forest's rural communities, living off what they harvest and hunt: rubber, fish, nuts and coconuts. In addition to that, there are a reported 180 indigenous ethnic groups, with an estimated 70 of those groups having never had contact with the outside world.

As mentioned in my previous post, I spend a week long press trip in the Brazilian Amazon, with three days spent on the Amazon's Tapajos River; via Projeto Saude e Algria's riverboat, drifting along with the organization; making stops at some of these rural, indigenous, river-edge communities—listening and learning from people that I had never known existed.

Rainforest Reptiles

As a city girl, I've never found myself confronting species outside of the "rat race" so on that hike with Janu, with a serpent in my midst, I expect myself to hightail it. Before this boa, though, I feel astonishingly safe and though a little bit of worry does creep in, the fact that I don't run away, faint or get swallowed whole is enough to qualify in my book as cool and composed.

Looking back, I'm certain that my strong, jungle girl reaction was due in part to Janu's steady sense of calm and his on-site analysis about the snake's species and behavior.

The Amazon's Aboriginal Adepts
Janu's ability to divert us from becoming snake snacks is only a tiny example of the over-arching multigenerational, forest expertise of the Amazon's natives. Allowing these indigenous communities to fall by the wayside, like so many we've let before, would mean losing an authentic, unadulterated Amazonian history, culture and science that the rest of the world has yet to see—including scientists.

Eugenio believes that when it comes to saving the Amazon, even doctorates in Amazonian biology, can't hold a candle to native Amazonians. He says a scientist's methodology is ineffectively piecemeal, "completely isolated and divided. One studies butterflies, another studies fish, another studies trees. Nobody has the big picture. But the Amazonians do. They look, listen, and hear how all the elements are interacting together and because of this they can teach us how to understand our environment and planet."

Believing the fundamentals to preserving the Amazon—and its thousands of potential medicines, natural resources, species and carbon-trapping trees—begin with preserving its people, Projecto Saude e Alegria's sole mission is to save and restore these threatened natives, who are otherwise being displaced by corrupt agribusiness companies. (Without telling me its name, Eugenio mentions a U.S. soy company that had violently and illegally destructed two hectares of land in two years—forcing natives to move to city slums.)

To keep the forest out of the hands of loggers and incentive-driven locals, Eugenio recognized the need to empower the forest people. So in 1987, the project began equipping them with life essentials like clean drinking water, medical attention, and phone lines. Now, they work with 30 thousand caboclo or descendents of indigenous peoples who live in rural, often isolated Amazonian communities to promote sustainable development "through integrated and participatory management in health, agroforestry, income generation, education, art and culture, gender, infancy and adolescence, popular communication and participatory research."

I remember thinking this mission was ambitious and maybe too complex for what I had only considered necessary for sustainable development—environmentally friendly materials and intelligent design. But remembering Eugenio's quote, "You can't think about a sustainable environment without thinking about sustainable health, social and economic systems," I was reminded that in order to save the native communities and therefore the Amazon—the real, raw and complex rainforest had to be understood in light of all its systems.

Amazon Sweetened Coffee

I may not ever understand the real, raw Amazon as well as the Amazonians do, as Eugenio likes to often point out. He insists it would take me at least a good 20 years to really grasp their language and culture. It's for this exact reason why he and his organization decided to funnel time, energy and resources into the Amazon's indigenous groups instead of taking it upon themselves to crusade towards saving the forest.

So when I catch myself thinking that the only way I could help save the Amazon is if I move there to devote 20 years of my life, I realize my outlook has become as piecemeal as the scientists Eugenio had described. I was failing to see that the Amazon is as connected to me as my own front stoop is. If could channel the well-rounded approach of those I met in the Amazon—from Eugenio and his team to the native's they were helping—I too could help. And better yet, from the convenience of Park Slope.

For all the times that I decided to walk or take public transportation, eat locally, and check books out from the library (vs. buying at my nearby Barnes and Noble), I was making a conscious effort to reduce my carbon footprint. But I often did so on autopilot, never connecting my actions back to the Amazon. With so much out there about how to live green, it had sometimes become easy to forget why I was doing it at all.

But being in the Amazon, and meditating on all of the various causes and conditions of daily consumables I otherwise take for granted, like sugar, reminds me why. Eugenio often shared this story,

"When I'm here in NY or Sao Paulo, I think about coffee. A while ago you used to spoon in your sugar from a dish. Now you use packets. Millions and millions of coffees means millions and millions of packets in the garbage. Why not put sugar in a dish and take what you want? Coffee is a simple example but think about how many coffees are sold each day."

When I arrive back in Brooklyn, I make a pit stop at Park Slope's popular coffee hub. I request my usual coffee with milk and sugar, full knowing that they never actually sweeten it. (I usually grab a couple of Raw sugar packets.) But this time, at a place that I could have sworn only offered sugar in packets, I spot a free-for-all sugar dish next to the register. Whether the tub of sugar had been their all along for my taking, or it was hidden from me behind the tips jar, or they uncannily knew I was back from the Amazon with loose sugar on my mind—all that mattered was that, I now understood the significance of that sugar packet. My mind quickly deconstructed the little square of paper, seeing the clear-cutting of trees in order to produce the material and the possibility that an indigenous community was displaced in order for those trees to be cut.

My once-passivity turned into consciousness. I politely asked the barista to spoon in some sugar.

Stay tuned for more Amazonian musings over the coming weeks...

Tags: Biodiversity | Brazil | Deforestation