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Death Comes to the Amazon, But Don’t Blame Nature, It’s Man Who Sets the Fires

Vilified in pop culture as a place of danger and death, the Amazon is merciful and full of life to those who respect Nature.

Guide in Amazon rain forest finds water in plants. Photo: Michael Lepetit

In the minds of many, death looms over the Amazon like plague-infested Europe in the Middle Ages. But while drinking from a branch that spewed forth clean water, to me the Amazon was a place of mercy, of life, of survival. Today though, the Amazon is indeed a place cursed with death, not from the man-eating ants of Indiana Jones legends, but of man-made fires in Brazil. Still, while satellites show striking images of entire sections of the rain forest engulfed in flames, I see the life that sprouts up at every inch of the jungle….

With the Amazon rain forest recently in the news for the devastating fires that are only growing worse, I am reminded of a time when, while trekking through the Peruvian Amazon, exhausted and defeated by a long hike and oppressive heat, I encountered life at its most pure and generous.

Movies like Fitzcarraldo and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull  like to set up a dangerous and adversarial relationship between the Amazon and people—they are in a battle for life and death. But what I learned was that the jungle was more merciful than merciless to those who respect it and who are willing to abide by the necessities of the setting.  And although that was the most valuable lesson that I learned there, it was not the only one.

One of the and most fundamental lessons that I learned was that you only need two pairs of pants.  I suppose you could have more, but two is really all you need.  The most important detail was this: one pair is for the day and the other is for night and never, under any circumstance, should you use your night pants during the day, or your day pants at night. Let me explain.

Amazon forest. Photo: Michael Lepetit

The Amazon can be oppressively humid.  Between your own sweat and the mud that you will eventually trudge through (and, if you’re like me, the river water you will splash in when you repeatedly fall into a creek) your day pants will be filthy.  Of course, being as humid as it is, they will never dry.  Get the quickest “quick-dry” pants you can and they still won’t dry before you get them dirty again.  By the time you settle in for the night, the feel of dry, clean, new pants will be heavenly.  The hardest part of your day will be in the morning, when you switch out from your clean night pants to the dirty day ones.

Although we were staying at a beautiful lodge about two hours outside of Iquitos,  I opted to go for a five day hike through the jungle.  I wanted to be surrounded by nature, to wake up and see nothing but lush green jungle and to hear the sounds of its denizens.  On this particular morning, we were heading out early for a hike to see some monkeys.  We saw them, magically climbing and leaping without any interest in us, and eventually headed back for our tents.  But as I had mistakenly thought it would be a short hike, I had not brought any water.  Thirsty and hot, I asked what I assumed was a ridiculous question, “is there any place where we can get some water?”

To my great surprise, our guide turned back to me and said, “of course.”  Like a hound picking up a scent, he searched diligently for our water source.  Eventually, he stopped at a tall cecropia tree.  He hacked at one of the roots — which stood about four feet above the ground– and held one end of the part he had just cut off to his mouth.  From it came a faucet of clean water.  I was stunned.  He passed it to me and I drank some, and I passed it to the next person.  He continued chopping roots until we all had our fill.  Then he turned and pulled out what looked like small coconuts — yarina palm I later learned — from a nearby tree, cut an end off with his machete, and we drank some more.  Even with my smattering of Spanish I understood and totally agreed with his sentiment:  “Pure water.  Pure life.”  We all nodded and smiled, too sated and tired to talk.

My father quenches his thirst. Photo: Michael Lepetit

At that moment, a great irony struck me: that the Amazon is vilified in pop culture.  In one scene in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull characters are instantly devoured by colonies of ants. Before going on this trip, people had repeatedly warned me of all the creatures in the Amazon that could kill me.  In the minds of many, death loomed over the Amazon like plague-infested Europe in the Middle Ages.  But here, drinking from a branch that spewed forth clean water, the Amazon was a place of life, of survival.  In fact, all around me things grew, lived, and survived.

Today, the Amazon is indeed a place cursed with death.  But while some might imagine the man-eating ants of Indian Jones, the death is that of man-made fires in Brazil.  Farmers and loggers in Brazil are generally seen as the culprits.  As our guide recently explained, “it is the international appetite of soy, beef, palm oil, maize and sugar cane that drives the deforestation.”

With the dry season peaking in November, there is a good chance that this rain forest, often referred to as the “lungs of the world,” and one of our greatest weapons against global climate change, will only get worse.

It’s hard to determine exactly what is so awful about these fires.  On the one hand there is the obvious tragedy of losing such a lush forest.  At a time when scientists push for large scale measures to protect the environment, this is more than a few steps in the wrong direction.  It is also hard to imagine how someone could dismiss these fires as “normal”.  The Brazilian president’s pro business rhetoric is often blamed for encouraging the deforestation; he brushed it off as “the quemada” or the time of year when farmers clear land through fires.  According to Reuters, however, scientists disagree that these wildfires are a part of a natural cycle.

Slash and burn agriculture in the Amazon. Photo: Flickr

But while satellites show striking images of entire sections of the rain forest engulfed in flames and extreme carbon monoxide poisoning, I see the forest through the fires.  I see the life that sprouted up at every inch of the jungle.  A few years after my first visit, I returned with my father and this time I opted to stay at the lodge.  I still woke up to the sounds of the jungle, but now I also had a shower.  Throughout the day our guides would take us on nearby adventures. One day they we went catfishing without a pole, using only our hands and some string.  For dinner the next night the cooks would serve them back to us as ceviche.  Other days we would turn over leaves to spot tiny poison dart frogs, often no bigger than a fingernail.  In the mornings, black mantle tamarins would come to the edge of the kitchen to grab scraps of food as macaws would squawk overhead.  Decorating the lodge were fossils that had been found there, documenting the life that thrived even millions of years ago.

Not to be forgotten too, are the millions of people who call the Amazon home.  When my father mentioned to our guide that he was an avid soccer fan, he invited us to the neighboring town to see some Sunday afternoon games.  I let it slip that my father was a very good player, and before he could say no, the coach threw him in, much to the amusement of the entire town who had come out to watch.  As we walked the river’s edge in the town that evening, locals passed my father with smiles across their faces, applauding his soccer prowess.  They were welcoming, friendly, and filled with life.

On the final afternoon our guide took us to a tree only a few minutes from the lodge.  Hidden inside its gnarled knot of branches and roots were three baby vultures.   Vulnerable and scared, they patiently waited for their mother to return with food.  Awestruck by their beauty, we slowly backed off, wanting to leave nature unharmed, as we knew we should.

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