A note from Shea: I'm out-of-pocket this week, working on a project in Iowa and I've asked a few of my green blogger friends to help me by writing some guest posts. Enjoy this piece from Doug Gunzelmann from Amazon Pilgrim and GreenUPGRADER. Thanks to Matt Embrey, my pal and the publisher of Live Oak Media, for getting this together. I'll be back in action next week.
On my 29th birthday, I set out on my first ever bicycle expedition. The first time I had ever been to Brazil I landed in Belem at the mouth of the Amazon River with a mountain bike I had bought on eBay six weeks prior. My Portuguese vocabulary consisted of about 50 words, and the weight of the equatorial jungle heat made it difficult to see straight. I was going to cycle the Transamazonica highway alone, over 3,000 miles across the continent, to explore the deforestation of the Amazon firsthand. This brutal trek shaped the way I think about Amazonia, deforestation, and how people fit into the picture of global environmental conservation.
The Transamazonica highway, also referred to as BR-230, was built through the Amazon jungle in the early 1970s to open the area for "development". The idea was to provide "Land without men for men without land," but ultimately the project was a failure and the concept abandoned. The route dead-ends in Labrea, however it is possible to cross the continent via connecting roads. To this day, the highway is made almost entirely of dirt, is poorly maintained, and serves as a transport corridor for local communities and an access route for loggers and illegal miners. Some sections are experiencing a major revamp to accommodate increasing agriculture in the region, including soy beans.
This is all true and easily researched, even from my comfortable apartment in Boston. This is roughly what I knew about the road when I began my journey, which meant my planning was incredibly shoddy. The TransAm seemed to be nothing more than a giant mistake, nearly lawless, all but forgotten by the government that started this project, and now filled with morally reprehensible souls willing to kill for quick profit from the wood and resources found in the Amazon. How easy it would be to point fingers and draw plans to curb deforestation if this was the simple case.
I successfully crossed the entire continent with nearly 2,000 miles on unpaved tracks through the world's greatest jungle. I saw the fazendas, or cattle ranches, that fill the treeless plots lining roadways all through out the Amazon. They look like hairy brown veins when you zoom in with Google maps. Everyday for the 6 weeks I was in the Amazon Basin I heard chainsaws, saw and smelled the fires of the quimadas as new land was gained from the jungle, and met many garimpos or miners who worked deep in remote corners of the forests looking for gold or stones. It was all happening, every day, along the entire width of the jungle, along the TransAm and joining roads.
However, what I failed to account for was the cities, villages, and families that have existed here for lifetimes. People I spoke with at home in the U.S. were always surprised that this wasn't empty land save a few loggers. One day I rode for 12 hours in 100+ degree heat and was taken into the home of a family living along the road. I had no place to sleep that night and no food or water. They gave me water to clean myself and drink, a freshly cooked dinner, and a bed to sleep in. The next morning breakfast was waiting before I left and they refused to take any money in return for their hospitality. The Dona of the household just asked that I said hello to her sons as they worked on the fazenda outside of town.
I now had come face to face with deforestation, and it wasn't a surly bare-chested man walking around with a chainsaw kicking dogs. The people living in the Amazon along these roadways have been there for generations — there before I was even born. They have very little, lead honest lives, and work extremely hard to provide for each other. When I left Brazil I was most struck by the openness and overall generosity of the culture. Never have an entire people left such a positive impression on me as that of the Brazilians I met across the relatively poor Amazonian states.
Deforestation as it has occurred in many parts of Brazil is not in anyone's long-term interest. The government is aware of this, much of the international community is aware of this, and the population of the Amazon itself is by and large very aware of this. However, so many of these people are backed against a wall. Due to poverty, isolation and a general lack of alternatives, they do what they must to make a living, which often times to the detriment of the environment. This is the plight of many developing nations.
I spent an evening with a pig farmer, Resu, who literally didn't have a pot to piss in (we dug holes behind his shack for our toilet). We ate a dinner of rice and beans that I am guessing had been reheated on the same fire for days. He tended about 40 pigs and lived on the cleared land of a fazenda that he didn't own but depended on to survive. Resu is in his mid-30s, unmarried and uneducated. He left the city to provide for himself on this isolated farm in hopes of saving enough to find a wife and start a family. For food he sometimes eats his pigs or hunts wild game, including some rare animals, in the jungle about 100 yards back from the roadway. How do I tell Resu not to kill the animals of the Amazon? How do I tell him that the fazenda he depends on is part of the bleeding scar of the basin? I came to realize that the problem and solution is a little more complicated than I previously grasped.
Brazilians have every right to use their country to advance themselves toward a better way of life. Here in America we have done exactly that while making huge mistakes along the way in terms of environmental damage and social polarization. I can't begin to think of a comprehensive policy that would on the one hand save the Amazon and let the people living there prosper to the best of their ability. More so, it ultimately is up to the Brazilian government to devise this plan, hopefully with the guidance of experts from around the world. But in the end, it is their land.
I left the Amazon with more questions than answers as is often the case when one becomes so embedded in something. When I read about debates to stop the paving of the roadways of the Amazon I wonder what that means for the people I met? Do I have any right to voice my opinion about deforestation just because I can? Who is really causing the damage, them or me? I live in a country that has benefited from the degradation of others. Brazil is competing in a cutthroat global market with the United States and other world powers to provide for its people. I can't gauge who's really winning and who has already lost.
Doug is an adventurer who recently completed a 3,200-mile bike expedition across the entire width of the Amazon basin of Brazil and over the Andes of Peru. He chronicled his trip at AmazonPilgrim.com and continues to contribute environmental insights as an editor at greenUPGRADER. Doug is currently working on spreading the story of his adventure in print and film. Follow Doug on Twitter @AmazonPilgrim.
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