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Heartburn of Darkness

Jaguar jerky, tapir T-bone, monkey meat. We're not in So Paulo anymore, Toto. E, Toto?

by Bill Gann

My pants are dropped around my ankles in the airport rest room. The Brazilian federal policeman, hoping either to discredit the environmental movement or to make the bust of his career, is searching my insect-ravaged, malaria-racked, explosively diarrhetic body. If this guy decides to probe, I'm thinking, justice will be served.

It passes through my feverish mind that this humiliation might be cosmic punishment for having eaten jaguar. In fact, I've just spent three weeks among people who snack on tiny rare monkeys and pop toucans like Froot Loops; people who, ironically, just may be the salvation of the Brazilian Amazon.

Whatever the reason for our arrest, my two student companions and I are in the Cruzeiro do Sul International Airport having our bare butts ogled by a crowd of curious rest room onlookers. I explain to the federal detectives that our expedition into the upper Juru ‡ iver Valley had simply distributed educational supplies. Refusing to believe that illiterate people want books, the policeman is convinced that we had a sinister motive. Actually, it's no wonder we had raised suspicions. Decked out in Banana Republic khakis, we had outfitted our expedition in this wild riverfront town, paying with big wads of donated corporate cash. We rented a 60-foot riverboat, the Padre Josimo, complete with a two-man crew and a cook, and stocked it royally. We dined with local rainforest crusaders, enjoying the irony that rich Brazilian and American companies were picking up the tab.

Maybe it was that dinner that had attracted federal attention. Our guest was Antonio Macedo, who continues the work of the late Chico Mendes, assassinated in 1988 for his environmental and labor-organizing activities. Macedo (himself a survivor of three murder attempts) is trying to unite Indians, environmentalists, and rubber tappers in defense of the rainforest. He has also helped our group from Escola Graduada, So Paulo's American school, organize three journeys into the Upper Juru‡ to dis ense donated books, pencils, maps, lesson plans, and teacher-training to jungle schools-in most cases, the only outside help they have ever received.

So there were fellow teacher John O'Brien and I, along with three Escola Graduada students, entertaining a group of Macedo's friends at Cruzeiro do Sul's best restaurant, when a federal senator and some local politicos walked in the door. Like the saloon scene in a bad Western, everyone became quiet and tense. Macedo introduced us as "the teachers from America." The senator and his friends, dressed in power suits despite the tropical heat, gave us surly nods and took the neighboring table. Both groups ate in silence.

Here in the airport, I'm wondering if hanging around with Macedo is like standing too near a lightning rod. At least he has a shotgun-wielding bodyguard who once blew the hand off a would-be assassin. We, on the other hand, have the federal police poking around in our underwear, perhaps hoping to embarrass Macedo by finding the American teachers' stash of drugs.

The flight is delayed while our luggage is taken off the plan e and dumped onto the steaming tarmac. As we walk to our bags, I hear Rob say, "There goes my gun." Gun? The gun! The 20-gauge shotgun that had seemed like such a good idea going into the jungle-lions, tigers, playing Rambo and all-may now ruin our whole day. Rob and D.J. had both bought weapons before we headed up river. D.J. still has his back in the hotel where he and John plan to stay a few more days. Rob's is in his bag, waiting like a ticking bomb. The two cops root around in our bags, sniffing like dogs. They find the gun and ask for the paperwork , causing Rob to turn white and make Porky Pig noises ("bdee, bdee, bdee"). I'm lost in malarial delirium, but our Brazilian student Alex is still in the game and saves the day by using the gun to negotiate our freedom: we don't have the gun's papers, but we don't have any drugs either, so they can keep the gun if we can go home.

On the long flight back I look over my river journal. The malaria helps produce a film noir flashback effect: river memories form like heat waves in the rainforest, and the airplane engine's roar is soon replaced by the drone of a jungle riverboat . . .

Six hours up the Juru‡ River, and lit le has changed since Cruzeiro do Sul. It will take us three days to reach the 2,000-square-mile "extractive reserve" in the Upper Juru‡ Valley, one of the four created by the Brazilian government in the wake of worldwide uproar over Chico Mendes' murder. The term, coined by anthropologist Carlos Teixeira, describes a simple idea-extracting useful products from the forest without destroying it. A simple idea, but a dangerous one: the ranchers killed Mendes, leader of the seringueiros (rubber tappers), because of it. Mendes' murderers subsequently escaped from jail in Acre state, and are now at large in this very part of the far-west Amazon.

Mendes felt the Amazon should be controlled by people who know and love the forest, and depend on it for survival. This, of course, brought the ire of a Brazilian aristocracy that has traditionally profited from the destruction of the rainforest. Indeed, to promote development of the Amazon region, the elite are granted title to massive tracts of forest. Gunmen are hired to kill or chase off Indians or other forest people in a process called limpeza, or "cleaning." Cleaned land fetches a higher price, and might at this point be sold to eager foreign logging or mining interests. Enormous tax advantages are also given to those who simply burn the forest and call the charred result a ranch. Most of Acre (the size of Illinois) is owned by 130 people.

Mendes' interference with this time-honored method of making the rich and poor more so earned him his death sentence. In addition, people like Mendes and Macedo mock the favorite argument of the Brazilian gentry, that all Brazilians want the rainforest developed. Rainforest profiteers love to point to the destruction of forests in the northern hemisphere and tell the outside world to mind its own business. But the likes of Mendes and Macedo give the world's environmentalists a local lever on Brazilian politics, and that gives the seringueiros added clout. And that makes them a threat.

Up the river, we swim in a copper-colored lagoon with Macedo. Solemnly, he says that we should enter the forest respectfully. "Let the water know you are in harmony with it and nothing will hurt you," he tells John and me, who watch earnestly as he looks mysteriously about the jungle. "Put your hands flat," he says, laying his on the water's surface. "Raise your arms to the sky, and the water will know your spirit." He recommends doing this several times. Then he smiles slyly. "It also scares away the stingrays."

Stingrays and other sea creatures-like the pink dolphins now leaping in rainbow arches off our port side-were stranded here in the jungle 150 million years ago in the Mesozoic era when the separation of South America and Africa pushed up the Andes and changed the Amazon's direction. Now Macedo and his followers hope to transform the Amazon again, leading it from the ravages of clearcutting, mining, and ranching to the benign and sustainable harvesting of rubber, Brazil nuts, fruits, and medicinal plants.

"What we demand is a complete reorientation of Brazil's a pproach to the Amazon," Mendes told The Boston Globe just before he was killed. "It is the last hope for the rainforest, which is the hope for man."

Time is short, as the last hope for man is going up in smoke. A nightmare vision was revealed earlier on the night flight from Los Angeles to So Paulo, when for a most half an hour over Colombia we flew above burning rainforest. Thousands of fires, some small, others the size of Yosemite, blazed on the horizon in every direction. According to the pilot, the inferno was a common sight. When we passed into Brazil, the fires thinned; by the time we flew over the Juru‡ Valley, the rimeval darkness had returned.

Snaking up that valley now in the Padre Josimo (a boat named after Padre Josimo Moraes Tavares, who was also killed for supporting land reform in Brazil) past the stick houses of the people whom environmentalists hope will extinguish the Amazon's firestorms, the struggle seems dangerous and futile. As we go ashore to pass out our meager supplies, it is evident that there is one major flaw in the rosy scenario of rubber tappers as saviors of the forest: no one is buying Amazon rubber. Even Brazil's own manufacturers import cheaper Asian latex. The forest people's situation is consequently pitiful, with many almost starving. One old man even tells me he'd rather see the return of the "Boss System," where the rubber tappers were held in debt peonage to the rubber barons. "At least then we always had enough to eat," he says. The man was a "soldier of rubber," a veteran of the army of rubber tappers that had been sent into the jungle during World War II to make up for the lost supply of Asia n rubber. Like the rest of his comrades, the old man was deserted after the war, never receiving his promised pension from either the United States or Brazil.

After years of dependence on the rubber barons, many seringueiros are not totally at ease with the liberty of the extractive reserve. Emancipation left them in desperate need of education; most people here can't read, write, or do simple mathematics. Years of eating canned horse meat supplied by company stores left many lacking even basic survival skills. In the old days, the punishment for growing a vegetable garden was to have your house burned, and because the Indians were always considered enemies, the tappers failed to learn the ways of the forest. They know how to tap rubber trees, and little else.

At a school on the Amonia River, for instance, the children drink water from an unprotected spring where ducks swim, animals roam, and everyone washes clothes. A boy doesn't believe me when I tell him he can get sick from such water. At another school, I show a teacher our home states on the map we distributed on our last visit. She and her students seem confused when I ask them to show me the location of Cruzeiro do Sul on the map, and all point downriver instead. It turns out the teacher can't read, doesn't know what a map is, and thinks we're saying that we come from spots on the wall.

To reach the schools up the shallower tributaries, we dock the Padre Josimo and continue our journey on a smaller boat that looks like the African Queen but has no name. I wonder why, since in the last 20 years Brazilian landowners have contracted over 1,600 killings of activists. No shortage of martyrs here-enough to name an entire fleet.

We are joined by Francisco Xavier Nunes Ramos, the president of the reserve, known as "Dolo" among the seringueiros. (His cousin, Larindo Liminoguerra, is our motorman and guide.) Dolo sees the reserve as a social experiment where poor people can become independent through agriculture, hunting, gathering, bartering, and selling extractable products. He preaches solidarity wherever we stop, encouraging his constituents to be patient until conditions improve. "Soon," he promises, "the price of rubber will go back up."

While we wait for the global commodity market to come around, Dolo takes us to a school and medical post on the Upper Juru‡ run by a eringueiro leader called Augusto. Sitting on his porch I watch misty clouds scrape the treetops and turn golden as they cross the river. John talks to Augusto and his brothers out front as the grass still steams after a passing storm. Augusto's brother is a hunter and is reciting the menu for our upcoming dinner: deer, wild boar, and anta. Anta? My Portuguese/English dictionary says this is a tapir, largest beast in the forest. It's a pachyderm, like a little hippo. I'm thinking there are probably a dozen or so left on the planet, and our dinner is likely to cause a major disruption to the ecosystem.

Anta ˆ la brasilienne is good, though, like stewed beef permeated with the flavor of some secret jungle herb, and everyone assures me it isn't endangered. As a side dish we have turtle served with rice, beans, and powdered manioc root. Delicately, our expedition members leave those pieces still showing scales and toenails for the local gourmands. The deer and pig are not as exotic and go down with less guilt.

In the pre-dawn haze I hike to Boca do Tejo, a gloomy settlement that serves as headquarters of the reserve. Its ill-chosen site is marshy and infested with vampiric insects, the ground so mushy that raised walkways are necessary to go from one sad structure to the next. The optimistically large cooperative warehouse is open and empty: no one comes to sell worthless rubber or to buy nonexistent supplies. The emptiness feels eerie and cruel. It's hard to believe that only a couple years ago, when Amazon rubber brought a higher price, this was a busy trading post.

One can almost hear the lumber companies, ranchers, and rubber barons laughing. It's hard to see how the extractive reserves can continue as they are. Now, the seringueiros only know how to form the smoked rubber into huge chunks to float down the river. Dolo argues that finding a market for Amazon products is the key to success. If they made things like sandals and bags out of the latex they gather, the world would happily buy products from the rainforest. Even if the rubber tappers don't learn new skills, with the right marketing, Amazonian rubber could give some manufacturers the competitive edge: California surfers could boast that their wet suits were made of "like, you know, Amazon rubber." And, after all, natural rubber still makes the best condoms.

Yet the stark reality of Boca do Tejo is that Amazon rubber simply cannot compete with Asian or synthetic latex, and the seringueiros only care to talk about the rubber's price. While Dolo seems to pander to this interest when he meets with small groups , he also warns that they must look for new extractable products.

Back on the river, Dolo is teaching Alex to steer the boat. With its chain-operated rudder and long-shafted motor, the boat doesn't seem to go where one points it, and navigation is a difficult job. Alex is making himself at home-as well he might, since his prominent Brazilian family owns a fair chunk of the Amazon. Dolo, watching Alex steer, is wearing a T-shirt advocating agrarian reform. I hear John and D.J. talking up on the boat's roof, wondering if giving people maps and book s they can't read accomplishes anything. I watch Alex and Dolo, representing the elite and oppressed of Brazilian society, and realize that education is happening anyway.

That afternoon Dolo leaves us, hopping a ride up the Bage River with some friends passing in a dugout. Near sunset, we come upon a father and son hunting from a canoe. Their dog, contrary to reserve rules, is chasing a deer; the boy paddles as the father fires a shotgun. White smoke rises as the man sets the gun down, grabs a machete, and springs onto the wounded deer that has splashed into the river. Alex expertly steers us toward the bank but Larindo, who is now acting as a reserve official in Dolo's absence, says nothing about the dog and even offers to tow the hunters' canoe home. In turn, the hunter, Jose do Conceis‹o, offers us dinner and his house for the night.

Jose takes us to a room off the kitchen large enough for all our hammocks. As we enter, an incredible sight stops me in my tracks-one entire wall is covered with jaguar hides, three stretched pelts, each about six feet long and three feet wide. There is also a smaller ocelot pelt. I ask Jose, who beams with pride when he notices my drooping jaw, when he killed all these oncas pintadas, as the beautiful cats are called in Brazil.

"The largest, I killed last night in the yard." He smiles. "We're having it for dinner," he adds.

It's dark by the time all our hammocks are pitched. Dim light comes from a corner fire where a pressure cooker hisses on a raised clay stove. Another low light from a rubber tapper's kerosene lantern illuminates Jose, who sits on a floor made of split paxiuba palm branches. A side of deer drips in the dark, blood spilling between the floor cracks to creatures waiting under the house. I wonder why we won't be eating venison but fear it would be impolite to ask.

Fishnets, shotguns, knives, and pots hang from the walls and rafters. John enters, making some smart remark about eat ing jaguar, and Jose, taking this as a hint, jumps up and cuts us some dried meat from a sack hanging over the fire. Larindo demonstrates how one simply tears off a small piece, sprinkles it with manioc, and eats an endangered species. Jaguar tastes like you might expect, dry and salty. I've eaten dog, snake, rat, and bear with various native people around the world, and I can only say that the Great Spirit did not intend for creatures of the cat family to be eaten.

The next day, back on the river, a white-haired man in a dugout flags us down and asks if we can turn around and take his wife and their sick child to Cruzeiro do Sul, a seven-day trip. The man's wife, a pipe-smoking Indian woman, says the child has some sort of stomach problem. Alex yells for D.J. to look through the first-aid kit for something for a stomachache. Larindo, who has heard of this condition, calls me into the cabin to whisper that the child is as good as dead.

John reads medicine boxes to D.J., who yells, "What is it, vomiting? Diarrhea?" Alex passes along these questions but the frantic woman pulls back part of the shelter to show the child. At the sight of his tortured face I yell, "Pain! what do we have for pain?" When the mother lifts the child's shirt, I see a grossly bloated stomach with a raw hole in the center, out of which feces flows. Larindo tells them to go to Boca do Tejo where they can find help. They push off with a handful of Tylenol, their blank, hopeless faces growing smaller and smaller in the distance.

A few miles pass and another canoe comes out to greet us. This time it's a young boy telling of a woman who has just died of malaria; we are invited to visit the grieving family in their hut. Remembering the dying child's face, we vote for moving on.

We arrive at the home of a rubber tapper, Rubeni, who has invited us to stay a few days. His dugout is gone and we wonder for a moment if plans have changed, but soon Rubeni appears at his doorway , and comes to the bank to tie up our boat. He explains that his canoe has been loaned to Sebasti‹o, a neighbor with a sick child. Perhaps we've traveled into he center of a jungle plague.

Yet the loveliness of this section of the Tejo soon puts thoughts of disease out of our minds. One lazy day melts into anot her, and we all assume Huck Finn attitudes; John even starts to smoke corn silk in a cob pipe. It's an easy swim across the river to trails that pass over log bridges and lead to sugarcane and corn patches. There are bends in the river where catfish can be caught with every cast and enormous green snakes shoot across the water like lightning.

Following Rubeni on his rounds is hardly like working. The rubber trees are scattered through the forest so one meanders about nicely. In fact, seringueiros believe the longest branch of one rubber tree points toward the next, so the trail is established with the advice of trees. It's one of these hobbit paths we now follow through green hallways and along crystal streams. Rubeni carries his collecting can, cutting knife, and gun. Misty rain falls where we walk, and distant thunder rumbles.

Each rubber tree is serviced in a special way; rubber tappers believe the trees are so sensitive they be come accustomed to an individual's touch. They are delicate and will die if cut improperly or bled excessively. Some of these magnificent trees (Hevea brasiliensis) can take only one cut, larger ones up to three. If a seringueira, as the trees are called, is cut at ground level, eventually the lower section must rest, so later cuts must be made very high. To do this, the seringueiro leans a notche d sapling against the trunk, climbs to a high perch and cuts with a bird's-eye view of paradise.

There are animal signs along the trail but few sighting s, perhaps because of the armadilhas, horrible crossbow/shotgun traps set on the game trails at night. When a passing creature trips a hidden string the bow is sprung, driving a nail into a shotgun shell in a short pipe, and anything from a squirrel to a tapir dies. This time a cotia, a small, muskrat-like creature with beautiful golden-brown fur, is found near a trap and taken home. "For me," Rubeni explains, "rice and beans without meat just isn't dinner."

The floors in the school where Rubeni's wife, Maria, teaches are swept with monkey tails. In fact an adorable monkey called Nika, a tufted capuchin about the size of a cat, has the job of eating the giant spiders living in the school's thatched roof. The monkey was orphaned when Rubeni shot her mother for a snack. A toucan beak (great eating, toucans, Rubeni says) serves as a paperweight on Maria's desk. A wildlife preserve this isn't.

After several days at Rubeni's, Sebasti‹o returns with his sick child in Rubeni's motor dugout. The child is yellow with a swollen belly; he's panting as an old woman carries him up to the house to spread whatever disease he has to this family. Sebasti‹o brings him to me on the scool steps and asks if I can help, explaining that he was unable to find assistance on the river.

I look at the worried father, who is expecting my journalism degree to save his child's life. I wonder if this is the same disease the other child had. My Red Cross first-aid course fails me. I explain I'm a photography teacher but still Sebasti‹o looks to me with pleading eyes. I think of my o n sons and make my diagnosis-this kid is very sick. He has a fever. I prescribe aspirin and recommend they kill a chicken for soup, thinking that if this works, Jewish mothers everywhere will be proud. I also advise them to stop visiting their neighbors, as the disease may be contagious. Indeed, I think, I too may soon have to rely on the curative powers of soup.

Back on the river, we make several more school stops, passing out books, pencils, and T-shirts. I'm fever ish and wonder if I'm spreading some exotic disease around the forest as we work our way back to the Padre Josimo, the larger boat we left on the Juru‡.

A lucky thing that it's larger, too, because we are collecting quite a crowd. They come with their chickens and bags of rags, looking for free passage to Cruzeiro do Sul. No one asks for a ride; they just climb on board. Once John chased a few people off but now he's given up. He only rejected the one-legged man who didn't know we spoke Portuguese and was overheard telling a group of boys he would slit our throats because we were here to ruin the Amazon. I'm too weak to get out of the hammock and am little help to "Captain John," as the natives now call him.

The voyage is like one of those dreams in which everyone you've ever met shows up. Here again is the white-haired man and his pipe-smoking wife; I'm told their child with the ruptured stomach died the day we saw them on the river. Dolo reappears, bringing several more people as sick as I am. Augusto from the medical post is there, doing what he can. He thinks I have malaria because the fever and chills come and go at a regular rate. Rubeni and his wife have caught up with us and are coming along. Then there's Nika, the monkey, who hasn't left my side since Larindo bought her from Rubeni and gave her to me. Now I wonder how to get her back to So Paulo.

What a strange scene the Padre Josimo is tonight, with 27 people circled around pots of rice, eating with their hands by the light of candles and kerosene lamps. I dream fire ants are biting me and wake to find Nika nibbling on my toes. Hammocks are strung three layers high; babies cry and old men cough. My head throbs and sometimes I feel as if I've been away on a long trip but can't remember where. My hammock is soaked with sweat. My stomach has a new burning feeling since the cook brought me some foul-smelling goat meat. I was eating it anyway when Rob warned me to spit it out, and now I stumble to the filthy toilet every ten minutes. I've had all the fun a body can have in the Amazon.

As our boat nears Cruzeiro do Sul we pass through vast deforested areas, a land as sick and pitiful as my body. If the Upper Juru‡ Extractive Reserve is going to escape this fate, it's going to need a lot more help than it's getting now. Health care and basic education would be a good start, with a little ecological education as well. (If the seringueiros' economic situation improved, they wouldn't have to hunt endangered species.) At present, the soldiers of rubber are being abandoned a second time. Chico Mendes' death was a tragic loss to the rainforest movement, but it seems senseless for his idea to die with him.

A clinic in Cruzeiro do Sul announces that I have both malaria and food poisoning. I take Nika to Brazil's wildlife agency and a man there says I can't keep her-it's five years in prison and a huge fine just for having her species. He'll give me a break if I return her to the forest, so we take a cab to the docks and find a banana boat unloading. I ask a friendly face if he is going back to the jungle and if he likes monkeys. He doesn't say a word but smiles and gives me the Brazilian thumbs-up. Nika leaves me for a boatload of bananas and never looks back. It's not until I'm on the way to the airport that I realize my horrible mistake: I should have made sure he wanted a pet and not a snack.

Bill Gann has worked as a photojournalist for 28 years, most recently in Brazil, where he taught photography at the American School in So Paulo until his return to the United States. He is recovering nicely, thank you.

(C) 2000 Sierra Club. Reproduction of this article is not permitted without permission. Contact for more information.

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