revisiting the amazon

unconquered_large_paperSince the start of the new year, it has been mostly damp, cold and a dull gray in Vancouver, with just a couple of short days of sunshine. In other words, perfect weather for reading a book that transported me right back to Amazonia, marvelling at parrots, macaws, and monkeys, and ineffectively trying to prevent insect bites.

During our July stay at the Napo Wildlife Center, an Indigenous-owned and operated eco-lodge deep in the Ecuadorian rainforest, we crossed paths with author Scott Wallace. He was stopping for one night on his way home after spending time even deeper in the rainforest, working with a photographer and researching an article for National Geographic. The resultant article and photos, decrying illegal logging in the rainforest, are in the January issue, now on the newsstands.

When we talked, he looked rested and in good health. It was a short assignment, perhaps without the discomfort, hunger, fatigue, and uncertainly he experienced when he traveled for three dramatic months by dugout canoe and on foot through virtually uncharted territory deep in the Brazilian rainforest in 2002. It is that perilous journey that is so compellingly described in Unconquered: In Search of the Amazon’s Last Uncontacted Tribes.

The purpose of the expedition, led by rough and tough frontiersman Sydney Posuello, at the time head of the Department of Isolated Indians, was to gain some sense of the numbers, range, and relative health of an uncontacted tribe known as flecheiros, or People of the Arrow. The trick was to do this without actually making contact with this extremely isolated group because contact inevitably resulted in the transmission of disease for which isolated Indigenous people’s had no immunity or cure. This meant the 30-person crew had to forge their own trail through untamed jungle, camp overnight and hunt for food without drawing the attention of the Arrow People, whose reputation was to greet visitors/intruders with a shower of poison darts. The expedition didn’t always go as planned.

With every page I was back in the rainforest myself, sometimes in a large canoe gliding along a flooded area between tall trees and hanging vines, watching monkeys watching us; sometimes struggling to manage my way along a narrow trail as birds and snakes scattered around us. Admittedly, most of the time on land we were following a modest trail and not blazing one ourselves, but we faced similar challenges, especially the voracious appetite of unknown insects. Every time Scott describes being bitten, I feel again the sting of the tiny wasps that attacked us along one trail, or the fire ants that didn’t appreciate our presence along another rough path. We were told the caimans were not as aggressive as their crocodile cousins, but like Scott we stayed clear of them just the same.

Although our chance encounter with the author was in Yasuni National Park in Ecuador, later in the year we travelled by boat on a stretch of the same Amazon tributary (Solimoes) he travelled in the book. Of course he ventured hundreds of kilometres further upstream from Manaus than our small tourist excursion would ever dare – but along with wildlife sightings and insect bites, we also experienced the stormy weather he frequently describes in Unconquered. One night our boat pulled into a side channel and then abruptly ran hard into the jungle – we thought the captain had left the helm or lost his marbles until we saw the crew throw ropes around the trees to hold us fast to shore – a storm was coming.

From our protected spot nestled in the trees we watched lightning crack across the sky and the rain come thundering down. It was only in the morning that we learned that the captain of a larger boat loaded with tourists had decided to brave the storm. The Amazon, however, can clearly be very unforgiving – the boat was completely blown over and capsized; initially several passengers remained missing and presumed drowned. Eventually all 28 passengers and crew were accounted for, but the boat and everyone’s luggage went straight to the bottom of the Amazon.

We were in the area for only a few days, but we also witnessed a rapid drop in water levels, just the way Wallace describes – fortunately our paddlers could still find a way around shallow areas and tangled treefalls where just a few days before roaring streams had carried us through a flooded forest. Thankfully, unlike Wallace and the rest of the expedition, we didn’t have to carry our luggage overland through the mud and bugs to catch our flight back to the city. Maybe it was a good thing I read this book after my own forays into the Amazon!

The Unconquered provides an exciting view from deep inside the rapidly disappearing Amazon rainforest. Despite the effort to designate and protect areas of the jungle for Indigenous use only, enforcement is minimal and as ineffective as the bug spray in our backpacks. Non-Indigenous loggers, miners, and hunters are taking everything they can get and leaving nothing behind but destruction and death.

This book is a great read, but for the sake of the People of the Arrow and other Indigenous groups under threat throughout the Americas, I encourage everyone to engage with groups like Amazon Watch, Amnesty International, and others working to protect human rights and the environment before it’s too late.

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