AMAZON HAS ITS POLITICAL SIDE
by Whit Gibbons
July 21, 2003
A nice thing about the first few days in a new land is being in the accelerated
phase of the learning curve. You know so little that you learn at every
turn, with the blank spots of unawareness being filled in at a rapid rate.
month, I was appreciating the joy of ignorance with my first impression
of the Amazon River. As evening approached I sat on a veranda overlooking
the river, watching colorful birds catch a last bite before bedtime and
fish-eating bats begin their nocturnal pursuits. As I watched the wide
expanse of open water, I saw a spectacle that stole my attention away
from the wildlife. I saw what appeared to be the conning tower of a submarine
rise from the river and then disappear beneath the surface. Seeing a submarine
in a river, a thousand miles upstream from the ocean, seemed a bit much.
next day, sitting on the prow of a riverboat with two other ecologists,
I asked a native Brazilian who was with us and who understood English,
"Does Brazil have a navy and, if so, what are they doing here, so
far from the ocean?"
he said, "we have a navy. And they are in the Amazon because we are
afraid of an attack by the United States."
friends and I looked at each other, puzzled, assuming the man was joking.
But he was not.
"Not by people like you," he continued, making us feel a little
more at ease. "Not scientists or tourists. But the U.S. military.
Many of us are afraid that the United States will invade us to capture
our natural resources."
natural resources he referred to are not oil or minerals but the wilds
and waters of the Amazon, environments beyond imagination. I could not
comprehend why Brazilians would entertain such a thought, for these are
resources for all to enjoy, not for another country to take away. Ecotourism
is a primary economic focus in the Amazonian region of Brazil but is not
a resource to be fought over.
The people of Brazil, a country the size of our own and for which the
world's greatest jungle is a reigning feature, are proud of what they
have. Their ties to the natural world abound. Brazilian currency is like
that of many tropical countries: the images are not of people but of animals.
Pictures of jaguars, turtles, herons, and parrots on their money make
a statement about what the populace deems important. Natural wildlife
dominates the countryside, and dominates many aspects of the culture.
The economy in the city of Manaus, the major city of the Amazon Basin
and 900 miles away from other metropolitan areas, is driven by a focus
on the environment.
Regional attitudes include resentment toward people from other countries
who have raided the tropical jungles with deforestation programs that
benefited only a few while destroying vast areas of primeval forest. Nor
does anyone want poachers who come to the Amazon to take animals away
to sell in other countries. Who can blame the people of any country for
resenting the destruction of their forests or removal of their wildlife?
These are jungles so dense and forbidding that an ecologist friend told
me of an educational program he runs for children in which the first step
is to find a flower. He talks about the flower, which is often an orchid,
to the group of children. The next step is for the children to look around
in the jungle until someone finds another plant like the one they just
examined but not in exactly the same place. Almost always, many other
flowers are found, but none like the first one. In fact, seldom are two
flowers of the same kind ever found, because of the incredible diversity
of the tropical forests. No one should want such forests logged and burned.
I am not sure I saw a submarine in the Amazon, but I am sure the Brazilians
have a national pride in this fabulous natural region. That they think
other countries might try to take it from them may be reasonable. I hope
it is not reasonable to believe the United States is one of those countries.
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