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.

Last 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.

The 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?"

"Yes," he said, "we have a navy. And they are in the Amazon because we are afraid of an attack by the United States."

My 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."

The 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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