Adventurer Phillippa Stewart on her cycling trip that started on the Atlantic coast, crossed Brazil and ended the trip in Peru, looking at the Pacific Ocean:
I was rather terrified before departing on a months-long cycling trip through the Amazon. The internet isn’t always your friend before an expedition of this nature. Digging too deeply, you begin to wonder if everything is out to get you. It goes way beyond the bugs and forest creatures too. Talking to NGOs who warned us of the dangers of the region and reading stories of activists being killed did make me nervous. But I truly believe 99% of people are good and once on the ground I definitely felt a lot more relaxed. Honestly, it ended up being sand-flies and mosquitos that caused me the most damage! My arm got totally munched up after sleeping out in the jungle one evening.
Gearing up for cycling the TransAmazonian Highway
Adventurer Reza Pakravan was the brains behind it all. It’s one thing to make a decision to embark on a quest such as this, but it’s another to prepare for it all. For this trip, we were under time constraints and I was cycling with a world record holder. Reza has the world record for cycling the Sahara Desert, as well as the north to south of the planet. And although I had long-haul experience on the bike, I knew that I wasn’t anywhere near as quick as Reza. To get up to speed, I trained with his coach, Paul Mill from Elite Cycling. I definitely got much fitter and faster than I was previously, and yet, during the trip I found that keeping pace with Reza still proved to be a challenge at times!
Several months prior, Reza had been looking for an expedition partner, specifically someone who had cycling experience and was interested in environmental issues. Coupled with my journalistic background, it sounded like this could be great fit for us both. Then when we met up and got along well, we decided to team up to take on the Amazon.All in all, the journey ended up lasting for two and a half months, yet the impact it left on me will exist far beyond that time span.
Why the cause matters
I think a great deal of us have grown up hearing that the Amazon Rainforest is the ‘lungs of the planet’ and needs to be protected. However, I think many of us are becoming immune to the rhetoric. I wanted to head out and see how deforestation is impacting the people that live there. It’s not just an environmental disaster; this also has a human face. The indigenous people who live there have such rich and vibrant cultures, yet drug trafficking, deforestation, gold mining, monocultures (i.e.: oil palm and soy plantations) and cattle ranching are all placing incredible traditions and distinct cultures at risk.
Both Reza and I wanted to raise awareness of what is going on out in the rainforests. Humanity has already lost 20% of the world’s jungles.
A highlight for me was spending a few nights with the Munduruku tribe in Brazil. We witnessed an ancient fishing ceremony which involved the entire tribe covering each other in a sticky white resin. It was like an elaborate form of kiss chase with the boys covering the girls and the girls covering the boys. It is believed that if everyone is covered in the resin the fishing trip will be a success. Even though it took about 10 hair washes to get it out of my hair and eyebrows it was incredible to see, and a real privilege to be part of.
The Impact of Dams
During our expedition, Reza and I cycled past one of the world’s most notorious hydroelectric dams, the Belo Monte Dam in Brazil. Being on a bike provided a clear sense of the scale of this endeavour. What saddened me the most however, was talking with the locals. One group that we’d visited, the Juruna tribe, had move due to flooding that began after the dam was built. Although the company behind the Belo Monte Dam rehoused and compensated the Juruna people, inevitably a lot of their traditions and ways of living were lost in the move. And none of Juruna with whom we spoke to seemed to prefer their new homes or their locations.
Bumps in the Road
What I realised cycling through the Amazon region is that roads can have unintended consequences. Yes, it can allow for development but it also allows for destruction. Getting the balance right is key. Conservation organisations often portray the “fishbone” effect that a road has: small roads used for deforestation and other illegal activities often spring up from a main road. Case in point? The TransAmazonian Highway was intended to open up a rural part of Brazil for farming, development and connectivity but rampant deforestation was an unexpected by-product.
When we were in Peru we saw plans to develop a road through untouched primary rainforest in the Purus region. If this goes ahead it would be a real blow to the rainforest – and the world. Unexpected consequences are true for gold-mining too. In the areas we visited in Peru, mercury poisoning, prostitution, human trafficking and drug abuse was rife.
Initially, the road was a government project designed to open up the more remote parts of Brazil. It would be too simplistic to say that the highway was a bad idea as it has allowed for development, education, and more. However, because of the lack of regulation and/or corruption in the area, the TransAmazonian Highway is used by illegal loggers to transport trees and timber. I think the lesson here is that roads can have unintended consequences, and in such a resource-rich place, there needs to be better on-the-ground regulation to combat illegal logging.
Building relationships with tribes
All the tribes that we met along the way were fiercely proud of their land, and given that they have to battle daily to save it, strongly understood the need to protect it.
When we’d initially gone to stay with the Munduruku tribe, before Reza and I could enter their lands, we had to have a meeting with the tribal leaders. The meeting went on for hours. I definitely didn’t expect such a thorough probing about what we were doing there, why, and how we can help them. The impression we came away with is that they’ve often felt larger organisations have come in, used their images, their stories, and they haven’t seen anything tangible in return. After decades of exploitation of their land it’s understandable that they’re a bit wary of foreigners – and in my opinion, rightly so. In this region, I realised that trust has to be earned; it isn’t necessarily automatic.
Meeting environmentalist and Asheninca tribal leader Diana
For the most part, the women I met from the tribes were tough, resilient women and mothers. I was struck how early people have children in the tribes (as soon as girls start menstruating, they often have kids). There were always children running around and a real sense of solidarity and community among the women. Babies were passed from generation to generation and everyone got on with the daily tasks of living, be this cooking, cleaning or keeping an eye on the children.
The most heart-breaking and inspiring interview I did was with a young, 20-something environmentalist and Asheninca tribal leader called Diana. Her father, Jorge Rios, a leading environmentalist, was murdered by illegal loggers. Diana is now spearheading the campaign to protect her corner of the Amazon, and is one of the most prominent female indigenous leaders in Peru. “When I was young my father took me to the jungle and told me we needed to protect it for the whole world,” she said. “Whenever I am in the forest now I feel his presence.” It was utterly heartbreaking and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house after this interview.
I spent a great deal of time talking with incredibly dedicated teachers who work with the Munduruku tribe. Many tribes in the Amazon live days upstream in a small boat, so it’s not like the teachers can pop in and see their own families easily or escape for the weekend. That means it’s a unique sort of person who will travel out to educate the more rural tribes, and it’s not always easy to find people to sign up for the long term. Even in the most rural parts of the Amazonian regions we went to, education was considered to be important for the younger generation. It’s just a case of ensuring that they have access to good, dedicated teachers on a consistent basis.
Perhaps the biggest battle and greatest opportunity to tribal culture is technology. In our interconnected world, the lure of the cities and the economic prospects that it offers for the younger generation is presented in glorious technicolour. The younger generation leaving may be a big threat to the tribes going forward. This is why I came away with the impression that conservation must walk hand in hand with a business case. It’s wonderful to be idealistic, but the reality is that people on the ground want to earn money and they want the best for their families. I think sustainable tourism, initiated by the tribes (this is key – it can’t be imposed) may be one way to get the best of both worlds.
Using technology to combat illegal logging
Interestingly, the Tembe people are using technology to combat illegal logging. They have detectors in the tree tops that pick up the sound of chainsaws and using GPS they can pinpoint the areas that loggers are working in illegally. Likewise, when we were staying with the Munduruku tribe we came across a floating gold mine in their waters. The tribe boarded the mine and asked the miners to leave immediately. It was a respectful and peaceful discussion, but the miners shouldn’t have been in the tribes’ waters. From what we saw it seemed like the tribes have a constant battle on their hands to protect the forest and their homeland.
Additionally, I think that as long as the loggers, ranchers, miners, farmers, etc, keep to their lands things could be OK. Unfortunately, especially with the logging and drug trafficking, they often encroach on indigenous tribal land. We stayed with the Tembe tribe in Brazil who often go on armed patrols to protect their land. Encounters can be dangerous, and have been fatal at times.
However, I do think it’s a serious risk of simplifying matters to make a statement that all groups like loggers, miners, and ranchers are “bad”. One cattle rancher we spoke to said he was very confused. He was brought there by the government decades ago to farm cattle during the building of the TransAmazonian Highway. Now he’s been informed that raising cattle and ranching is bad for the environment. He’s just been doing what he’s told and what he’s always done yet is almost at the mercy of bigger forces.
It’s the industrial scale miners and loggers that need to be targeted first. Unfortunately, money talks in the region. The small scale farmers and industrialists need support, not condemnation. We interviewed one farmer who was doing a great job at moving away from having monocultures like oil palm on his land. He was trying to incorporate more of the native jungle plants so as to take the land back to a more natural state. Although, ideally, this land would be jungle, the reality is that these people are trying to make a living. It’s about getting the balance right and ensuring we protect what is left and encourage change in areas that have been deforested.
There are many incredible NGOs working in the Amazon, but I feel that more business solutions are desperately needed too. Given that money, corruption and politics seem to have such sway in the region, we need to find a way to make destructive people and organisations realise that a tree is worth more alive than dead. I also think that responsible tourism is potentially one solution, as is diversification of farming in the region, sustainable agriculture, and moving away from monocultures. This is where the ‘environment meets business’ concepts behind international organisations like the Forest Stewardship Council and Rainforest Alliance can have a big impact for forest communities.
I am still trying to figure out what I think the future of the Amazon is, but coming from a place of hope and positivity is a good starting point. The amount of destruction and devastation we laid eyes on was painful, but we also met so many people who are battling to establish new ways and new solutions to the onward march of human development.
Firstly, we need to amplify these voices, find creative, global solutions. From NGOs, to tribes, to farmers trying to diversify their crops from monocultures, there is a great deal of positive work going on in the Amazon. I interviewed a taxi driver who was employed by a gold mine, but used to work in tourism in Cusco, one of Peru’s top tourist destinations. He now earns higher wages working in gold than in tourism. This needs to change.
In a gold mining region in Peru, we visited an eco-lodge that was trying to educate tourists on why the jungle was a better investment than buying gold. Obviously this isn’t the only solution to the long term protection, but it’s a start. As consumers we can vote with our wallets, be that with the products we buy (palm oil, soy, cocoa, wood) at our weekly grocery shop, or the places we choose to go on holiday.
Secondly, tougher measures and better regulation on the ground are clearly needed to protect the rainforest. The guardians should be those with a vested interest to protect it. The indigenous communities are best placed to protect their homeland. The NGOs who took us to Peru (Pro Purus and the Upper Amazon Conservancy) are doing great work trying to get land rights bestowed on the tribes who live in the region.
Even now though, there are plans afoot to build a road through the Purus’ primary rainforest. If this happens it could be a real blow to the region. Empowering the tribes legally is one way to help, and this is something Pro Purus and the Upper Amazon Conservancy above are working extremely hard on.
At the risk of sounding like a total hippy, there is magic in the jungle. Spending time deep in the rainforest is an experience like no other. Despite the noises, it is a very peaceful, spiritual place. And while living with tribes, I felt deeply connected to the world and the people in it. I’d love to go back.
Follow Phillippa Stewart’s journey and her fantastic adventures on her blog.