Amazon Breathes

On the fair green hills of Rio
There grows a fearful stain:
The poor who come to Rio
And can’t go home again.

Elizabeth Bishop

Rio Negro, Amazônia, Brazil

Rio Negro, Amazônia, Brazil

In the spring of 1989, in Rio de Janeiro, near the Veloso bar in which Tom Jobim composed the famous Girl from Ipanema, and not far from the Arpoador Promontory, a surf spot on the edge of a sandy beach which in the evening is tinted with the setting sun, a nine-year-old boy was found dead in the early dawn, left off on the main road of that ritzy neighbourhood wrapped in a floor rug, with a message written on cardboard hanging around his neck: “I killed you because you weren’t going to school and you don’t have a right to the future.  The government cannot allow the city streets to be flooded with such children”.  The cause of death was strangulation.

Those evenings I saw children from favellas in the Fishing colonies on the outskirts of Copacabana and the Arpoador Promontory tirelessly running along the water’s edge, pulling along an uncontrollable kite which would only sometimes soar into the heights.  There was always over ten children playing with the makeshift paper kite, but that did not prevent them from enjoying their play well into the night.

On the streets of Brazil, 12 million children live fending for themselves.  Patricio Hilario da Silva was, as far as I know, probably a child from impoverished North-Eastern Brazil or from the devastated Amazonian Belt, just like masses of other children which, often with no official proof of their existence, live in the favellas in the sharp black hills of Rio de Janeiro.  That year, 400 children were killed in Rio. “The War Against Children”, as the citizens of Rio called this tragedy, culminated and resonated throughout the world four years later in 1993 with the massacre at the Candelária Church in downtown Rio de Janeiro, where members form the so-called Death Squad, among who were off-duty military and civil police officers, when eight children were shot in one night, most of them beggars or small time thieves who lived near the church and fed themselves at the church kitchen.  The motive for the revenging night blitzkrieg on the children was allegedly rocks, which a group of delinquents threw at a passing police car that day.  In 1994, 1221 minors were killed in the state of Rio de Janeiro, almost three children a day; 570 of then were killed with firearms, and 344 of the murdered children were under the age of 11.rocinha panorama

Death Squads, though illegal since the seventies, still exist.  The also called themselves Avengers, transformed themselves into various paramilitaries, and then appear under the label of private security services.  In Copenhagen in 1995 at the Street Children Hearing, Tania de Almeida, head judge of Duque de Caxias, described the vicious circle: “the powerful elite in Rio pay private security agencies to provide for their safety; these agencies are headed by police officers or chiefs of the Military Police; their subordinates search for extra income off duty because of their miserable pays; reassured by the cycle of impunity, the security agencies branch out into ‘cleaning up’ the streets for dissatisfied merchants; cleaning up the streets most often comes to mean eliminating poor children, who are perceived as one of the sources modern-day problems.  The staff of these private security agencies is largely comprised of professional killers, who are protected by individual highly positioned civil servants who once performed the very same jobs”. According to reports from those times, because of that cycle of impunity, almost 90% of the murders of Brazilian children and teenagers, who lived in poverty and outside of state protection, are not solved.


In the Amazon there are tribes that know up to sixteen terms to express different shades of green, but the basic conditions for existence in large cities are unreachable for people who have lived in harmony with nature and all the living beings around them.


16c_manaus_amazon_nasa

Rio de Janeiro 1989.

Rio de Janeiro 1989.

How can we rebuild the past or build the future of children like little Patricio and thousands of nameless children who live in favellas or who, forced out of their natural environments such as the Amazonian Belt, are put out on the streets, because they were forcefully or willingly left without parents, without anyone they call their own?  In many parts of the Amazon greedy corporations which devastate forests with the “chop and burn” method forced masses of people out into the open, at gunpoint, and entire families and communities were forced  into remaining stuck in the favellas in Manaus, Sao Paulo and Rio.  In their battle for sheer existence, families fell apart, became divided.  Children became orphans.  Abandoned and tired of needing to battle for life day in day out, these “jaguar children” as the Amazonian anthropologist and poet Marcia Theophilo calls them, do not succeed in integrating into the cement jungle which is so much more merciless than the rainforests where they were born.   They end up as easy preys in prostitution rings and are used by narco-gangs.  In the Amazon there are tribes that know up to sixteen terms to express different shades of green, but the basic conditions for existence in large cities are unreachable for people who have lived in harmony with nature and all the living beings around them.

Rio Negro, Amazônia, Brazil

Rio Negro, Amazônia, Brazil

Twenty years later, on a boat which I sailed on from Manaus upstream the Rio Negro and the Rio Juaeperi to the Xixuau reservation, I recollected Patricio Hilario da Silva and the children abandoned in the streets or in the “beehives” of the favellas in Rio and Sao Paulo where some of them were born, or, through their parents at least, were in some way tied to the vast space we often call the lungs of the world.

THE AMAZON BREATHES – A school at the far end of the world

There is a charming little school in the Xixuau reserve, in the heart of the Amazon, near the equator, 36 hours upstream the Rio Negro and Rio Jauperi to Manaus, a place you could perhaps call the far end of the world.  However, you could just as well call this place the beginning of the world, for in the labyrinth of rivers and tributaries and animals which dwell on the age-old hummus of untouched rainforests, you can experience that first sunrise over Earth.

The Xixuau reserve is situated on a stretch representing only 30% of untouched Amazon forest, in the lower reaches of the Rio Branco, in the state of Roraima, and is of great value to botanists, biologists, anthropologists and to the whole world, as it is one of the last places where plant and animal life develops as it did 50 000 years ago.  It is accessible only by river, about a day and a half’s travel from the port in Manaus, the main city in the Amazon.  Hydroplanes are rarely seen, flights are expensive and the planes are only called for in life-saving operations or similar situations.

Xixuau school, Amazônia Brazil

Xixuau school, Amazônia Brazil


The main attraction of the school is the small four to five metre caiman, the son of Lucifer, who was the previous caiman and who, as soon as he passed his life expectancy, disappeared into an unknown direction.  An interesting pact was made with Lucifer’s son. 


The Escola de Xixuau is situated on the local street, the social centre of the town.  This small school is the matinal home to 10 to 15 children.  The children are always cheerful on their way to school and you could tell they love their teacher who can’t really read and write any better himself, but none of the parents dare tell him so as he is from their village and they believe their lack of faith in him would sadden him.  Every morning in front of the school a swarm of yellow butterflies gathers; they appear out of nowhere, and after they dance their turbulent dance they disperse just as suddenly in different directions.  The main attraction of the school is the small four to five metre caiman, the son of Lucifer, who was the previous caiman and who, as soon as he passed his life expectancy, disappeared into an unknown direction.  An interesting pact was made with Lucifer’s son.  When in the morning the locals clean fish or do laundry on the dock which is five or six metres away from the school, they place two fish on the shore and then the caiman comes to the shore, takes the loot, and disappears in the brushwood.  The children can then freely play the whole day up until four in the afternoon, when, in preparation for supper, two fish are left on the ground, a metre or two away from the water.  Lucifer’s son then once again appears, and if there aren’t any people around the fish, he comes to the shore to get his supper then slowly swims away.  At five o’clock, come tropical rain or shine, everyone from the town plays football on the forest pitch.  They all play together, children and adults, men and women.  Classes themselves do not last more than a few hours and you can see that the children are happy and playful the whole time.  The adults seem calm and satisfied with life in Xixuau.  Watching those wonderful children, I think about how it is in fact over here that the future is being built for all those who were forced to leave their natural environments along the river and who drown in the wicked fate awaiting them in the streets and favellas of big cities such as Manaus, Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.

Amazona diše / Amazon Breathes expoIn this two-hundred-thousand-hectare area live some Natives and twenty or so Caboclos families.  Caboclos are mixed race, a cross between Indios and Caucasian and black immigrants from various parts of Brazil, who during the Second World War were mobilised as “rubber soldiers” for slavery on rubber plantations in the Amazon.  Unaccustomed to life in the jungle, these city people were dropping like flies because of malaria, snakes, insects…  Communal life with the Natives helped them survive, for when they were forced out of the cities to, with forced labour and in the name of war efforts, contribute to the battlefields in Europe, no return tickets were expected for them.


As opposed to Caboclos, pureblood Indios, those who haven’t died out or who haven’t withdrawn deep into the depths of the maps of the known areas of the Amazon, on the margins of the Xixau Xiparina area, have their own reserve under the patronage of American foundations.


 

Xixuau, Amazônia, Brazil

Xixuau, Amazônia, Brazil

Caboclos are thus something like replicants, in a way similar to those out of Blade Runner, a glitch in a callous system’s program.  Cast off into the “rubbish-heap of civilisation” they have managed to survive in the Amazon for a few generations already and have become an entity of sorts, even though they have no State aid, neither for schools nor for doctors or medicine.  Chico Mendes, the renowned rubber tapper’s right’s activist, was Caboclo, as was his friend and co-worker Marina Silva, who was once Environment Minister, up until she had resigned because of her dissatisfaction with the government in reference to the Amazon.  As opposed to Caboclos, pureblood Indios, those who haven’t died out or who haven’t withdrawn deep into the depths of the maps of the known areas of the Amazon, on the margins of the Xixau Xiparina area, have their own reserve under the patronage of American foundations.  Access to the river is forbidden, you must give notice of your arrival months ahead of time to the FUNAI government foundation for Indian rights.  As long as they hold on their culture and language and to ancient Indios customs, they will receive constant material help and have an American doctor and helicopter at their disposal.  They sometimes share their helicopter with their old allies, the Caboclos, so that they could scout the territory of the reserve together to see if there are any intruders.

Rio Jaupuri, Amazônia, Brazil

Rio Jaupuri, Amazônia, Brazil

Joao, a hermit who lives alone in the company of iguanas on the margins of the reserve, besides stories about the jaguar who in search of a female during mating season goes all the way down to the river when you can hear his steps and his breathing while he bustles around Joao’s hut, not leaving Joao indifferent as except for his machete all he has is old faulty carbine, also told me that of the Native languages in this area, only four original languages remain in use, but that when he encounters them in the forest or when Indios come to visit him by canoe to bring him medicine and food, it seems to him that people are happy to be able to converse with him in Portuguese again, because in their reserve, under the new American protectorate, they feel too distanced from other residents of the Rio Jauaperi.  Joao said that he doesn’t miss anything here in the jungle where he lives entirely by himself and grows cassavas and bananas, but he immediately began speaking of Emanuela Evangelista, a biologist who every year spends a number of months here taking care of giant otters.  Joao delighted in her company and called her the Queen of the Jungle.


When a man walks through the vast forest where Natives were the first inhabitants, it may seem to him that they have utterly disappeared, hidden in the deepest nooks where even the light of day does not come through, or that they are in the closed reserve that protects them from contact with the civilisation that was dangerous to their existence. 


 

Amazona diše / Amazon Breathes expo

When a man walks through the vast forest where Natives were the first inhabitants, it may seem to him that they have utterly disappeared, hidden in the deepest nooks where even the light of day does not come through, or that they are in the closed reserve that protects them from contact with the civilisation that was dangerous to their existence.  However, they are still here on these trails, their language knows sixteen expressions for the colour green and their shadows can be read in the leaves, in the dance of the yellow butterflies, in the elegant flight of the hummingbird, you can hear them in the multi-meaning sounds of the toucans and macaws, you can read their nomadic history in the moving lights of the huge shooting stars.  Walking through the rainforest we realize that they will forever be inseparable from that green humid soil in which everything that has lived here since the beginning of time is rooted.


Paulinho patiently spent hours with me in the canoe while we paddled by caimans, on various gnarled branches along the coast of the river, in search of giant otters and pink dolphins which are a lot less lively than our own, they are true loners, more similar to whales.  We spent one night out in the open in the company of monkeys who are a small breed but have great and powerful throats, and their bellowing in the night carries you off to King Kong’s island. 


 

Xixuau forest, Amazônia, Brazil

Xixuau forest, Amazônia, Brazil

I roamed the flooded forest of Xixuau by canoe most often in the company of Paulinho, a scout and guide, who lived in Manaus for some time but got stuck in the favellas, and desperate because there was not work for him in the city, he ruined himself with alcohol, drinking a bottle and a half of cachaça a day.  The Scotsman Chris Clark, the good spirit of Xixuau, the vice president of the Amazon Association and one of the founders of the reserve who, like other inhabitants of the settlements along the Rio Jauaperi in the Xixuau region owns an equal part of the land, invited Paulinho to come back and gave him a job on the reserve, and since then Paulinho has stopped drinking.  He patiently spent hours with me in the canoe while we paddled by caimans, on various gnarled branches along the coast of the river, in search of giant otters and pink dolphins which are a lot less lively than our own, they are true loners, more similar to whales.  We spent one night out in the open in the company of monkeys who are a small breed but have great and powerful throats, and their bellowing in the night carries you off to King Kong’s island.  Paulinho tried selling me a story about the strangler monkey, who at night lowers himself from the treetops and chokes men sleeping in sleeping nets with a noose that he crafted from lilies.  Even though they could be aggressive, the monkeys around us were quite friendly, in the morning they threw little branches at us as an invitation to play.  I also didn’t believe his story about the water snake which at night slithers onto the shore in search of travellers that have fallen asleep.  I only believed the story about the anaconda, and that was because I had seen the picture. The snake is hunted in such a fashion that one person grabs it by the head and another person places a stick by it.  The snake quickly wraps itself around it and remains in a firm embrace with the stick; then the snake can easily be transported anywhere, but at least five or six people are needed for this.

 


Before my departure, while paddling my canoe, I saw the southern hemisphere surrounding us in its fullness, and the Southern Cross was unbelievably close.


 

Xixuau school, Amazônia, Brazil

Xixuau school, Amazônia, Brazil

We ate fish, mostly piranhas; when I swam in the river I saw nothing of the vicious temperament which is attributed to them, nor did anyone speak of them.   But it was obvious that the onca, the jaguar, is the animal that commands veneration, more so than the anaconda, which is less dangerous than some of the smaller snakes.

When the following night a tarantula the size of my palm strolled into my hut, I didn’t believe Paulinho when se said it wasn’t poisonous, so with a broom I chased it off as far down the road as possible. That night we went across the river to see poisonous snakes which had made themselves comfortable in the roof of Chris’ hut, probably because it hadn’t been occupied for almost half a year, and Chris’ daughter Kathleen, who had arrived via the Rio Negro at the same time as some Danish teachers and I had, didn’t want to sleep over there until the snakes had left.  When I asked him in what way do you chase snakes out of a house, Paulinho shrugged his shoulders, letting it be known that they simply wait for them to leave or do not pay much attention to them.  In every one of the twenty families that live over here at least one person was bitten by a snake.  As soon as I entered Chris’ maloca, a round hut with a straw roof, with a battery operated flashlight, I saw that here once lived an old-school adventurer.  The furniture consisted of an ancient bed and a few shabby chairs and a wooden table, there were many books scattered around everywhere, there were also generators, broken wires, corroded batteries, maps, various handy inventions…  My flashlight froze on book that had stayed open on the table, its title was Congo.  Above me, two poisonous snakes were slithering around in the ceiling, it didn’t seem like they planned on jumping at our necks, but they also expressed no desire to leave the hut.  Before my departure, while paddling my canoe, I saw the southern hemisphere surrounding us in its fullness, and the Southern Cross was unbelievably close.

Xixuau harbor, Amazônia, Brazil

Xixuau harbor, Amazônia, Brazil

It would not bother Chris, said Chris’ daughter, to sleep with snakes in the roof.
Chris is responsible for bringing solar energy and satellite wireless internet to this faraway community in the heart of the Amazon.  He founded a school, and is planning on restoring a provisional hospital that would be linked to hospitals in bigger cities.  They are looking for ways to make it possible for people to survive and to live in their homes, because if they go searching for bread or are forced out, most often they end up in the uttermost poverty of favellas and on the streets of big cities.  Only a few of them know how to read and write.  Children learn so that they may protect their community with their knowledge; adults go fishing and grow fruits, vegetables and cassavas, they build housing that can be used by guests, biologists, anthropologists, film crews, and they even prepare some form of very limited ecological tourism.  That territory being declared an ecological reserve helps them protect themselves and the forest from bulldozers and chainsaws, and from aggressive groups of hunters in search of the pelts of wild animals and of turtles, birds and snakes that they sell to the West as pets.


Brazilian writer Euclides Da Cunha wrote: “The Amazon is the last chapter of Genesis still to be written.” 


Rio Jaupuri, Amazônia, Brazil

Rio Jaupuri, Amazônia, Brazil

That project, as a model for the survival of aborigines and immigrants to the Amazon in its natural environment, was even supported by Brazilian president Lula, but the local economic and political elite in Roraima are against the project, which causes Chris Clark to be attacked in various ways; he has even received death threats.  He has rejected the protection the government has offered him. As opposed to various associations which are solely involved in the protection of animals or of the rainforest, the Amazon Association in the Xixuau reserve places an emphasis on people, forest, animals and plants altogether, without them all there is no harmony in those areas.   The Amazon basin is home to over 2500 types of fish, which is more than can be found in the whole Atlantic Ocean, and the Brazilian Amazon counts for one third of all of the remaining rainforest in the world. When I was leaving Xixuau for Manaus, on the deck of the boat a woman approached me and said: “Excuse me for asking, but why do you Americans always come here?”  I answered that I am not an American, but she in insisted: “Why do you Americans always come here? Do you not have rivers, trees and animals at home?”  I wanted to reply with the words of the Brazilian writer Euclides Da Cunha: “The Amazon is the last chapter of Genesis still to be written,” or mention that the extinction of the rainforest and the creatures that live there affects the whole world, but I realised that I would be doing so in vain.  Still, I told her that it is true that in Croatia we have rivers, trees and animals, but that they are different, not any less beautiful, but different, and that intolerance is the root of all social concussions.

Tomica Bajsić, appeared previously as a reportage in Jutarnji list, translated into English by M. Baljak.