Last week, I started to write about a recent trip to Rio Arapiuns in northern Brazil organized by Projeto Saude e Alegria for social investors to learn more about this complex area. Today I will be writing more about what we learned from the journey.
A week before our trip, we invited Caio Magri from Instituto Ethos to talk about the project Conexoes Sustentaveis Sao Paulo-Amazonia, an initiative that tries to mobilize the supply chain of sectors that impact the Amazon region to develop a model to highlight the preservation of the forest and its people. They also work with incentives for the region based on developing income for the people by boosting the use of the forest as it is, the same way we saw projects from PSA.
Then we started our journey flying from Sao Paulo. After about six hours, we arrived in Santarem, one of the main cities in the region. It has 300,000 families but only 156 doctors (yes, one doctor for every 6,400 inhabitants; the ideal should be one doctor for every 400 inhabitants). We visited in total four local communities.
The boat left Santarem in the morning, following the Amazon river in the direction of Vila Amazonas, a village that has existed for almost 40 years, in a land previously inhabited by Indians. Despite having survived the Rubber Cycle that ended in Brazil about a century ago, we still can see rubber trees (Seringueiras) in their backyards. Most of the population is older, with the second generation living in the city. It is not uncommon to see kids that were sent from the city by young adult parents so the grandparents can raise them. Artisan products are among their main income-generation programs boosted by PSA, with bush ropes being their main raw material. The Amazon has an abundance of fish, so hunger and poor nutrition was not a problem. Several fruit trees, including cocoa (delicious but not related to chocolate at this fruit stage) make the village rich in terms of botanical diversity.
We then left the Amazon and started to navigate the Arapiuns river. Our second visit was to Vila de Anã, where we visited a very empowered group of women that breed fish (Tambaqui) but are still struggling to find a formula to feed the fish based on local supply of plants and vegetables. The Arapiuns river is poor in fish, so it is very important for the group to find an economic solution to their problem, as industrialized fish food is expensive. Also in the same village we visited an area where the locals keep honeybees. At night, my group was invited by the PSA crew to dress like clowns and to present a sketch to the local communities on what we had learned about their culture, such as their cooking utensils, herbal medicine and civil organization. I do not remember having so much fun with kids during a trip before. Two mediators of PSA and an arts and culture professional (also a clown) keep the group informed on local culture and highlights the need to keep it alive to visitors.
On the third day we found a village with Indigenous essence, including their personal appearance and architecture. Vila Arimum has people specialized in local medicine and the use of herbs. A long walk through the jungle showed a huge amount of plants and trees used to cure basic diseases. Artisan women taught us to use bush ropes found in their village to prepare wonderful products like purses, baskets and jewellery. They also showed us how to dye the ropes with paint extracted from plant leaves. The way they weave and design the rope is called jararaca, the name of a colourful snake that can be found in the region. There I learned that the current flood season (its winter) make the river poor in terms of fish, so the hunters need to spend time in the jungle looking for food.
Our last community stop was at Vila de Atodi. This village has already a guest house for those that do not want to share the boat life with other 20 people. A part of the culture that remains intact is the use of the hammock to sleep, and a big room is set to accommodate a number of colourful hammocks. Other villages already have plans to replicate Atodi’s guesthouse, but they depend on donations to implement the blueprints created. The village has created a 10km track for the tourists to experience the deep and humid jungle. They showed us how they hunt during a magic conversation about local legends and traditions. The tracking ends in a pond where the mud scrubbing is a must-do. After the tracking, we learned how to make manioc flour from the raw vegetable.
All the meals on the trip had local fish and fruits prepared in local style. I can still smell the piracaias, a kind of barbecued fish, but flavours and smells are hard to describe.
What is not hard to talk about is the conscience that grew on me about the region, the culture and the people. We saw the lack of infrastructure provided by the government (water, utilities such as energy or sewage, and public transportation). But we also saw the community developing its own organization to build water supply systems, or raising donations to buy a generator. Those were incredible initiatives of collective gathering of the community, something we don’t see in urban areas. We are the ones intruding on these community lives, but there is a need to keep them, and the forest, and the climate, and the river, and the culture, alive for our own good. We have a responsibility to those people and the region. They don’t know that. But we do. Nucleo Oikos is one of the organizations that understand the need to preserve this culture and environment. And they are one the supporters of PSA in the Arapiuns River region.
Elaine Smith is development manager at Instituto Geração.