Posts Tagged ‘Brazil’

Over Amazonia

May 23rd, 2009

It is by turns exhilarating and depressing to fly across Brazil. I took off from Salvador and stared down on a mosaic of farm and forest as the plane tracked north-west, bound for Panama. I closed the window shade and dozed, and when I slid the shade up again an hour later we were still crossing the same landscape. Huge fields with ruler-straight boundaries, red-dirt roads connecting them them, and islands of rainforest adrift in that agricultural sea.

This was the sobering part, to see the diminishing remnants one hears about whenever the statistics of rainforest loss are mentioned.

Then the exhilaration of crossing a swathe of untouched Amazonia. The cliché about the “lungs of the planet” smacks home when, at 30,000 feet, you inch across this enormous expanse, with its tapeworm rivers riddling the somber forest. Not a road, not a village, not a house for as far as the eye can see. I found myself whispering the word “untrammelled” for the sheer pleasure of it, because how often do you get to say that about a landscape any more?

Not much of a shot, to be sure, but flying over Amazonia was impressive.

KENNEDY WARNE
Not much of a shot, to be sure, but flying over Amazonia was impressive.


The forest itself is sculpted into whorls as if by an oil painter’s palette knife. You see the ghosts of rivers past, now recaptured by the land and reforested with the next generation of trees. The rivers twist across the landscape in tight oxbows, with dozens of spindle-shaped islands dotting their course. On the upstream edge of each island, and on the tighter bends in the river, is a splash of white, a sandbar, that beckons as a potential campsite. What wouldn’t I give to be on a raft down there, like in a Werner Herzog movie, with a pack of chattering monkeys on board.

Speaking of Werner, during a stopover in Manaus I paid a visit to the opera house made famous in his film Fitzcarraldo. Opened in 1896, during the rubber boom, Teatro Amazonas is a magnificent Renaissance-style edifice. Wikipedia provides some construction details:

A touch of a cappella outside Teatro Amazonas in Manaus.

ELAINE CORETS
A touch of a cappella outside Teatro Amazonas in Manaus.


“Roofing tiles came from Alsace while, from Paris, came furniture and furnishings in the style of Louis XV. From Italy came Carrarra marble for the stairs, statues, and columns. Steel walls were ordered from England. The theatre has 198 chandeliers, including 32 of Murano glass. The curtain depicts the junction of the Rio Negro and the Solimões to form the Amazon. On the outside of the building, the dome is covered with 36,000 decorated ceramic tiles painted in the colors of the national flag.”

This year’s opera season, held annually in April, was over by the time I arrived, but I sang a snatch of “Pie Jesu” outside the pink-and-white walls to mark the visit.

On the 25th, Memorial Day in the USA, I will be in Florida for the next stage of the journey: the Ten Thousand Islands.

Leave the suntan lotion, take the umbrella—2

May 22nd, 2009

I am typing this in the middle of a lake. The lake isn’t very deep—about an inch—but it forms over the kitchen floor of my son Jeremy’s apartment whenever it rains in Salvador. It has been raining in Salvador solidly for a month, according to the taxi driver who brought me here from the bus station. Seven people have died and several houses have been washed away.

Bucketing down in Salvador.

JEREMY WARNE
Bucketing down in Salvador.


I have been amazed by my good luck with the weather so far. In two weeks of travelling through Brazil and Ecuador I have not had a day of rain. I arrived in Parnaiba the day after the torrential rains stopped, on May 6, and left Caravelas yesterday under blue skies. During the 10-hour bus ride north, I moved from one climate zone to another, and now it’s emphatically umbrella time. The cloud is so low the tops of the church steeples are disappearing into grey.

Salvador’s colonial architecture is stunning. The twin bell towers of the Convent of Carmo, 50 metres from the kitchen window, are crusted with lichen and wear the black patina of age and decay. The hands on the tower’s two clocks look as if they haven’t moved in a hundred years. I lean out the window to watch people hurrying down the cobbled streets, holding newspapers or jackets over their heads in the rain.

View from the kitchen window.

KENNEDY WARNE
View from the kitchen window.


The whole purpose of coming to Salvador is to prove to those who think otherwise (are you there, Heather?) that I can take a day off. In this case, two. I fly to the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge in Florida on Sunday, but I’ve diverted to Salvador to see Jeremy’s last day of capoeira training before he returns to New Zealand.

Salvador is Mecca for anyone who is serious about capoeira Angola, the more traditional of the two forms of the game. Capoeira is crudely described as “ritualised mock combat,” a label that gives no hint of the subtlety and complexity of the game. Encounters are backed by singing, the twanging of berambaus—single-stringed instruments made of a gourd, a stick, and a piece of wire excavated from the rim of a truck tyre—and the beating of drums and tambourines. It is an intense, vibrant experience. Jeremy has been training here for three months. Last year he was here for six. I watch him play with a parent’s pride and an outsider’s bafflement. After a game he will explain some nuance to me—a particular gambit that paid off, a stylish move his opponent made—but I’m in smile and nod territory. I find the moves as difficult to fathom as the jumps my figure-skating daughter used to perform. Was that a single Axel or a double Lutz?

Jeremy prepares to play Mestre Valmir.

KENNEDY WARNE
Jeremy prepares to play Mestre Valmir.


There’s something about the switching of roles between parent and child that I find deeply satisfying. For 20-odd years you play, however erratically, the part of the sage, the teacher, the Decider, and then you’re the one who’s being taught, who’s being taken in hand, being guided through an exotic city, with its exotic tastes.

Acarajé was number one on the must-eat list of street foods. Mashed black-eyed peas formed into a ball and fried in palm oil, then filled with shrimp paste, these little flavour bombshells are a Salvador speciality. So, too, açai, the pulped crimson berries of the açai palm, sweetened and served ice-cold mixed with granola. Unbelievably good. One night we ate the classic Brazilian fish stew called moqueca, brought to the table bubbling in a clay dish that has been blackened through soaking in a decoction of the bark of the red mangrove. (See, even on my days off, mangroves find me!)

It was my great good fortune to catch an exhibition of the work of Carybé, an artist I had never heard of, but will now never forget. This astonishing genius could work equally powerfully in paint, sculpture, mural and stage design. His sketches of capoeira capture the elegance of the game far better than a camera can.

The old burro can still eat.

KENNEDY WARNE
The old burro can still eat.


At the end of the roda I attended—the three-hour capoeira session—the mestre (literally master, the leader of the capoeira school) made some comments which resulted in everyone looking amusedly in my direction. Jeremy explained that he had joked that since I was clearly the oldest person in the room I should have the last word. “Say something in Portuguese,” Jeremy said. Reaching into my paltry stock of one-liners, I came out with “Beleza!” (Beautiful!) Everyone clapped. Which goes to show the truth of a sign I saw in a Salvador junk shop: The old burro can still eat.

PS The fact that I’m posting this on the 22nd and it is now the 29th is probably as confusing to readers as it is becoming to me. Lately I have been putting in long hot days in the field and have lacked brain space to write, and internet access to post. I hope that the posting date and the actual date will start to be more congruent soon.

Below: a striking sculpture outside Salvador’s museum of modern art, which was hosting the Carybé exhibition, and one of Carybé’s capoeira paintings.
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Home ground

May 21st, 2009

Again today I have met people for whom mangroves are their “home ground,” the material and spiritual centre of their lives. Raised as children in the mangroves, they raise their own children the same way. “Father to child to grandchild,” said Janilson, 49, who talked to us with a friend who goes by the nickname Piaba, a type of fish.

Janilson said there were 150 families around Caravelas who live in the mangroves. They don’t have regular jobs. The mangroves are “their industry, their business, their life,” he said.

Piaba takes us upriver to a mangrove community near Caravelas.

KENNEDY WARNE
Piaba takes us upriver to a mangrove community near Caravelas.


These men were acute observers of nature. Their eyes lit up when they talked about creatures they’d seen in the mangroves over the course of their lives. Snakes weighing 7 kg. Fiddler crabs whose local name means “call the tide,” because that’s what they seem to be doing when the males wave their supersized pincer. Crab-catching raccoons. That’s right—at low tide raccoons go into the mangroves and catch crabs by inserting their tails into the burrows and waiting for a crab to latch on. Piaba delightedly mimicked the yelps of the raccoon as it withdrew its prize.

Some of their stories crossed over from the natural to the supernatural. They claimed that fishermen sometimes catch in their nets the spirits of dead children, which refuse to show their faces. Piaba said that one night in the mangroves he had once seen a ball of fire which pulsated among the trees as he watched.

Seu Silvano, 86, raised 21 children in a mangrove community near Caravelas.

KENNEDY WARNE
Seu Silvano, 86, raised 21 children in a mangrove community near Caravelas.


Later, Piaba took us up the river bordering Caravelas to meet 86-year-old Seu Silvano and his wife. They live in a mud-walled hut in which they have raised 21 children. Silvano came to the land as a young single man, cleared and planted it with fruit and shade trees, built the house and will live in it until he dies.

It was some of his upriver neighbours who sold their land to Coopex for a shrimp farm. One of Silvano’s sons told us, “They were crazy to sell.” Crazy because they knew what the farm would do to those who remained. “The effluent would have affected everything. Once it was contaminated, the river wouldn’t have served anyone,” said the son.

I asked Seu Silvano if he still collected food from the mangroves, but he said his body was too tired now. But he still knows how to sweeten crabs for market. As we walked back to the river he lifted a wooden slat from a box under a mango tree. Several dozen blue crabs scuttled away from the light. Silvano feeds them plantains, leaves and coconut to improve their flavour before his children take them by boat to Caravelas.

It’s a process that has been happening forever, down among the mangroves.

Below:
Below: Protesters against Caravelas shrimp farm proposal carry placards saying “It’s a lie,” “Respect my nature,” “We don’t want [shrimp] nurseries, we want to live,” “Our mangroves need help” and “Foreign shrimp stay out.”
Photo by Elaine Corets

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Brothers in arms

May 20th, 2009

Dó, Dedê and Jaco Galdino Santana are three brothers who work to promote the Afro-Indigenous culture of Bahia, on the eastern seaboard of Brazil. They live in Caravelas, a quiet colonial town near the southern border of Bahia state.

Dó Galdino Santana with the first letter of a magnrove font he designed.

KENNEDY WARNE
Dó Galdino Santana with the first letter of a magnrove font he designed.


Ten years ago, it would not have occurred to them that mangroves could disappear. Mangroves were part of their life, as they were for everyone in Caravelas. “We couldn’t imagine living without them,” said Dedê. Then came Coopex, a consortium with a plan to build a 1500 ha shrimp farm on land between two rivers adjacent to the town. It would be Brazil´s largest shrimp farm yet.

The developers claimed that the farm would not have a negative impact on the mangrove ecosystem, but bitter experience elsewhere in Brazil suggested otherwise. A delegation from shrimp-devastated communities in Ceará visited the Caravelas community to urge them not to allow shrimp to get a foot in the door.

The threat of environmental degradation and mangrove loss caused the brothers to evaluate their priorities. As well as helping mobilise the community to oppose the shrimp project, the brothers decided what was needed was an affirmation of cultural identity. It was not enough to be against something from the outside that threatened their way of life, they wanted to assert what made Caravelas unique.

Teaching Afro-Indigenous culture to the children of Caravelas.

KENNEDY WARNE
Teaching Afro-Indigenous culture to the children of Caravelas.


They had already started a cultural centre offering the children of the community classes in everything from drumming to carving, silk-screening to sculpture. A fourth member of the family, brother-in-law Itamar dos Anjos, taught drama and dance. They decided to explore the artistic possibilities of mangroves.

“We saw a need for cultural education to strengthen the idea of preserving the environment,” said Itamar. “Instead of offering intellectual argument, we chose artistic expression.”

“Nature is integral to the Afro-Indigenous identity,” said Itamar, and because mangroves and marine life were directly threatened by the Coopex proposal, the brothers and community members, in collaboration with the Mangrove Action Project, decided to make a short film celebrating the spiritual and cultural significance of mangroves. The film evokes the three orixas, or African deities, which are jointly responsible for mangroves: the goddesses of fresh water (Oxum), salt water (Yemanja) and mud (Nanã).

A current of mysticism runs through the film. As well as the orixas, there is a mythological figure called Caipora, who lives in the mangrove branches, protects wildlife and comes to the aid of people who are lost. In the film his cackling laughter terrifies the businessmen who expect their briefcases of money to sweep all opposition before them.

Dedê Galdino Santana helps a young student with his drawing.

KENNEDY WARNE
Dedê Galdino Santana helps a young student with his drawing.


In reality, opposition from the community caused Brazil´s federal environmental agency to reinvestigate Coopex’s proposal, and to rule that the siting of the farm was an inappropriate land use. The proposal has now been abandoned.

“The shrimp farm proposal re-awoke in the community the importance of mangroves,” said Itamar. The outcome has been not just a threat averted, but a deeper vein of cultural identity revitalised.

We meet the king

May 8th, 2009

Today started off more catastrophically than usual. We didn’t just have flooded streets to contend with, but the electricity was out, the water was off and the cellphone networks were down. We were desperate to find some crab catchers to go out into the mangroves with, but we had no way to communicate with anyone. Collecting mangrove mud crabs is a major part of the economy of the Parnaíba Delta, providing a livelihood for thousands of people. Getting the crab story was one of the reasons I had come to the delta, and I was running out of time.

Walking to work Parnaíba-style. Jeremy and Elaine negotiate the floodwaters outside our pousada.

KENNEDY WARNE
Walking to work Parnaíba-style. Jeremy and Elaine negotiate the floodwaters outside our pousada.


We tossed a coin and decided to take a taxi to the town of Luis Correia, where Elaine had earlier made contact with a journalist who had offered to help us. But her cellphone was down, and we didn’t know where she lived. We made inquiries at the mayor’s office, and in an instant our luck took a giant swing to the positive side. It turned out that the mayor himself was in the crab business. In fact, he told us he was the “rei do caranguejo”—king of crab. If this man couldn’t fix us up with a crab collector, no one could.

He ushered us into his office, swept aside the needs of a town without electricity, and started talking about what was clearly his favourite subject, the mangrove mud crab. He had been a crab boat captain for 15 years, then had set himself up as a crab distributor and now operates two seafood restaurants as well. He spoke of the life cycle of the crab, about the three months they spend in their burrows waiting for their old shell to fall off, and how when they finally emerge their shells are as soft as jelly. Within two tides the shell hardens into the solid body armour a crab needs to protect itself from predators.

The mayor of Luis Carreia, 'king of crab'

KENNEDY WARNE
The mayor of Luis Carreia, Francisco Araújo Galeno, 'king of crab'


While we talked, the mayor’s secretary brought in trays of iced water and cups of hot sweet cafezinho, the strong black coffee Brazilians favour. Fanning himself vigorously with a piece of paper, Francisco Araújo Galeno told us about the closed season during summer when the crabs are mating. “This is the Carnival for crabs,” he said, “when the males and females are checking each other out—just like we do.”

I liked the mayor. He spoke passionately about the crucial part crab collecting played in the economic life of the delta. He scribbled notes on a pad as he talked and gesticulated with his hands. Glancing on the wall behind him, I noticed he was flanked by a painting of Christ and a crustacean montage, featuring a huge stuffed lobster and a mud crab. I asked him if he planned to run for president. He laughed and threw his hands up in the air. “Deus sabe!” he said—God knows.

I asked about shrimp farming in the area. Readers of this blog will know that shrimp farming is a major threat to mangroves. I wanted to know if the mayor ever found himself in difficult administrative position, on the one hand protecting the mangroves where the crabs live (the source of his own livelihood), and on the other encouraging new business activity such as aquaculture in the area.

He told me that with the slump in the shrimp export market, aquaculture expansion into mangrove areas wasn’t a problem at the moment. But he said he thought there needed to be a comprehensive study of the costs and benefits of farmed shrimp, to establish once and for all if the economic benefits of aquaculture was outweighed by the damage done to the mangrove environment and to economic activities such as crab collecting and ecotourism.

His own position was plain. “Our survival depends on mangroves,” he said.

From mud to menu, a mangrove crab undergoes a final clean before its appointment with the pot.

KENNEDY WARNE
From mud to menu, a mangrove crab undergoes a final clean before its appointment with the pot.

Towards the end of the conversation, the secretary of fisheries, a young man named Luis ‘Rogerio’ de Sousa Filho, joined us and offered to take us to lunch at one of the dozens of beach restaurants where Brazilians go for a seafood feast.

He drove us to the place, and I visited the kitchen to watch fresh mud crabs being prepared. It’s nothing fancy. The kitchenhand kills them with the stab of a knife, washes them and cooks them in a pot of water. They are served au naturel, accompanied with crisp fried manioc flour and a vinegar salsa of tomato and coriander. Most diners sit at rough tables under thatched sun shelters on the sand, where you smash the crab legs and pincers on the tabletop with a wooden beater and extract the sweet white flesh with your teeth. The sweetest flesh of all is inside the body of the crab, where with each crunch you get a mouthful of some sort of interior shell structure (I’m not an expert on crustacean anatomy). The fiddliness of eating them is more than compensated by the taste.

Rogerio runs a wild shrimp-fishing business near the port. Across the river from his operation is a mangrove forest where crab collectors go. I asked if it would be possible to go out that afternoon, but he said the tide was too high. It would not be low enough until nightfall. But tomorrow, he promised, I could try my hand at catching the caranguejo.

A word from the cheap seats

May 7th, 2009

We took the night bus from Fortaleza to Parnaiba—a nine-hour trip on a road whose ruinous potholes were made worse still by the flooding that has been continuous along this coast for weeks. Kennedy had been jet-lagged all the previous day after his arrival at 2 a.m. (Faithful son that I am, I waited the two hours between my arrival and his in the airport, dozing in an alcove among the silent tourist offices), and the jolting, stop-start bus ride did little to speed his recovery.

Cyclist in a flooded Parnaiba street.

KENNEDY WARNE


Donkey cart passes outside our window.

KENNEDY WARNE
Top: Cyclist in flooded Parnaiba street. Above: Donkey cart passes outside our window.

But all of our spirits were revived when the sun rose, revealing a sky scrubbed a brilliant blue, and a land festooned with pools of water. On the way to our guest house we asked the taxi driver when the rain had stopped, and learned that it had been solid up until the previous night.

The river has overflowed its banks and filled many streets, including the one our pousada is on. To get to the main road we have to wade through knee-deep water for 50 metres. But life for our neighbours goes on. Outside our window, a girl manoeuvres her motorbike through the gate of her house and rides into the stream. Street vendors cycle past, calling out their wares. A donkey cart has just gone by, producing a bow wave that laps against the high kerbing. It could almost be Venice.

We’re finally getting some action, however. We’ve arranged our activities for the next couple of days, organizing boat rides and meetings with members of the local crab-collecting community. I’ve joined Kennedy and Elaine for a few days from where I’ve been staying, in Salvador, Bahia, training capoeira and coding websites. It’ll be interesting to see the forests whose presentation has been my focus for the past few weeks during the construction of this website. I may not be as capable as the old man of studding my trip updates with literary quotations, but if I can just get the font sizes to match up on all the different pages, I’ll feel like I’ve accomplished something.

Tapioca and Antarctica

May 4th, 2009

Tomorrow I will be in Fortaleza, state capital of Ceará, walking its sun-drenched beaches (or possibly just drenched beaches—see yesterday’s post), eating tapioca pancakes for breakfast and drinking Antarctica beer, which must, according to its advertising, be served “estupidamete fria”—stupidly cold.

I passed through Fortaleza on my 2005 National Geographic mangrove trip, en route to some mangrove settlements on the northeastern coast which had been affected by shrimp farms. Most of what I wrote about those places didn’t make the final edit of the story, but the experience of meeting the people of Curral Velho and Porto do Céu remains a vivid memory. Here’s what I wrote:

I traveled east of Fortaleza into the shrimp impact zone. With me were Jeovah Meireles, professor of physical geography at the Federal University of Ceará, and Elaine Corets, Latin American coordinator of the Mangrove Action Project, a global conservation network.

We set out before dawn, and by daybreak we were among the farms. Ponds the size of football fields crowded the landscape like rice paddies. Paddle-wheel aerators frothed the water and workers in kayaks filled feeding trays with fishmeal. The fishmeal, explained Elaine, comes from fish caught by commercial trawlers, which deprives local subsistence fishers of a food resource. It angered her that not only did the shrimp industry destroy the mangroves, but it robbed the sea as well.

Many ponds were not in production, whether due to the white-spot viral disease that was then sweeping Brazil’s shrimp farms or not, we couldn’t tell. Wastewater the color of antifreeze was pouring into a mangrove-flanked river. On the banks, fiddler crabs waved their oversized claws. I thought of them as shipwrecked sailors semaphoring “Rescue us.”

We stopped at a roadside cantina for coffee and tapioca pancakes—a favourite of Brazilians in the north. Jeovah spoke about the fragmentation of ecosystems and loss of biodiversity caused by shrimp farming. He studies the flow of energy between terrestrial and marine food webs, in which mangroves play a vital bridging role. “Shrimp farming sticks a dagger into that whole network,” he said.

Angry fisherman at Porto do Céu protests what shrimp farms have done to the "gates of paradise."

ELAINE CORETS
Angry fisherman at Porto do Céu protests what shrimp farms have done to the "gates of paradise."

Later that day a flat-bottomed punt with an ancient outboard motor ferried us across the river Jaguaribe to the settlement of Porto do Céu. Golden light gleamed on fishing boats catching the afternoon breeze in their sails. Laughing children dived like sprites in the river; a man fished for crabs from a rickety pier. A straggle of mangroves lined the river’s edge. With their loopy, spidery roots they looked as if they had strolled out of the tide, found the place to their liking, and settled in. Who could blame them? The name of the place means “gates of paradise.”

Two residents took us through the village to see Porto do Céu’s new neighbour: a shrimp farm. We climbed to the top of an embankment and looked across a patchwork of ponds to distant mangrove forests. An electrified fence stretched the length of the village and beyond. Skull-and-crossbones signs on the barbed wire announced a blunt message: access denied.

On the village side, goats milled about in grassless yards, cut off from grazing areas just as their owners have been shut out of their mangrove collecting grounds. But there was worse. The residents showed us abandoned bores that until recently had drawn sweet water from an aquifer beneath the sandy soil. The water had been “doce, doce” they told us, repeating the word as they savoured the memory. Now it was salgado, saline, undrinkable.

Brazil’s Federal Constitution declares that all its citizens “have the right to an ecologically balanced environment, for the common use of the people,” and that government is required to “defend it and preserve it for present and future generations.” Yet of 256 applications to build new ponds in the Jaguaribe area, not one had been turned down. “Este e incrîvel,” said Jeovah—this is incredible.

Alouiso Rodrigues dos Santos stands in what was once his vegetable garden, now a saline wasteland.

KENNEDY WARNE
Alouiso Rodrigues dos Santos stands in what was once his vegetable garden, now a saline wasteland.

In the village of Curral Velho, which means “old corral,” I stood in the barren garden of Alouiso Rodrigues dos Santos. The 74-year-old told me he had grown vegetables on his plot of land since 1958: sweet potatoes, melons, cassavas, beans. The land was so productive he had to tie up his papaya trees with ropes to stop the weight of fruit from toppling them.

Five years ago a shrimp farmer built his ponds right up to the boundary, 30 metres from dos Santos’s back door. Now, with the seepage of salty water from the ponds, his land produces nothing but saltwort and weeds. Unable to grow food, dos Santos turned to the sea, borrowing money to build a fish trap. But heavy seas destroyed it.

“The land threw me out to sea, and the sea threw me back to land,” he said. “Where can I turn except to God?”

Where, indeed? The mangrove vs shrimp battle still rages along Brazil’s huge coastline. This trip, I will be looking at how people are standing up to protest the destruction of their mangrove resources. Perhaps I will find a more hopeful story this time.