Amazonia: Seeing the Unseen with COVID-19

I will never forget my conversation two days ago with Rafael, a fisherman on the riverbank of the Solimões River, in the small and isolated city of Tabatinga, Brazil. His words still haunt and reverberate in my mind: “In the Amazon, one will either die from COVID-19 or from starvation”.

It is less than 24 hours since I arrived home from what I have come to regard as the ecological heart — the very soul the planet, the Amazon. I left Tallahassee Florida March 12th for a research trip to Iquitos, Peru, where I stayed for a few days. When I left Florida, the coronavirus was already making headlines worldwide, but I decided to go with caution regardless. Otherwise, I would stand to lose all the money I had saved to make this voyage. My goal was to finish a documentary film about environmental issues in the Amazon, as seen through the discerning, attentive eyes of a few local poets. But then came an unexpected turn of events and circumstances, which, taken together, have helped me to see what we are facing as a species, more clearly and perhaps more emotionally and profoundly than ever before.

Until things started to worsen on the world stage and COVID-19 became the main news-topic, I had a chance to visit the well-known Belén market, and a few riverside communities surrounding Iquitos. I listened first-hand to accounts on the hectic daily life of the people in isolated Peruvian Amazon cities.

On Sunday, March 15th, around 8:00pm the president of Peru, Martin Vizcarra, declared a state of emergency in the country and closed all borders by midnight. This left less than 24 hours for all visitors to find a way to leave the country. It proved mission impossible for many foreigners, some of whom are still locked up in Peru with no idea when they will be free to leave.

The next day, Monday, March 16th, I tried to escape by airplane to the small Peruvian city of Caballococha, and from there to reach the larger city of Tabatinga Brazil, by boat. Bruno Erlan, a Brazilian cinematographer and myself (the son of an American father and Brazilian mother) had arrived at the airport earlier in the day with our tickets already purchased. Unfortunately, the flight was canceled due to weather.

At the airport, we were informed that a boat for Tabatinga was scheduled to leave at 7:00pm. We rushed through the chaotic streets of Iquitos to the pier. The main roads were closed by the local police and the traffic even more chaotic than usual. We arrived at the pier before 7:00pm, but the boat was full to the brim, with over 600 people crammed into a boat with a capacity of maybe 300.

I decided to stay in Iquitos and, due to my having a Brazilian passport, I made contact with the Brazilian Consulate in Iquitos. They managed to negotiate a way out with the Peruvian authorities. We boarded a cargo ship heading to Tabatinga, which is located on the shared border of Brazil, Colombia and Peru.

Now 3 days later, on Wednesday, March 18th, we went to the Brazilian Consulate in Iquitos, to receive a medical check-up before leaving the country. Four Peruvian doctors came in a fully-equipped ambulance to run a few tests on us (a total of eight Brazilians). After the procedures, the Consulate personnel took us all to the cargo ship.

We spent the next three days on a daunting boat trip along the Lower Amazon. The privately-run boat was loaded with 4 tons of food supplies to be distributed to villages along the way. We stopped at the small “pueblos” of Pebas, Nuevo Pebas, Cochiquinas, Alto Monte, San Isidro, San Pablo, Caballococha, and Santa Rosa. The Bora, Huitoto, Tikuna and other ethnic groups inhabit these riverside communities, where I was able to see an Amazonia previously unknown to me.

At each of these stops, I couldn’t help but notice the ways that these Amazonian villages had been changed and how these changes were affecting family livelihoods, cultures, ways of living, and interactions. The villagers had become almost completely dependent on receiving supplies by cargo ships, like the one I was in. The ship delivered everything from rice, beans, flour, eggs, water, soda, and all kinds of fruit and vegetables and also construction materials, tiles, furniture and clothes, among other things.

The cargo ship is received by the riverside communities as a bountiful supply of what the forest can no longer give them. One of the ship captains said to me “I have been doing this for almost 30 years, and these villages are not what they used to be. Today you see the river, but that’s it, there is no fish”. He continued, “People here do not like to farm any longer, they count on the cargo ship more and more”.

In the current global coronavirus pandemic, traditional Amazonian populations demand special attention. It is well known that all food crops in the region suffer from seasonal scarcity of resources from the floodplain. Products like eggs, turtles, watermelons, and beach beans tend to be more plentiful when the waters recede. International migration of political refugees and other disasters have altered traditional riverside relations by introducing foreign needs and eating habits. The population displacement of landless individuals from South and Southeast Amazonia reinforces this change in profile, as these populations do not know how to cultivate and collect in the forest, except when clearing and burning has already been carried out.

This seasonality causes the demographic profile of local populations to change, with forced migrations out of the settlements. In addition, the situation of non-Brazilian refugees, both from Venezuela and from Haiti, and the movement of populations from different regions of Pan-Amazon, are worsening in times of COVID-19. Changes in the ways of life of traditional populations has made them dependent on merchandise from the big cities, which reaches the communities weekly by river, demanding caution in regard to occasional local depletion of supply.

Market relations in the deep Amazon, a region with little external influence that reproduce through repetition of customs, explain the dependence on external goods by exchange. These relationships limit the traditional gathering, hunting, and producing activities of the riverside communities, to family farming at the convenience of agronomists. The Amazonian population is growing in number exponentially. So how can production meet the needs of supply? How can ways of supplying basic needs be reinvented without harming nature? That is the age old question at the heart of the problem.

The Upper Amazon riverside communities depend on access to supply boats, since they are unable to produce their own food. Furthermore, they do not have access to land ownership, they do not have access to the means to make farming productive, and therefore they do not have paper-currency for further production. Only the most isolated communities of indigenous fishermen are able to practice subsistence farming. Harvesting at the food level has also been altered by controlling land use.

The traditional method of preparing land, burning and clearing, is prohibited. The ban comes from environmental legislation that incorporates naivety. Basically, outside environmentalists defend the infeasibility of nature and the emptying of the region to prevent it. Right? This has been a recurring discussion of multilateral groups since 1992. Outsiders state that the traditional burning technique for cleaning land prior to agricultural planting is harmful to the environment. Many environmentalist arguments maintain that the burning produces excess heat. There are recent measurements of this in the Amazonian summer. Hunting, which is already seasonal, is also impossible in the off-season, due to flooding. Current prohibition laws in Brazil are municipal, state and federal. The value of the fish caught is negligible and it is salted for the off-season local use. Instead, the value of the fish is determined by trade relations between fishing entrepreneurs and does not involve the fisherman.

All of this has implications for changes in land use, as the aim of agricultural work by riverside indigenous are leaving behind traditional behavior and basic local foods to cultivate what they do not usually eat. For example, the expansion of oilseed plantings, in the south of Amazonas, Humaitá, and Porto Velho, is for export. Examples of this practice are increasingly common in the Amazon.

Overall, the acquisition of new eating habits, mainly chicken, noodles, beans, jerky and rice, leads to dependence on wholesale and retail trade, as well as the use of boats for transportation, with the riverside people exchanging fresh seasonal fruits and rare, fresh or salted fish and even game meat for these goods. In fact, this ‘system’ of dependence on such goods is very old, at least as old along the Amazon as the rubber trade, which continued with timber trade and other types of extraction economics. Dependence is not something new, but as we have more merchandise available and more regular supplies, the greater it becomes. Finally, the ties of tradition are replaced by market relations, dependent on established trade routes, and no longer on nature.

The indigenous people of Amazonia are gifted with extraordinary knowledge for human coexistence and a harmonious relationship with nature. It is increasingly urgent to listen to them and preserve their cultural and ecological values in order to guarantee their survival and, consequently, the survival of the Amazon. Otherwise, the process of colonization and the dispossession of ancestral customs will continue with the specter of COVID-19 only serving to accelerate the process. 


Dr. Marcos Colón leads the Portuguese program at the Department of Modern Languages and Linguistics at Florida State University. He was the writer, director and producer of the film “Beyond Fordlândia: An Environmental Account of Henry Ford’s Adventure in the Amazon.”
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