Brazil Spring of 2008: The vultures were everywhere. Driving into the Amazonian town of Tefe in central Brazil after flying into the small airstrip a few kilometers out of town, I half expected to see piles of animal (or people) carcasses lying all over to account for the hordes of vultures. The mean looking scavengers were along the sides of the road leading into town, were walking the streets in the town, sitting on rooftops and fence tops, in people's front and back yards, and teeming on top of the old buildings along the wharf. I would not have been surprised to hear of some terrible thing that had befallen the area and killed off large amounts of livestock, or worse. But, the explanation was much more prosaic: Tefe, a moderate sized frontier town in the vast forest, with an old colonial church in its center, a bunch of small and medium sized river boats in various states of disrepair along its shores, and a motley collection of low-rise and single story buildings and wooden houses, has a very poor sanitation regime. Throughout the town, food, garbage and sewage are disposed of carelessly, or not at all. So, the job that the public services and its residents don't do very well is done by the vultures. Of course this does present the town with certain advantages: Unlike civic employees, the vultures work at no cost to the town's treasury and don't form unions!
I was en route to the Mamiraua Reserve, a pioneering conservation project encompassing a huge swath of the Amazon Forest area that floods annually. Called "Varzea Forest", the water levels in the flooded forest can rise each year as much as 12 to 20 meters in places. The entire eco-system of the varzea forest is quite different from the rest of the Amazon rainforest in that all its plant, animal and insect life has adapted to this annual rising and falling tide of water. Low lying plants which drown when the waters overtake them, grow extremely fast during the dry time of the year. Certain trees can "hibernate" underwater during the high-water times when the water rises over them. Almost all the animals in this type of forest are tree or canopy dwellers out of the necessity in order to be able to live during the high water season. Many of the predators that live off the extremely rich aquatic life have to adapt to a feast or famine seasonal regime: feasting during the low water times when fish are concentrated in smaller areas of waters, and adjusting to a food shortage when waters are high, which allows the fish to spread out over vast distances, making it harder for predators to catch as many during a given time period in the high water season.
The Mamiraua Reserve, and its eco-tourist lodge for which I was heading, was the result of the perseverance and vision of a Dr. Jose Ayres. The inspiration for the reserve arose from the doctoral study Dr. Ayres did with a partner on the area in 1986. His brainchild was unique at the time. He wanted to form a reserve that would not only protect the unique eco-system of the flooded forest and its many endemic species, such as the Red-faced Uakari monkey, but also to create ways for the local people who already were living in this forest area to make it sustainable living from the forest. This was a sharp departure from what had been practiced in forest conservation in Brazil up to that point. In its few previous feeble attempts at conservation in the Amazon, the Brazilian government would decree a reserve and then require all inhabitants to clear out. Or, the inhabitants would have to clear out as a practical matter of survival because all the activities to sustain their lives, such as fishing, hunting, logging and clearing lands for farming were suddenly illegal. Dr. Ayres convinced the Brazilian government to go along with his plan of a sustainable reserve with the argument that the existing inhabitants could adapt their lifestyles in ways that would exploit the forest in a sustainable manner. This would bring the added advantage that if these inhabitants could indeed live in the forest in a sustainable manner, they would then become a force that would act to preserve and protect the forest which was their home.
The result was the Mamiraua Reserve, whose charter of a sustainable reserve with the local people was adopted in 1996 by the federal government. It became the model for two subsequent contiguous sustainable reserves, the Amana Reserve, a dry land forest and the Jau National Park. All together, these three reserves now form the Central Amazon Ecological corridor, the largest continuous protected area of rainforest in the world.
Getting to Mamiraua takes a bit of time and effort. Lying just north of the Solimoes River, at a point 600 kilometers to the west and upriver from where the Solimoes joins the Rio Negro to form the Amazon River proper, Mamiraua is remote by any definition. My first stop in the journey there was the central Amazonian city of Manaus, which lies at the confluence of these two mighty rivers and in the heart of the Amazon. Big, noisy, chaotic, somewhat dirty, and devoid of charm, Manaus can appear to the visitor to be a dump. Ironically, while I was there I got asked by a lot of locals whom I met what I thought of Manaus, or if I liked Manaus. It appeared to me that the people asking these question did so out of pride and were expecting an affirmative response. Of course, I didn't say what I really thought, that the whole city would be best if swallowed up and submerged by the surrounding Amazon. Instead, I diplomatically and truthfully would respond that the people there are very friendly.
In true Brazilian form, Manaus is a very social place and I met a lot of nice people during my extended weekend there. While meeting various people in Manaus, I had the interesting realization that so many Brazilians that I had met all over the country have never been to the Amazon region. Except for guides and those in the tourist business, which is very big here in Manaus, most people that I met even in Manaus had never actually been into the Amazon farther than the several parks and resort areas at the edges of the city limits. This is despite the fact that the city sits smack in the middle of the Great Forest! I assume that for a majority of Brazilians, cost is the barrier. Many that I met in Brazil that could afford it though, while expressing a desire to visit the Amazon, preferred vacationing in other countries, or were not willing to endure the inconveniences, expense and discomforts of the vast rainforest wilderness. From what I saw, the Amazon is still seen in the way that the West was to Americans in the 1800s: vast, mysterious, dangerous and still very challenging and costly for travel.
As I flew out of Manaus to Tefe, I got a bird's eye view of one of the great sights in this area of the forest: The coming together of the two great rivers with distinct differently colored waters that make the Amazon. It is at Manaus that the highly acidic and tannic "black waters" of the Rio Negro meet with the nutrient rich "white waters" (which appear as a deep brown coffee color) of the Solimoes and then run side by side downriver for many, many kilometers before eventually blending together. So, what one sees for a very long stretch, is a gigantic wide river, well over 10 kilometers across at one point, with a deep reddish brown coffee color on one side, the "white waters", and a black tea color on the other. It is truly an amazing sight.
My stay at the Mamiraua Reserve was the reserve's eco-lodge, the Uakari Lodge, named after a monkey that only resides in the boundaries of the vast reserve. The lodge floats permanently tethered to the river floor in a tributary of the Solimoes River. It is surrounded by waters teeming with some of the largest caimans (crocodile-like creatures) in the hemisphere, and set amidst pristine forest full of wildlife. The reserve is an important habitat for many of the most notable Amazon creatures, including the red-faced Uakari monkey and another small range primate, the Black Squirrel monkey. Howler monkeys swing in the trees, sloths abound and over 350 species of birds have been seen in the reserve. Its waters are important breeding grounds for manatees and a major larder for countless species of fish, some of them very important commercially. The healthy population of huge black caimans that thrive in its waters are the largest predators in the Western Hemisphere. The black caimans can grow to 6 meters in length and weigh in at 250 kilos--over 550 pounds. The reserve also has very big populations of both pink and white dolphins; and a healthy and protected population of the mighty picaruru fish (also called the arapaima), which is the largest freshwater fish in the world and has the unusual characteristic for a fish of being lung breathing. Walking on the dry lands of the reserve are a number of the endangered jaguars.
The eight days I was in Mamiraua fell in the middle of the rainy season. This loosely runs from December to May, with the rains usually starting to taper off in March and the peak water levels occurring in May or early June. The Uakari Lodge itself is part of the sustainable use forest program and provides employment for the local inhabitants of the reserve, who are called "Ribeirihnos" or River people. Crews of Ribeirihnos work at the lodge and other places in the reserve on a rotating weekly basis, usually one week on and one or two off. There are only about a dozen rooms at the lodge, so the amount of visitors at any one time is small in order to keep a light impact the surrounding environment.
There were only a few other visitors at the lodge during my time there. Amongst them were two young university students, Aldemar and Rondinelle, who worked for the Amazon Cable Television Network. Aldemar was the producer and host of a half hour weekly documentary show on the Amazon and Rondinelle was his camera-man. Each Friday evening their show was broadcast throughout the Brazilian Amazon region and would tell of some aspect of the Amazon. The production's mission was to raise people's knowledge of their unique habitat and show how to sustain it through more prudent exploitation, conservation and eco-tourism measures. The two students were at the Uakari Lodge to make a feature episode on the positive role of eco-tourism in helping to fund the worthwhile activities of the Mamiraua Reserve.