Dispair and Peace - The Thin Line Between Urban and Rural Amazon

by Karim Abu Bakr

Part 1 – TERRA PRETA

Terra Preta is a remote village on Xeruini River, state of Roraima, Brazil. It belongs to the county of Caracarai, taking that, to get to the actual administrative center of the area you need to drive a 90 HP speedboat for 19 hours on Rio Branco, virtually un-navigable by regular passenger boats 4-6 moths a year. The village, once founded and developed by those who came after abundant rich soil, plenty of fish and game, has experienced several sparks in city-country relationship over decades and the influence of the city, particularly Manaus, is still to be questioned. I got to spend a few days with dwellers and figure out what the challenges of living in remote areas of the Amazon are today, how modernity gets adapted, what villagers had to face during the pandemic and what future has to offer.

“I’ll give you a paca if you buy me some rice, beans, sugar and coffee”. Iranildo just returned from an area upstream, in the middle section of Xeruini River, where most of the villages go hunting. Hunting has been forbidden in Brazil since 1967 – for any species of wildlife – with the only exception of those who live in “settlements” and hunt for food. Us, involved in eco-tourism, that highly value untouched corners of the rainforest where fauna can be spotted and photographed easily. Most of eco-tourists would freak out seeing some villagers on Rio Branco slaughtering turtles, grabbing their eggs to make Arabú, or shooting tapirs, anteaters, pacas, armadillos or guans. The alternative? Well, there’s a store in Terra Preta that belongs to a lady from neighboring village. Prices are not just above average, even for a remote place like this. An average 4-5 pound frozen chicken in town will cost anywhere between 15 and 25 Brazilian Reais, which at the current exchange rate would be 3-5 U$. The lady sells the smallest chicken (about 3,5 pounds) for 38 Reais and right before I left for Manaus people were told price was going up to 42. A dozen eggs goes for the price of 3 dozens in town, canned sausage is as expensive as best beef cuts I can get in my buddy’s store in Santarém. Well, Santarém is a thousand miles from us, I’ll go with a paca. “People won’t raise chicken because you need to plant corn to feed them. And anyone who’s ever tried to open a store here would face black magic and all kinds of curses from the lady that owns this store (yes, it’s a real concern). So, when we can’t hunt, we pay this,” – Leide aka “Preta” was boiling paca I got from her cousin in water with cashew tree leaves to get rid of the excess of salt – the animal’s meet came a long way with no ice under burning sun of the equator, so, that was the treatment. It was then fried on tapir oil. Yes, a few months ago, Doca, Leide’s husband went hunting and shot a tapir. Bringing a tapir into the village in some cultures (like Zoe people) is followed by the ritual of introduction. You kill a tapir – you’re not a boy anymore. Probably because a tapir is so big and can provide the whole village with food. It is, in fact, a better way to declare a newly matured man than in some other cultures I’ve heard of. In the past, Munduruku people required to bring the heads of ten people from a rival tribe. Maybe that’s why Mundurukus conquered the whole Amazon basin at some point. Other tribes do that glove thing with bullet ants and other insects. If there was a choice, I’d go with a tapir. It’s comforting to think that you’re an apex predator along with black caiman and jaguar around here. The tapir Doca killed a little while ago gave his family and many others in the village a total of over 20 gallons of melted fat, which is a healthier, tastier and definitely cheaper alternative to soy.

Later that day Doca called me to grab a ladder behind the church. I had been looking at a Pupunha palm next to his house for a while by then. It was loaded with the green and orange fruit that back in my town you can buy on every corner, already cooked and with salt on it. Doca cut off branches with fruit and set the fire right away. A few villagers came along and picked up a few of those branches. “You might’ve not noticed but we’ve just fed 5 families that most likely had nothing to eat for the 5 pm coffee” – Doca told me while hanging the pan over the fire. “Come on, we’ll watch folks play soccer while these are cooking, it will take over 3 hours”.

The soccer field of Terra Preta village is more like a community center – apart from a giant Brazil Nut Tree right in front of it which makes the village stand out on the river bank, that’s where the school is – and now a new generator. Until last year the government was supposed to be in charge of supplying diesel to villages like this one so that they could have power for 5 hours a day. After numerous occasions where the supplies failed to arrive (and NG Turismo’s operations had to sort the villages out) the state of Roraima decided to put new generators and stock fuel in the villages of Lower Rio Branco. You guessed it – it came at a cost. Now every 30 days there’s a representative of the county of Caracarai checking the counters and giving villagers their bills. No one in the village knows how it is calculated or where to get money from, but the generator runs 24/7 now. Same as Wi-Fi – slow, but functioning, it now allows the villagers stay connected with the families that live elsewhere and with us. One of the hotspots is the school – right next to the soccer field. When adults are playing soccer, kids and teens have to sit and watch them – there’s only one soccer ball available. So, now, they spend their time playing games on their smartphones instead of watching their parents play or sneaking out in a canoe to fish, like they used to do.

Later that day Doca called me to grab a ladder behind the church. I had been looking at a Pupunha palm next to his house for a while by then. It was loaded with the green and orange fruit that back in my town you can buy on every corner, already cooked and with salt on it. Doca cut off branches with fruit and set the fire right away. A few villagers came along and picked up a few of those branches. “You might’ve not noticed but we’ve just fed 5 families that most likely had nothing to eat for the 5 pm coffee” – Doca told me while hanging the pan over the fire. “Come on, we’ll watch folks play soccer while these are cooking, it will take over 3 hours”.

The soccer field of Terra Preta village is more like a community center – apart from a giant Brazil Nut Tree right in front of it which makes the village stand out on the river bank, that’s where the school is – and now a new generator. Until last year the government was supposed to be in charge of supplying diesel to villages like this one so that they could have power for 5 hours a day. After numerous occasions where the supplies failed to arrive (and NG Turismo’s operations had to sort the villages out) the state of Roraima decided to put new generators and stock fuel in the villages of Lower Rio Branco. You guessed it – it came at a cost. Now every 30 days there’s a representative of the county of Caracarai checking the counters and giving villagers their bills. No one in the village knows how it is calculated or where to get money from, but the generator runs 24/7 now. Same as Wi-Fi – slow, but functioning, it now allows the villagers stay connected with the families that live elsewhere and with us. One of the hotspots is the school – right next to the soccer field. When adults are playing soccer, kids and teens have to sit and watch them – there’s only one soccer ball available. So, now, they spend their time playing games on their smartphones instead of watching their parents play or sneaking out in a canoe to fish, like they used to do.

With the soccer balls we delivered, they thankfully dropped the phones and began to play. Young moms left their babies playing on picnic blankets and everyone looked a little happier. One person was not watching the game – the director of the school. He was sitting in a wooden shack where his “office” is, preparing tasks he’ll have to deliver tomorrow to every single home in the village – pandemic rules arrived here as well. I asked him what we could do to help education programs in the village. “I’m not sure where to start. We need everything – pens, pencils, glue, paper… Teachers try to put together activities but neither kids or the school have basic supplies, specially now”. He was happy to see drawstring bags full of those supplies being handed to him. We went over some long-term projects – getting a bag like that to every kid in the village, start working on environmental education etc. However right now the priorities are a lot simpler – food and healthcare, like anywhere else at this point.

The morning the school was delivering the tasks to students was also a sad morning for the village. One of the natives that had moved to Manaus a few years ago passed away from COVID-19. Most of the villagers got to the Wi-Fi hotspot (which is under a mango tree) to watch the funeral. According to locals almost everyone in Terra Preta ended up testing positive for coronavirus and, thankfully, no one died from it – whatever it was, they got to treat it with natural remedies like andiroba or copaiba oil, Jandaira bee honey (made by two families) and a few more things – knowledge inherited from native tribes that live nearby.

With the soccer balls we delivered, they thankfully dropped the phones and began to play. Young moms left their babies playing on picnic blankets and everyone looked a little happier. One person was not watching the game – the director of the school. He was sitting in a wooden shack where his “office” is, preparing tasks he’ll have to deliver tomorrow to every single home in the village – pandemic rules arrived here as well. I asked him what we could do to help education programs in the village. “I’m not sure where to start. We need everything – pens, pencils, glue, paper… Teachers try to put together activities but neither kids or the school have basic supplies, specially now”. He was happy to see drawstring bags full of those supplies being handed to him. We went over some long-term projects – getting a bag like that to every kid in the village, start working on environmental education etc. However right now the priorities are a lot simpler – food and healthcare, like anywhere else at this point.

The morning the school was delivering the tasks to students was also a sad morning for the village. One of the natives that had moved to Manaus a few years ago passed away from COVID-19. Most of the villagers got to the Wi-Fi hotspot (which is under a mango tree) to watch the funeral. According to locals almost everyone in Terra Preta ended up testing positive for coronavirus and, thankfully, no one died from it – whatever it was, they got to treat it with natural remedies like andiroba or copaiba oil, Jandaira bee honey (made by two families) and a few more things – knowledge inherited from native tribes that live nearby.

“It might be tough to live here, but look at us – we’re healthy, far from big city problems of violence, we eat healthy food and don’t really need a drug store”. The concern is always for the new generation. Underdeveloped villages end up not having High School, which forces teenagers to move to town for it and they hardly go back home. Terra Preta has been an exception for a long time, even more during the pandemic – after facing the reality of the city many villagers go back home, specially if they have kids. Tourism has been a great source of income, even at a small scale. So, now, we have an opportunity to grow sustainable tourism on Xeruini River – and along with it so much more.

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