As 75-year-old villager Antônio Gomes told
us stories of growing up in Boca do Mamirauá, a tiny settlement in the
northern Amazon rainforest, I tried to ignore the tiny blue flies biting through
my trousers. Despite my interest in hearing how locals survive in this remote part
of the Brazilian rainforest, now a part of the Mamirauá Sustainable
Development Reserve, I was grateful to escape
when he finished, finding refuge in one of the tall wooden houses.
The houses hover some 3m above the ground. They
are not unusual: almost everything in the Mamirauá
reserve is on stilts, even the chicken coop. It has to
be. Although much of Brazil is currently suffering one of the worst droughts in
decades, this part of the Amazon is almost completely flooded for the six-month
wet season. By April, the end of the rainy season, the river rises up to 10m high
and overflows its banks. As a result, all living things in the forest,
including locals, must adopt an amphibious lifestyle. Even the jaguars have learned
to adapt by living in tree branches when the floods arrive.
Only 1,000 tourists per year are allowed to
which, at 57,000sqkm, is the largest wildlife reserve in the country. Created in 1984 to
save the once-endangered uakari monkey, the reserve is the most carefully managed
and protected part of the Amazon – and is also home to what many consider Brazil’s
most successful sustainable tourist resort, the Uakari Floating Lodge. “If [the
reserve] had not been created,” guide Francisco Nogeuira said,
“the rivers and lakes would be empty of fish, and who knows how many trees
would remain today?”
Just 30 years ago, Nogeuira told me, those living in the larger towns of Tefe, located some 60km
south, and Manaus, 600km east, would travel to Mamirauá to make a profit from fishing and logging. But that option
disappeared, at least technically, when the area became a reserve.
The pirarucu, one of the largest freshwater
fish in the world at up to 4m long, is one of the Mamirauá’s main success
stories. (In fact, the fish is the main logo for the reserve). Twenty years
ago, the species was almost extinct. But after pirarucu fishing was prohibited
in most of the reserve’s lakes and an annual quota negotiated, numbers replenished
and are now at their pre-1990 levels. Today, only locals who depend on the pirarucu
for their livelihood are allowed to fish it. Logging was also made illegal –
except to the few locals who need wood for heating and building. With less
competition from big-city businessmen and multinational corporations, and with their
resources protected in the long term, Mamirauá’s 10,000 riverside residents
can once again live sustainably.
Today the rainforest appears limitless,
with trees continuing for miles. Almost as expansive as the forest itself is
its wildlife: more than 350 types of birds alone, including the prehistoric-looking
hoazin and the yellow-rumped cacique, which mimics other wildlife with its call.
The limit on tourist numbers means that the impact to the surrounding wildlife
and fauna is minimised; even the guided tours of the area include a maximum of 10
The Mamirauá Institute for
Sustainable Development, which runs the reserve and the lodge, also steers
clear of the Disneyfied aspects of other Amazon tours: there are no dancing
tribesmen or performing monkeys. Instead, residents share their knowledge with
visitors and are paid for it, from how they cook manioc (a staple root vegetable)
to where they catch their fish for dinner. They are employed at Uakari Lodge as
cooks or fishing and hiking guides; the institute’s stated goal is that
eventually the lodge will be managed purely by the locals. Others aid
researchers to track dolphins and jaguars – rather than hunting them. In 2011, tourism
activities overall generated an average of R$1,800,000 for each family in the
Beyond their paid activities, locals took
the time to sit and tell me stories about their ancestors who came here from
other parts of the Amazon after World War II and the collapse of the rubber
industry, looking for work. They invited me into their homes, their schools and
their dance halls. I was invited to help pick acai berries and meet their
children; when one day I fell ill with kidney pain, they cured me with the bark
and sap of a special tree, called “cat’s claws” for its thorns.
Even so, some of the older villagers say
life was better before the area became a protected reserve. “We could hunt
whatever we wanted and sell the skins. When there were no fish quotas, you
could make much more money,” one man in his 70s told me. But most, especially
the younger generation, recognise that the changes are vital to protect Mamirauá.
One night, I boated in beautiful Acacio Lake,
located 15km north of the lodge. As the sun set, the trees changed from green
to black and white, thanks to the flocks of cormorant birds and great egrets that
settled in them for the night. In the darkness, the eyes of black caimans – the
Amazon’s largest predator – flashed in the torchlight.
Despite the danger, I canoed past these
large reptiles into the thick of the forest, where I spent the night in one of
the lodge’s tree houses, falling asleep to the melodic sound of rain, frogs and
crickets. In the morning, though, I awoke with a shock to roars that sounded
like a pride of lions. Thankfully, the noise was only from a group of howler
monkeys eager to start a new day.
So was I. And when my five days were up, I
found it difficult to leave – biting insects aside. Yet as I said goodbye to Mamirauá, my sadness was soon overcome by the knowledge that the reserve was
in safe hands – and my hope that this beacon of sustainable tourism would be a
formula admired by many and, perhaps, replicated throughout the world.