Tuesday’s With Laura: The Not so Lovely AmazonBy: Laura Gomez Laura will be presenting this trip and speaking about it in our Branford store on September 21! I left Lima totally excited for the next stage of my adventure. I was hoping to take a break from the polluted cities of South America and immerse myself in the greatness of the jungle, to be amidst exotic animals and learning about medicinal plants, meeting indigenous people and learning from them the way to spirituality in communion with nature. In other words: the pinnacle of my trip. The reason why I got inspired to travel in the first place; in order to explore indigenous history, in order to reconnect with my roots and, most importantly, Pachamama (mother earth). Well, as we all know, and sometimes fail to remember, things don’t always go as we hoped. And I have been reminded of it the hard way. I arrived in Iquitos, the biggest city in the Peruvian part of the Amazon, and shortly after my landing, excitement was being replaced with and urge to cry. I had sort of arranged a four-day jungle expedition with a medicine man where I would learn about the healing powers of plants and participate in an ayahuasca ceremony, which was to be an intensely spiritual experience. Since communication had been through a third person – not directly with the healer – none of this was going to happen, but I was just about to find out. I finally met Juan, the healer, at his house and found out he had absolutely no intention of going into the jungle at this time. Instead of a hut surrounded by nature, the ceremony would take place in a living room surrounded by plastic chairs. The view of the jungle had been replaced by possibly the dirtiest place in the whole Amazon: Iquitos --, the knowledge about medicinal plants only available for those who go on the expedition or stay long-term to study. The price: twice as much as budgeted. I cannot explain myself enough to convey the sadness I felt. I was stuck in Iquitos and not very happy about it. It is safe to say that Iquitos is disgusting. The motto of this place: “The heart of the jungle,” their custom: to throw trash on the streets, and far worse, the river. The concept of a trashcan, honestly, doesn’t exist; let alone recycling or reducing plastic consumption. How could this be possible? I asked myself. How could there be so much knowledge about the importance of being environmentally friendly, yet in the heart and lungs of our planet people seem to have no clue? Or simply don’t care? Are we all really that disconnected? My idealized perspective was greatly affected. Every step I took among the trash and every time I saw people carelessly littering my heart ached. As if that alone wasn’t bad enough, in order to satisfy the needs of tourists, in Iquitos they offer tours where you can supposedly experience the local fauna and indigenous traditions. For a varying amount (depending on how much they want to charge you and how easily you let them) you will visit an island nearby where you can see some caged animals and then continue on to a place on the shore where you’ll be greeted by a “tribe.” Which in reality is a group of topless, indigenous-looking people -- who have converted to evangelicalism – and perform their ancestors’ dances in honor of the anaconda and other sacred animals, now solely for profit.
What a joke! My heart ached some more as I realized this is the faith of the amazingly rich native cultures in South America. That’s what we’ve helped them become, a mundane tourist attraction. That is how native communities fit in the “civilized” world. Sad. Because they were once a community that lived in their own autochthonous way, in balance with nature, having rites and music and culture and society and way of life and traditions that they’ve been forced to forget. There are still around 200 indigenous groups in the Amazon, some of which are moving deeper into the jungle as “the white man,” as Kelvin my guide explained, gets closer to where they live. So although this particular experience doesn’t reflect all the indigenous groups at the moment, it for sure foreshadows what their end will be like. As the need for cattle, timber and economic growth continues to increase in the “developing countries” there will be less space in the jungle for these communities -- once again, they will find themselves forced to change their way of life in order to survive. And that is not the worse part, because the biological loss is far greater than the cultural. The Save The Amazon Coalition, a non-profit organization, points out how we are losing earth’s greatest biological treasures:
You can tell how excited I am to be there...“Rain forests once covered 14% of the earth's land surface, now they cover a mere 6% and experts estimate that the last remaining rainforest could be consumed in less than 40 years" They claim that one and a half acres of rainforest is lost every second. “Experts estimate we are losing 137 plant, animal, insect species every single day due to deforestation. That equates to 50,00 species a year. As the rainforest species disappear, so do many possible cures for life-threatening diseases. Currently, 121 prescriptions drugs sold worldwide come from plant-derived sources. While 25% of Western pharmaceuticals are derived from rainforest ingredients, less than 1% of these tropical trees and plants have been tested by scientists." Deforestation done by corporations and governments, added to the locals' littering due to lack of environmental awareness are slowly but surely destroying what is left of the Amazon. It might seem, from the comfort of our air-conditioned rooms that this doesn't affect us, because it's happening far away and is too complex to be resolved. But! Without the rainforest we can say goodbye to clean air, medicine, amazing and sometimes unseen fauna and flora, unimaginable knowledge, and at some point, our own existence. The "green" rhetoric of our time claims that we are destroying the planet in hopes that you'll buy a more expensive "environmentally friendlier" car (which really makes no no difference). But the reality is, the planet has survived much worse; It has been a ball of heat and then covered in ice; it has been struck by meteors and seen species come and go. It has existed for millions of years; chances are it will still after we --the parasites of this ecosystem-- are gone. So it is not the planet we are destroying, this is self-destruction at its best. “Progress” and tourism have left a scar in the heart of the Amazon. This experience scarred me. There was no spiritual epiphany, no contact with my idealized indigenous people, no immersion in nature – just the harsh reality of our time. Check out Laura's blog: Southbound