9/21/09

Oi! Tudo Bem?

All is certainly well with me! I have been back from Sao Francisco do Para for three days and am actually gearing up for the program’s longest excursion: a little over two weeks travelling primarily by boat around the inner Amazonian region to Manaus, Santarem, and Juruti. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, I still have to explain a bit about my trip to Sao Francisco!

Our group travelled to Sao Francisco do Para, an area that still contains primary forest (the oldest type of forest, mostly untouched) along with secondary forest (forest which has been tampered with and is in the process of regrowth) and agricultural areas. The aim of this trip was to expose ourselves to rainforest areas with different histories as well as varying levels of biomass and biodiversity.

We definitely succeeded in this goal and along with enjoying spending time trekking around the forest, many students who had not yet been exposed to different types of rainforest definitely gained a lot from being able to see the similarities and differences between them. Additionally, we learned about slash and burn agricultural techniques that dominate much of the region and even got to visit a private farm which utilized these methods. Slash-and-burn agriculture is essentially the process of cutting down vegetation in one area of forest and burning the biomass in order to create ash which in turn fertilizes the ground making the land a bit more fertile for farming. Then the land is cultivated for around three years, planting different crops according to what will grow in the constantly degrading soil, after which point the area must be abandoned for at least ten years to allow for regrowth in hopes of re-starting the process. However, as we learned, not only does this technique prove relatively un-fruitful and inefficient for the farmers, but in the process of burning about 80% of the nutrients stored in the vegetation is lost. Subsequently this technique is not seen as particularly environmentally friendly or sustainable and many people are experimenting with alternative farming techniques. This was a subject I knew nothing about and it was fascinating to see different fields all at different stages of the slash-and-burn cycle. One of the things that I appreciate most about the learning style that SIT encourages is that you actually see pertinent processes, places, and situations first hand; this lends itself to a greater appreciation and understanding of these important issues.

The next day of our trip an extremely life-changing event happened to me and a few other members of the group. Throughout the day we had split up into groups and were conducting scientific research about various forest-related topics. During the late afternoon, we began to see what looked like logging trucks passing through the service road we were working near. Along with one of our program leaders four of us decided to pose as American tourists and try to get a closer look in order to see if they were conducting illegal behavior. Cameras in hand we drove at least a mile on a newly cut road through primary forest. Even at this point I felt that what I was about to see could be very shocking but looking back I really had no idea of the intensity that was to come. When we found the loggers our leader told them that we were students from America studying how to cut down trees and asked if they would be willing to show us the ropes. I was surprised at how quickly they agreed to take us to their deforestation site and before we knew it we were following ten or fifteen people deeper into the forest. When we arrived at our destination, though I felt like I had prepared myself somewhat, I could not believe what I saw.

A few trucks and a bulldozer surrounded a cleared area with an enormous pile of discarded trees, vegetation, and branches as well as no more than four huge tree trunks which we quickly learned were the desired goods of this endeavor. Along with at least twenty Brazilians (including women and children who had come with the various crew members) we continued to watch as the bulldozer cleared even more area, pushing the growing pile of tree matter aside. It was such a real representation of an act that, while I have read about it countless times, I had not expected to find myself in a situation where I was literally witnessing deforestation. It was extremely powerful and definitely emotional, but it wasn’t over yet. A few of the men led us on foot to another slightly more remote patch of forest no more than a five minute walk from the main site. One of the men had a chainsaw in hand and explained that he was going to cut a wedge from the tree to ensure that the wood was good. After inspection he began to saw the tree at about breast height. We all waited with hefty anticipation at the act which we were about to witness. Within two or three minutes I heard a deafening crack and right before my eyes a huge tree in girth and height fell, taking a substantial amount of vegetation down with it. Immediately I felt my heart and stomach drop and my eyes begin to tear. Another girl had to stand in front of me so as not to give us away. We walked over to the tree and in the place where it had broken the wood was extremely damp and water was literally flowing out of it. I could not believe how much of an affinity I felt to the tree at that moment. It was so clearly alive. Overtaken with emotion I began to cry and couldn’t take it anymore. I had not expected myself to feel so much emotion, but soon after we left I realized why. It wasn’t necessarily that I disagreed completely with this deforestation situation.

(We learned that the loggers were actually a group of individuals from the community, including the head of the community, and that they were on community-owned land cutting down logs of a certain variety in order to build a bridge in town. While this was still an illegal act – Brazil has a rule that individuals may not change their land unless plans are approved by the federal government – our leader explained an interesting perspective to us. These people did not have access to the appropriate vehicles and tools necessary in order to extract these logs from the forest in a mostly non-intrusive way which accounted for the huge amount of forest they had destroyed. Additionally, being from a small community, it is likely that they did not have the funds to purchase wood and therefore if they were to build a bridge their best option may have been to cut into their own forest.)

I understood the reasons for which these community members felt it important to utilize the forest in this way and similarly I appreciate that the realities of many people in this region involves a need to use what resources they do have in order to support themselves and that there is a manner in which deforestation can be done in an appropriate way. Instead I believe that I was so affected because of what this act represented to me. Illegal and unnecessary deforestation is an issue that I have begun to devote my life’s work to and to see such an act so closely and openly, it was honestly like I witnessing a murder. As difficult as it was, I am extremely glad to have gotten the opportunity to witness this incredible situation because I believe that many people, especially those working to end deforestation, will not have the access to see anything like this so openly. I will remember this experience for the rest of my life, as well as the feelings which overtook me, and pledge to use them to further inspire me to fight for what I feel is right.

Wow this has certainly been a long entry, but a very important one. As I prepare to enter the forest for around two week’s time, I cannot wait for the experiences I will have to learn from and reflect upon. I am not sure how soon I will be able to post entries as I am not sure of the access I will have to internet, but I will be recording my experiences for sure and will post, at the latest, upon my return!

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4 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Kathee McCormack said,

    Carra

    What a powerful description – you are very lucky to have this experience and we are very lucky that you are sharing it so eloquently with us. Have a wonderful trip on the Amazon.

    Love Mom

  2. 2

    Aunt Carolyn said,

    I think that I shall never see. a poem so lovely as a tree.

  3. 3

    June said,

    hi carra,
    i feel as though i am there with you because of your vivid writing and the emotional impact this experience is having on you. will i get a certificate for learning so much from you??
    love,
    june

  4. 4

    Louisa Rigali said,

    So well written and exciting! I feel for you, having to witness such a heart-wrenching act, but appreciate your ability to reflect on it. Best wishes for the rest of your Journey!


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