11/5/09

It sure has been a while since I’ve been able to update. I apologize! I’m going to do my best to recap our second excursion to the Sul do Para (Southern region of Para state).

We left on October 20th, having some idea that this excursion would be substantially different from the first. Our Manaus excursion was filled with a beautiful boat trip and hikes in the forest while this trip would be taking place in a mostly deforested region and would further introduce us to the realities of cattle ranching, mining, agriculture and other controversial issues facing the Amazon. It didn’t take long for this to set in as we began our five hour drive south passing field after field emitting smoke and pasture after pasture dotted with thin cattle picking away at the mostly browning grass. The air and sun were noticeably hotter which we knew was just one of the many results that come along with clear-cutting forest.

After our long drive that first day we reached Tucurui – home of the fourth largest hydro-electric dam in the world. This dam is extremely important; in fact 58% of Brazilian territory receives energy produced there! It was very interesting to learn about the workings of a hydro-electric dam (a subject I knew almost nothing about) and to further hear of the impacts that the dam (thought by many to be a more or less environmentally-friendly source of power) has had on the region. In reality the dam is actually considered to be an environmental disaster by governmental standards and has begun to set an example for the better construction of future hydro-electric dams. While the dam is pretty efficient compared to others of its size, the construction and commencement when the dam began functioning were severely underestimated in scale and the unexpected flooding displaced a substantial number of communities as well as killed a multitude of animals. Having the opportunity to tour the dam facilities and see exactly how huge of an establishment it is added to my already forming idea of just how huge of a scale to which today’s consumers, companies, and countries demand resources – a fact which I believe is easy to avoid given our detachment with the sources of the products that we buy in stores and use without thinking and hard to grasp until you have seen such a giant facility as a dam, a plantation, a soy port, a mining processing plant, or the like.

The next day we travelled to a Colono ranch around the city of Jacunda. Colonos represent a population of Brazilian cattle ranchers and agriculturalists that populated the northeastern region of Brazil in the 1970’s and ‘80’s as the first large roads across the country were being constructed. This was yet another very different reality of Para that we had not yet had much exposure to. Some friends and I spent a few hours walking along the road that traversed through the family’s plantation experiencing striking vistas of a different sort. As I have not spent much time on farms or in the country during my life, I was overtaken by the beauty of the pink skies as the sun set over rolling hills of pasture with the forest as a distant backdrop. “Belleza” as we say in Portuguese. Gazing out at the environment around me I was struck by the idea that this is a beautiful way of life to those for whom farm living and cattle ranching is their reality. I realized that if I had grown up on this ranch I would probably love it and think little of the lush rainforest that used to occupy the land. It occurred to me how important it is to experience a place and work to a gain perspective on the lives of the people who call it home. It is not so easy to say that cattle ranching is solely damaging to the environment when in this family and many cases it is an important means for subsistence living.

On October 24th we began learning about the MST – one of the main focuses of the excursion including our second rural homestay. The MST, known as the Landless Peoples Movement, is a growing movement of organized rural workers who are without land as a result of being pushed off of their properties for any number of reasons. The movement works to acquire areas of under- or wrongly-utilized land and create communities on them, providing each family their own plot. In just over twenty years of existence the MST has helped thousands of rural families. However the movement is negatively perceived by much of the Brazilian public as each section of the land which MST occupies was once being worked by other usually larger farmers who either were not following environmental laws or had falsified property documents for the land, therefore the MST is rather controversial in Brazil. Perhaps most importantly, however, is the amount of pressure that the MST has put on the government to deal with the huge issue of rural land rights in Brazil through publicity and action. We had the opportunity to visit the Escola National Florestal Fernandes, one of two MST-run universities, an MST encampment during its first stages of claiming territory (this includes communal living and planting while MST representatives fight for the land rights and deal with extensive governmental processes), and finally Palmares II – the oldest and largest MST settlement in the region – where we stayed for four days with MST families.

From the moment that we arrived in Palmares II we all knew that this was to be a much different homestay experience than living in the riberinho communities. The main street that we drove in on was lined with stores and bordered a large park complete with a playground and benches adjacent to a very large school. When we were instructed to get out of the van we all stayed put filled with surprise at the lack of rural features we had been expecting literally asking if the drivers were joking. With around a thousand families and over five thousand people living in the community, Palmares II has the largest MST school in the country, a thriving MST community-oriented culture, and a variety of types of land including farms, pastures, forested land, rivers and semi-urban infrastructure. My family was big and loud and incredibly friendly; with ten people, including five children between the ages of 2 and 6 as well as a fifteen year old going on twenty and a Bahian mother there was always something to be done and someone to spend time with.

The first day I spent there was probably one of the most beautifully picturesque days of my life. A friend of the family, Marto Alenas had asked if I wanted to check out the interior of the community past the town and into the long dirt roads of pastures and fields as my family had sold their plot of land a few years previous and lived solely in the main part of town. In the early afternoon I was greeted by Marto Alenas and his worn red motorcycle – I couldn’t have been more excited. Just as I was boarding my fifteen year old sister Amanda jumped on too and the three of us, packed in tight, set off on our road trip. As we zipped through the countryside wind blowing my hair like wild and I held on tight and tried my best to take in every breath taking moment. We rode for about an hour and I honestly felt like nothing could be better than this surreal journey until we reached our destination – the meeting of the waters. The road came to a close at a river boasting substantial rapids and a multitude of rocky passageways. In all of our clothes the three of us waded into the river and passed a few joyful hours exploring, swimming, and trying not to get carried away by the waters. It was so refreshing to pass an entire day just appreciating the nature around us and discovering its beauty in every minute. We spent the rest of the afternoon visiting various people living and working in the pastures and farm plots and I caught glimpses of a wide range of rural lifestyles. The beauty of this land brought me back to the same feelings of appreciation that I had experienced at the Colono ranch, reminding me that cattle ranching and agriculture should not be thought of solely as obstacles but instead as different realities. Finally this culminating experience instilled in me the importance of remembering the people who partake in these activities and what they have gone through when considering the effects that land use is having on the environment.

I passed much of the rest of my time in Palmares II appreciating and learning about the people living in my house and the community. I spent good parts of the following two days learning the art of making pastels (irresistible meat-filled pastries) and journeying to the community school alongside my homestay mother making satisfying countless little children – all of whom my mother knew and chatted with – for 50 centavos or 1 real (depending on the size of the pastel) . I spent each night traversing the park with Amanda and chatting about life in the room which we shared. I am always inspired to see the unwavering happiness that exists in the people I have met living in these rural communities. I believe that there is something we can all learn from a culture where people are constantly helping each other and enjoying the simplicities of life that we often look past. Experiencing this hearty lifestyle which exists on an inexplicably smaller budget and worldly impact truly makes one want to reconsider the consumerist values and activities that have been instilled in us by our society and surroundings.

On our two day drive home to Belem back through the burning fields, roadside communities, and mono-culture plantations I had the opportunity to reflect a bit on the differences between our two major excursions and to realize the multitude which I had learned from each. At this point it seems to me that it is extremely difficult to grapple with the situation that Amazonia is in especially with regards to the different actors and the positive or negative connotations that they may have or deserve. I feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to discover and explore more in depth the relations and interactions between the various forces trying to have a say in the future of the Amazon. In all honesty, with each hour of each day I feel more and more motivated to participate in the discussion and advocate for the environment and people who do not yet have a powerful voice. I plan to devote my life to the fight to salvage the paradise which is the rainforest, to support and negotiate with the people living there, and to spread my passion to others and increase the awareness about the ever-increasing importance of rainforest conservation for the planet’s health.

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2 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Barry (dad) said,

    Carra, This is beautifully written and extremely heartfelt. You make us proud of you, your passion, and your commitment to positive involvement and change. We love you!

  2. 2

    Kathee (MOM) said,

    Carra

    This may be your best entry yet – you have already changed my way if thinking. Keep it coming!


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