Damming the Amazon

FRom James Cameron's epic film Avatar.
From James Cameron’s epic film Avatar.

Last Tuesday I returned from a 10-day trip to the Amazon. My adventure was organized by Pulse Tours (https://www.pulsetours.com) — an outfit about which I can’t say enough good things.

As I mentioned in a blog post back in December, the trip represented a special way for me to celebrate my 25th year as an environmental journalist . (The milestone is officially September of this year.) I’ve spend a lot of time writing about environmental protection, but not enough actually being out in the environment: the Amazon is for conservationists what Mecca is for Muslims, and a pilgrimage was overdue.

The reason I chose this particular trip was that Dan Cleland, owner of Pulse Tours, combines exactly the unusual combination of factors I sought.

The first half of the trip was a really “raw” experience of the Amazon jungle. After arriving in Iquitos (the largest city in the world one can only reach by plane or boat) and touring the local market we went by mototaxi, van and boat to a remote jungle lodge from which we made long treks into the jungle, usually two during the day and one at night (on foot, motor canoe or both). It was exotic and a bit scary and we saw lots of critters.

The second half was spent at the Nihue Rao Spiritual Centre where we hung out with Shipibo curanderos (shamans) and participated in three ayahuasca ceremonies. Ayahuasca is a vine that the shamans combine with chacruna leaves (or similar plants) in a brew and drink in order to visit the spirit realm. To simplify, ayahuasca allows the human stomach to metabolize the psychoactive dimethyltryptamine (DMT) in the chacruna leaves that would normally be neutralized by our digestive chemicals. You drink the brew, lie back and listen to the shaman’s sacred songs (icaros) and journey to another dimension and meet the energy beings and universal consciousness that dwells there. I wrote a detailed account of all this on my personal blog that you can access by clicking here:


One thing I came away with from the trip — both the jungle treks and the shamanic journeys — was a powerful sense of mission about saving the Amazon. My experience was oddly similar to the one portrayed by the lead character in James Cameron’s epic film Avatar in which a mining company on the planet Pandora desecrates the sacred forest of the Na’vi which the local tribe understands is a living spirit world, not just dead matter ripe for resource extraction. (Seeing the physical Amazon in the first part of my trip and the spiritual Amazon in the second was downright uncanny.)

The author with a three-toed sloth.
The author with a three-toed sloth. I know, I know… which one is the sloth?

I happened to pick up the January 2014 edition of National Geographic in the airport in Lima, and read its cover story on the long flight home. I was appalled to learn that the Amazon is under threat not only from farmers and their slash-and-burn strategies (which I already knew about) but that the Brazilian government has revived plans to build up to fifty (that is not a typo!) hydroelectric dams on major parts of the Amazon river system, which will destroy vast areas of pristine wilderness and displace tens of thousands of indigenous people.

I decided to read a bit more when I got home and was further disturbed to read also about Chevron’s pollution of large aquatic regions in the Upper Amazon (in Ecuador).

I was reassured (at least a little) to learn about an activist group — Amazon Watch (amazonwatch.org) — that’s coordinating opposition to these tragic events. I plan to follow these issues closely and write about them in this space in future. In the meantime, if you want to get up to speed quickly, I suggest you watch two short and beautifully filmed videos.

The first as Damocracy, which you can watch for free on Amazon Watch’s website here:


The second is a short film James Cameron made about the Brazilian Belo Monte dam project that will devastate the Xingu River (a large tributary to the Amazon River). It’s very moving and inspiring, and you can watch it here:


I’m not sure what I can do to help Amazon Watch in its efforts to save the Amazon, beyond sharing this kind of information. Emotionally — after just returning from the Amazon, I feel like buying a rocket launcher and, as per the Bruce Coburn song, “make some bastard pay.” Intellectually I realize that kind of violence just invites further repression and devastation. Since it’s all about money in the end, perhaps a worldwide boycott of Brazil similar to the one that ended apartheid in South Africa would get the government there to relent.

The author (centre) with jungle guide Victor (left) and Pulse Tours owner Dan Cleland.
The author (centre) with jungle guide Victor (left) and Pulse Tours owner Dan Cleland (right).

And that will be the topic for a future blog post. Stay tuned.

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