My meeting with Andres
AmazonQuest is an interactive expedition developed by Classroom Connect. For five weeks a team of scientists and explorers will examine one of the most unique and most threatened environments on Earth: the Amazon River basin
We saw Andres's thatched hut perched high over a river bend. It sat back, cloaked in green. At first, we thought we had come upon the village of an un-contacted tribe. I felt both excitement and fear: Some Amazonian tribes don't want contact with the outside world and they kill intruders.
Then Andres appeared. He wore tattered pants, mismatched socks and thongs, an old soccer shirt, and a Nike cap. His face was brown and weathered, like a pumpkin after a hard freeze. He waved for us to come up.
We met Andres after three hard days on the Río Azul. Too little water and too much luggage have had us pulling our canoes more than paddling them. But the water runs clear and cool, flanking both banks, and the jungle riots. White-eyed parakeets dart from palm to bamboo trees while squawking blue-headed macaws fly in pairs overhead. Oropendolas hang upside down near their bag shaped nests and make beautiful noises that sound, as one friend puts it, like melodically dripping water.
When we climbed the embankment, Andres pumped my hand like a car salesman, happy to have visitors. He immediately surprised us by offering us oranges, papaya, and a pineapple-not things one would expect to find deep in the jungle. We stood in his yard and exchanged stories.
Fourteen years ago, Andres left the city to search for gold in the Amazon. For over a year, he traveled on different rivers, learning from Amazonians how to survive along the way. Some place were too dirty and others too buggy. When he rounded a bend on the Río Azul and saw the plot of land over-looking the river, he knew he was home. Fish swam in the river, the jungle teamed with game, and the soil was fertile.
For the next thirteen years, he built a life here. In addition to the fruit he offered us, he grew rice, corn, cocoa, bananas, lime, coffee, and yucca.
"One never experiences hunger here," he told me.
"Don't you ever get lonely?" I asked.
"No, one gets accustomed to it. I had a dog for a while, but an ocelot ate it," he smiled, revealing very few teeth-most of them brown, decayed nubs.
Andres showed me around. One termite-eaten hut served as his rice granary and bedroom (a nest of soiled blankets draped with holey mosquito netting.) A few steps away stood an empty chicken coup (the ocelot ate them, too) and finally, the kitchen. River fish dried over a smoldering fire surrounded by battered pots. One of them held a rock-hard, smoked black, tapir hoof. "You boil for an hour with yucca and it makes a tasty soup," Andres explained. On a shelf sat the only store-bought items: salt and cooking oil.
"Where do you get the money to buy that?" I asked.
Andres disappeared and came back with a small knot of plastic. Carefully, he untied it to reveal the reason he came to the Amazon basin, the same reason the Spanish conquistadors came to the Amazon 400 years ago: gold. Gold was the first commodity to attract profiteers to the Amazon region. Like the quinine, rubber, lumber, and oil that followed, gold mining has left a wake of destruction and death.
Today, small-time gold-seekers like Andres often use mercury to lump gold dust together so they can more easily separate it from the dirt. The mercury, a dangerous poison, then makes its way into the environment and up the food chain where in settles in fish. Miners in the Amazon have put an estimated 100 tons of mercury into the environment annually and in three Tapajos villages, 80 percent of the children under twelve have dangerous levels in their bodies. Mercury poisoning leads to nerve damage, sight loss, and lower attention spans.
Right now, gold mining is legal in this part of the Río Azul. But if President Toledo agrees to make this area a park, it will be prohibited. The good news is that the environment will be protected. The bad news is that Andres will probably have to leave.
As we loaded our canoes to head down the river, I asked Andres if he ever intends to return to the city.
"No, I'm here for good," he said. "I can wake up in the morning and fish, or go hunting or tend my fruit gardens. It's healthy here and nobody bothers me. I don't find my gold but I have found my fortune right here."
-- Dan Buettner
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