July 23, 2008
Brazil: The Amazon’s Golden Curse
Watch the program: Part 1 Part 2

When most people think of carnival time in Brazil, they imagine rowdy music, cachaça and near-naked samba dancers. This year, I spent carnival weekend smothered in insect repellent in an emergency camp deep in the Amazon rainforest. My satellite phone wasn’t working, our food had run out, and my director was dangerously ill in the hammock next to me.

The plight of the Amazon’s Yanomami people had never looked like an easy story to cover. From London, it would take five separate flights and a trek through the jungle for our three-man crew to reach the tribe. Even after we arrived in Brazil, getting to them wasn’t assured: we were hoping to hitch a ride with a Brazilian Air Force mission, and they hadn’t yet decided if they wanted to take us.

Still, I couldn’t believe my luck. I’d studied the Yanomami at university, and now there was a chance that I was actually going to meet them myself. The tribe were very remote, but that hadn’t stopped prospectors from illegally venturing into their reserve to hunt for gold. Spurred by record gold prices, miners were turning Yanomami land into vast brown craters, bringing malaria, viral infections, sexually transmitted diseases, alcoholism and prostitution in their wake. It was this story we’d come to tell.

We had a thorough medical check up to make sure we wouldn’t bring the Yanomami the very diseases we’d come to report on, and after days of biding our time in the northern town of Boa Vista, we finally got the green light from the Air Force.

They flew us for two hours over miles of what looked like densely-packed broccoli. The Colonel warned we had an arduous trek ahead of us. It could take more than four hours, he said, and we’d need to keep food and equipment to a minimum. But for three excited journalists on our way to an exclusive, four hours of discomfort seemed reasonable.

It was only after seven hours of hacking through the forest that the Colonel admitted it was actually a 25km trek. Most people walk at 6km an hour, he’d reasoned, so four hours had sounded like a sensible estimate. He hadn’t accounted for the weight of our cameras, our trepidation in wading through the murky, frogspawn-filled rivers, and the fact that pale, unacclimatised Brits might be stifled by the heat and humidity. Even members of his own team who’d enjoyed a bit too much of carnival the night before were waning.

We reached the Yanomami village just before nightfall. We’d made it, but our camera had not: the humidity had been too much. It was a sight I’d never thought I’d see – a huge, bustling, roofless hut where 150 Yanomamis lived together under the Amazon’s incredible stars – and we couldn’t even film it.

But by dawn, our camera has spluttered back to life. Illegal gold mining had meant a third of the villagers had been struck down with malaria a month before, and we were grateful to be able to talk to them on camera. By mid-morning, our filming was over, and the Colonel was eager to arrive back to the plane before sunset, so we headed into the forest once again.

Three hours into the return journey, we had to stop. Heat affects people differently, and while I was feeling a bit tired and thirsty, my director, Paul, was beginning to suffer from severe heat exhaustion. He was staggering. His clothes were drenched in sweat and his eyes were hollow and grey. He couldn’t remember where we were, why we were there, and he had no idea who I was. Within minutes, he was convulsing, and then unconscious on the jungle floor.

We had to act quickly. The Colonel poured water over Paul’s chest and mouth and we fanned him until he gradually came round. He was better, apart from a thundering headache, but too exhausted to move, so we set up camp around him. I have never been more grateful of bug spray and earplugs than I was that night, as we tried to get to sleep in the menacing darkness of the Amazon.

When we finally arrived back at the plane the next morning, I thought about what could have happened to us. If we’d known how difficult the trek would really be, we would never have ventured into the jungle. But by doing so, we got to tell a completely unique story, and to show how some of the most remote people on earth are being affected by the world financial crisis.

Making the film was an unrepeatable experience. I’d love to go back to Brazil. But next time, I hope I’ll be having caipirinhas at carnival, and staying clear of the jungle.

-- From Jenny Kleeman, Reporter, Unreported World
World’s Untold Stories showcases courageous correspondents telling intimate stories of society's most vulnerable people. Often gritty, always powerful tales that open our eyes to a world that is at times disturbing and captivating. Storytelling that is raw and unyielding in its impact. World’s Untold Stories will bring the viewer tales from all corners of the world, and shine light on activities almost never exposed.

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