Originally published in Beat Magazine, March 2010. http://www.beatmagazine.co.uk
Uñon is a small village high up in the Peruvian Amazon, population: 160. Surrounded by remnants of Inca civilization, for generations this community has been very much self sufficient and content – the land has been bountiful and the surrounding snow-capped mountains beautiful.
Even as the world around it advanced Uñon has managed to keep up, transporting modern essentials – satellite dishes, building materials – on mule-back via a narrow, dirt track that is the village’s only access road.
But recently life in Uñon has changed. Once, an ample four months of rain would fall each year, but now the people of Uñon are now beginning to see their livestock suffer. When the rain does come, the ground is often too hard to soak it up and the sheer force of the raindrops often damages the few crops that do grow.
Older villagers have observed that their stunning view of the mountain Nevado Coropuna has also changed, with the summit having lost half of its snow in twenty years. They expect it to disappear completely in the next twenty.
Residents are now wishing that their small dirt track were bigger to allow trading with nearby communities. Perhaps, they wonder, tourists would come to visit if access were better, providing them with an increasingly important alternative income.
But foreign footfalls are seldom heard high up in the Colca Canyon where Uñon is situated. In fact, recently only one man has ventured up the canyon to pay it a visit. That man is Ed Stafford.
On 2nd April 2008 explorer Ed Stafford began his 4000-mile quest to be the first person to walk the Amazon River from its source, near the Pacific coast in Peru, to its mouth at the Atlantic Ocean in Brazil.
Now, on this two-year anniversary of his commencement, with just six months left to walk, Ed reflects on his experiences and his expedition mission: to raise awareness of climate change and the environmental issues that are affecting communities like Uñon.
View of Nevado Coropuna from Uñon
Since setting out, Ed has learned of a myriad of problems that threaten the rainforest and the people that live there, but also the globe, because these two million square kilometers of jungle provides 20% of the world’s oxygen, earning them the title of “the lungs of our planet.”
“Climate change is a drama that is gripping people world-wide,” says Ed, “and the fact that [December’s UN climate change convention at] Copenhagen even happened is testament to that.
“We need to evolve to make the planet sustainable.”
As well as wanting to achieve a personal goal, Ed is raising money for a host of charities including Rainforest Concern, Project Peru and, closer to home, Cancer Research UK.
He has also teamed up with Prince Charles’s organisation for the prevention of deforestation – the Prince’s Rainforest Project (PRP), for which he writes a blog for children.
With the two-year point fast approaching, Ed’s thoughts are turning to home, and he tries to stay positive, as the final leg of this expedition becomes a mental challenge.
“This milestone stirs up the knowledge that it’s been a long old haul,” he says. “At home years fly by at high speed nowadays, but these two years seem like five. Home is a very distant memory.”
Putting aside his current hankering for fish and chips and the English countryside, Ed speaks from Itapiranga, a small fishing town in the middle of the Brazilian Amazon, on the highs and lows of walking for two years through the largest and most diverse rainforest in the world.
From what he’s seen, Ed is not convinced that tourism is what Uñon needs, but over the last two years he has had some truly memorable experiences which have helped him to come up with a few solutions to the issues that the people of Uñon and their fellow Amazonians face.
It’s an explorer’s life – experiences from the ‘road’
Traveling with companions and local guides, Ed began his journey by summitting Nevado Misimi the furthest most source of the Amazon River. From there he looked out across his home for the next two and a half years in anticipation of what was to come.
On setting out to complete this journey two years ago Ed believed his challenge to be pitting himself against nature and the elements to see if he could survive.
Ed's shocking discovery: an electric eel
Sure enough, he has pushed his body to the limits amongst harsh terrain, often trekking on through humid, 40°C+ temperatures despite malnutrition, dehydration and mental exhaustion.
He has faced deadly pit vipers, eaten piranha, foraged for unidentified roots and drank from muddy puddles.
But to his surprise it has been his interactions with native people, both good and bad, that have defined the last two years for Ed.
“People live in a state of constant fear and alertness and are ready to kill, literally to protect themselves from outsiders,” he says.
Among his experiences with indigenous people are being held at gunpoint, receiving death threats and having concrete shoved in his mouth.
“I, as a gringo [local slang for white foreigner] represent everything scary about the world and I have to explain myself every time we enter a community to Indians who are in a state of worked up fear and confusion.”
Nightmarish stories of ‘gringos’ stealing children and harvesting organs have been passed around and Ed has repeatedly been mistaken for the protagonist of such chilling legends.
Of some of the more extreme stories he is skeptical, but this prominent fear is not to be dismissed. Local people have suffered at the hands of outside forces enough to build up such a repertoire of crimes.
Much of the interference has been from oil companies, keen to get at the resource-abundant land, but leaving deforestation, degradation and oil spills in their wake.
In Peru 100% of the unprotected rainforest has been allocated for resource extraction of one kind or another. This has been without regard for the communities that live there, as the Peruvian government states that land ownership only extends down to five meters below the ground.
“This means the government as sold off all the rights to mineral extraction from underneath the Indian lands,” says Ed, “and they didn’t even get consulted.”
It is not surprising then that the wary Ahsaninka Indians treated Ed with hostility when he arrived in the same month that Argentine oil company, Pluspetrol, was due to set foot in the area. Equating white man with oil company, the Ashaninka threw water over him (a serious affair) covered him with concrete and pushed it into his mouth.
But against this treatment Ed holds no hard feelings: “It was actually great that the tribe was taking such a strong stance in defence of their land.
“I hope they do manage to stop the oil companies coming in – that would be great,” he says.
Despite these negative introductions, Ed has found that initially hostile people change their tune once they realise that he means no harm. In the case of another Ashaninka tribe, who held him at gunpoint, once they began to trust him two members of the tribe actually became his guides for the next leg of his journey.
Ed and Cho relaxing in a Brazilian village
Indeed, he has had some delightful experiences with local people. His current walking companion, Gadiel “Cho” Sanchez Rivera is a Peruvian forestry worker, whom Ed describes as “the unexpected find of the expedition”.
Cho has been walking with Ed since August 2008 and despite the intense environment, they never fight.
“He’s patient and a very good friend, we have a great ability to forgive each other for bad behaviour,” Ed says.
Other interactions with local people have proved to be a pleasant surprise as Ed and Cho usually find they are offered a hot meal and somewhere to sling their hammocks. In fact, Ed describes rural Brazilian hospitality as the most beautiful thing he has seen on his trip.
“I can guarantee that when Cho and I walk into a community that we’ll be offered a warm reception in every one we pass,” he says.
“It is humbling to see how kind people can be. Children are open, friendly, confident and interested in us. These people have got something very right.”
The Amazon: the heart and soul of the climate change debate
The kindness of strangers has often buoyed Ed’s spirits when times have become tough, and such friendliness is often offered unconditionally despite the hardships that people face in a changing environment and an unpredictable eco-system.
Like the people of Uñon, many other communities that Ed has met tell similar stories of failing crops and the search for alternative livelihoods as a direct result of climate change.
Deforestation in Pará, Brazil (photo by Leoffreitas)
At the beginning of his journey in Peru he began a survey entitled ‘Voices of the Amazon’, with the intention of finding out from local people their views on climate change and how it affects them.
Many of the answers came back the same: “I don’t think climate change is anybody’s fault – it’s a natural process,” said Jorge, a guide who walked with Ed in 2008, echoing other interviewees.
Realising that the survey was merely highlighting people’s ignorance on the subject, Ed duly stopped it.
But as he crossed the border into Brazil, he began to notice a change in attitudes towards climate change, and with that was born a solution to the problem in Ed’s mind: “Education!” he says.
“Brazilians have surprised me in how much they talk of conservation and protecting the forests. Communities here face the same climate change issues as their Peruvian counterparts, but seem to be far less worried.
“It is by educating Jorge’s kids that we will change things, hopefully these kids will then have a more caring outlook on their precious forests.”
Ed has also noticed that it is through education that Brazil is able to give communities other income opportunities, by allowing young educated adults the chance to find work in cities and start their own businesses.
New information on climate change is also beginning to alter local people’s attitudes of the jungle. Communities in cities and villages have passed down a cultural legacy of fear towards the Amazon, believing it to be a savage land that needs to be tamed, which makes it hard for people to adopt the concept of conservation.
However, there are seeds of change being planted and Ed has walked passed large signs telling people to protect the forest and not litter.
“I think people here realise already that the forests resources are limited and won’t be around forever if current practices continue,” he says.
Climate change is a two-fold problem in the Amazon. For the people whose crops are failing and livelihoods are under threat, it is a disaster. However, much of the problem is coming from the Amazon itself.
Deforestation of the Amazon rainforest accounts for 20% of global CO2 emissions (equivalent to that of the USA), which is a significant amount considering that the Amazon is about 1% of the earth’s surface. And while crops are one person’s livelihood, the deforestation industry is someone else’s.
Within the last year a global cry for environmental protection has grown deafening, culminating in the United Nations summit on climate change in Copenhagen last December and deforestation has been receiving ever-increasing attention.
While Copenhagen was not the huge success that many wanted it to be, efforts to curb deforestation were applauded when the scheme to reduce emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD) was adopted into the Copenhagen Accord, with a call for it to start with immediate effect.
In addition, the Prince’s Rainforest Trust has lead a drive to gather $25bn in pledges from rich nations to cut deforestation by a quarter, and eventually reverse it.
So, now that money is coming to the table, the question is: where should it go?
The biggest global cause of deforestation is cattle ranching, accounting for 14% of lost rainforest in the Amazon. A recent undercover investigation by Greenpeace revealed that much of the ranching is illegal and that the Brazilian government is supporting the industry despite its pledge to reduce deforestation.
However, the market is huge, perhaps too big to forsake. Greenpeace revealed that due to the complex web of the Brazilian cattle industry, a number of high street brands in the UK were being supplied with beef and leather that came from illegal ranches, including Tesco, Adidas and Clark’s Shoes.
“A huge proportion of people in the Amazon are economically linked to some form of extraction from the forest or use of the land that used to be forested,” says Ed.
“If the bottom was to fall out of the timber and cattle ranching industries in Brazil tomorrow, many large populations would have real problems with unemployment and poverty.”
Ed believes that both the timber and cattle ranching industries need to be “severely restricted”, but that the socio-economic implications of this must be dealt with.
“This is where the money that’s been pledged should be spent,” he says.
He would like to see schemes put in place to retrain people with new skills and to provide relocation for those in areas with no other source of income.
REDD has gone some way to focusing on this issue. The scheme will reward developing nations with credits for protecting and sustainably managing their forests, and local communities will see some of the money made from credit sales go towards developing alternative livelihoods.
In addition, Brazil has begun to develop wind, solar and biomass energy industries, which will inevitably provide a new jobs market. However, it will be the coordination of building the new industries, deforestation reduction and retraining workers that will determine whether or not the transition is a success.
Children in Marirana, Brazil
Over the last two years Ed has witnessed many incredible things, not least the spirit and resilience of the people of the Amazon. He is optimistic.
To achieve success he envisions legislation and enforcement within the rainforest countries which will curb deforestation, while education creates a local climate that ensures that the governments act as they should.
“Happily I think attitudes are indeed changing for the better and that we will continue to have an Amazon for many generations to come,” he says.
To follow Ed on his journey from source to sea, visit www.walkingtheamazon.com or ‘follow’ him on twitter/amazonwalkers.