Field Notes From Amazonia
The placement of your feet on the wooden boards is essential; frequent use and infrequent maintenance have rendered the steep stairwell a treacherous walkway down to the docks. This is the port of Iquitos, Peru. It is a central location that gives access to the tributaries of the Amazon River. Its odor betrays its neglect. Interfluvial commerce and a growing population in the city of Iquitos have staged its waters to become the designated waste cistern. It marinates disease.
As such, I was anxious to board our boat and depart for Mazan, the small and remote district that our network of permaculture farms calls home. The ride was swift but beautiful and we settled into Mazan rather easily. Mazan is a one-road district with thousands of acres of broadleaf forests and simple wooden and palmed homes lining the roadway. It was not long before Bill, Eco Ola’s founder, and I headed to survey some of the work Eco Ola had been completing over the past three years. We first headed to Rider’s plantation, a partner farmer for some of Eco Ola’s permaculture endeavors. Rider’s land is adjacent to his parents, Federico and Domatilla, who are also partner famers with Eco Ola. All have lived a subsistence lifestyle and their knowledge of the rainforest is both intimate and profound. I was soon to discover why I saw the selva in their gaze and heard its language in their voices.
Bill guided me to a pathway that wrapped around a small pond harboring trees that I was certain sheltered yet undiscovered creatures (and indeed they may!). After a small hike we arrived at a doorway. Perhaps that’s not the word; neither a wooden nor metal door, but rather a naturally canopied entryway readying you for something without parallel. And there the land unveiled itself. Palm fronds as imposing as North American trees hung over your head; perfumed and blindingly creative flora occupied the floor, climbed vines and hedges. If you looked properly (and it is a skill-set that needs training), primates, birds, worms, caterpillars, frogs, snakes occupied every square inch of the jungle.
Here was a farm grown through the conjugation of a human vision with the instinctive tendencies of the rainforest; the wondrousness of the mind combined with the power of seed dispersion, propagation and germination. It was a result that I thought I was prepared for because I had seen photos. I wasn’t.
What I have constantly pursued in my research, travels and works is finding the beauty of our world while also confronting its underbelly. For me, this means seeking out places of unparalleled beauty, but also locales of deprivation and sadness. Amazonia is a space of immense happiness and equally overpowering evils like malnutrition, pollution, deforestation and even incest. These are not abnormal realities for the area. The impetus behind my own philosophy is simple: I believe the knowledge of diverse worlds will allow me to deconstruct the infrastructure of the negative to reform it in positive terms. Bill studied the harms of the forest like deforestation and soil erosion, prepared their cures and acted decisively. The farms’ expansiveness, grandeur and exquisiteness are beyond expression. They are hope amidst darkness. They are abundance amidst scarcity. They are aesthetic amidst ruin. They are health amidst ailment.
The intertextuality of everyone’s fates, in fact, demands that we modify our methods to mirror this design. And I was quite acutely reminded of why these permaculture farms were necessary even during our walk. As we neared the edge of our property line we saw a structure in the middle of the rainforest. Bill had never noticed the small hut structure and decided to venture in its direction. As we neared, a humble subsistence family appeared; a father, mother and several children that had just moved to the spot. In their hands were the lifeless corpses of several dead monkeys they were preparing for food.
They were magnificent creatures with engaging eyes and wonderfully hued furs. It is not the killing of these animals that bothered me, although I would have a difficult time slaughtering one myself — I attribute that more to my own cultural conditioning more than anything. What saddened me was the fact that a large portion of their land is clear-cut. This is the very activity that is suffocating our planet, depleting the soil of beneficial nutrients and destroying animal habitats. My eyes jumped back-and-forth from the open head-wounds of the dead monkeys to the felled trees. What became clear was that an enormous loss of habitat for these creatures just occurred. I saw at least 25 of these monkeys in a single tree just 45 minutes prior. And so, as it is natural for this family to hunt monkey for sustenance, I cringed at the paucity they might have initiated. But one can only persuade through demonstration. Coercion and force serve no purpose here nor anywhere. Bill and I exchanged our final pleasantries with the family and continued on our assessment of the tropical permaculture and agroforestry.
What I can tell you is that food sovereignty, reforestation, healthy soil, aesthetic beauty and health are all possible. Still, there are enormous, almost bewildering hurdles to the work. They are the kind where you almost feel paralyzed by their immensity and complexity — bureaucracy, habit, money, education, industrialized pollution and cultural idiosyncrasies are all regular obstacles. But what is refreshingly apparent is the following: even if you are the marginal and meek, you can still change the world. Who knows where this experiment will end. At a minimum, at least for a moment in time, some have been warmed, fed and inspired by our endeavors.