Saturday, 19 January 2008

Around Brazil – Santarem & Alter do Chao

Santarem is probably the second biggest port on the Brazilian section of the Amazon. After seeing all the tiny towns along the way, a proper city came as a bit of a shock. The huge grain tankers aren’t, as they regularly pass silently downriver as they head for the Atlantic. The structure that fills the containers shouldn’t be a shock but it does stand out a little from the trees.

The construction of this structure is claimed to be an environmental disaster and not just because it was built without proper planning permission by one of the largest agri-businesses on the planet. It is closed at present and Cargill may have to remove the structure at some point but don’t hold your breath.

With Santarem being on a deep part of the Amazon, so close to the junction of the Madeira with the Amazon, the southern edge of the world’s largest jungle is being cut down rapidly. Not for cattle, as in Mato Grosso in years past, but now for soya plantations. The soya beans were shipped down the Madeira by smaller boats and stored at the grain facility until one of the tankers arrives. This ease of transportation means that many people want to cut down a patch of forest to plant soya. With nobody around to stop them, the jungle shrinks by around 6 football pitches per minute, according to Greenpeace estimates.

Now don’t go blaming our vegetarian friends and their burgers for this. The biggest buyer of Brazilian soya is China, where the soya is the fuel for the animals that fuel the people that fuel the booming economy. The joys of globalisation mean that China’s development is one of the biggest threats to the Amazon Rainforest. Interesting huh? Obviously Europe takes in huge amounts of Santarem soya too, so don’t think we have no effect.

Alter do Chao is a short drive and a whole world away from Santarem. On the edge of a lagoon formed by the Rio Tapajós, the entrance to which is partially blocked by a 2km sandbank. This is just one of the stunning river beaches in the area which were mostly under the highest waters for 25 years when I was there. It didn´t matter to the locals or tourists, though. Life carried on, with the waters so full of people that one ice-cream seller was pushing his cart through three feet of water. What a dedicated salesman. The bars on the sandbank were all full - of water. Some almost up to the roof and some halfway up the legs of the chairs, tables and drinkers outside.

We hired a rowing boat to cross to the sandbank and climb the hill on the far side of the lagoon. It looked like the views across to the other side of the river and over to the main artery of the Amazon would make it a fantastic spot for a good old English picnic. We never made it. Never found the path, not even close. Instead we had our picnic, our champagne and our beer in a rowing boat as another Amazon storm came over the hill we´d been trying to find. We sheltered under an overhanging tree, pulled in the oars and drifted gently. Our tree made me realise why snakes evolved such patterns to disguise themselves as branches. See?

We toasted the tree, the storm, the boat, the bars, the jungle, the river, everything. Everybody should go to the Amazon. You get such magical moments there.

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