River people

The Amazon Basin has always been both a source of great inspiration and, more often, great despair for the conquistadores, from the moment they invaded the rain forest and the thousands of tributaries that make up one of the most diverse ecosystems known to mankind. The history is also one of great irony. From the beginning it is wrought with stories of of explorers getting lost and going mad, schemes of grand proportions failing in horrible ways, and whole expeditions starving amidst the plenitude and abundance of the rain forest. The amplitude of misery that was experienced by them led them to dub the forest of the Amazon Basin the “green hell”. But what for them was a type of hell, was home to thousands of indigenous peoples who, according to the same histories and the original journals of the conquestadores, populated the rivers and the inter-fluvial forestland in abundance. These indigenous peoples successfully fished, hunted and managed the forests for thousands of years, creating unique languages and cultures along the thousands of streams and rivers that give life to the Amazon.

In this landscape of continuous and almost oppressive green the forest is a considerable force – not only in its role in sustaining the lives of the thousands of communities that live among its abundance, as well as the millions more that benefit from its services, but also in its role in sustaining the cultural life, the spiritual life, of those that inhabit it. It is there, here, everywhere. Birds calling from the branches, monkeys chattering, insects swarming all around. Singular trees bursting from the canopy, clusters of aguaje palms , lianas drooping off the chaos of branches. It is a backdrop, a main stage, a path, a house, a market, a backyard, an audience and an inspiration all at once. It is inescapable, omnipresent, immensely abundant, and breathtakingly beautiful.

How different these first river people must have seen the forest. How incomprehensible the desire to cut it down in order to make it “productive”.


I think of this as I sit wrapped up in my hammock and towel, fending off the heavy,damp morning dew that seeps into my bones. Woefully unprepared for this weather, I am the only one awake at 4.30am, save the motor-man in the back, and the boat-man in the front. I watch their practiced and (for me), mysterious communication for a while. The boatman sits in the prow of the boat, wedged into a tire with a flashlight in one hand that cuts through the early morning mist. He is watching for the deep currents of the small river in which to guide the boat, and snags, sandbanks and submerged logs, which to avoid. With hand gestures and barley audible “Ho`s!”, the motorman and boatman slowly advance in the breaking dawn. They will guide us, 8 hours long, down the river Pisce, – a small tributary which starts high up in the cordillera azul and snakes down to the Ucayali river –  and then  6 hours more down the immense, rushing mass of the Ucayali river to Yarinacocha, the largest Shipibo community, my temporary home,  and sector of the main city, Pucallpa. They will unload passengers coming from the communidades – the largely indigenous riverine communities – with their sacks of yucca,dried bushmeat, and medicinal plants.  Then they will load new passengers, crates of live chickens, bread, and rice, and head back out for the 16 hour passage upriver to the communities.

In some parts the river is no more than 20m across. At this time of the year, the dry season, the sand banks form where the river curves, brushing up against the bottom of the boat – a soft nudge, a gentle reminder of the dependency people in this region have on rivers as their sole method of transport. The heavy robe of mist that encompasses the forest,still emerging from the shadow of the night, lies low over the river creating an eerie feeling of other-worldliness. Speaking seems blasphemous. The mist drowns out all sound except the lapping of the water against the boat and the putter of the motor. The breaking dusk creates shadows among the immense stands of trees that we float by on both sides – walls of impassable green that seem to close in on us at times. I stare for hours at the passing forests on the river bank, broken only by the occasional cluster of thatched houses that form the river communities or the ubiquitous chacra –  swidden farms of about 1 ha, usually of yucca and banana trees. At one point, rounding a river bend we startle a group of ronsoco – an large, endangered gerbil-like animal – that scramble up the banks and disappear into the forest in an instant.


Five hundred years later and the conquistadores have still not learned how to live in the Amazon. They live grouped in their large concrete jungle towns, on top of the ruins of the forest, connected to larger cities through highways, which, like cracks, generate dozens of tiny cracks of deforestation that splinter outwards, slowly eating up the forest. They have made the cities productive, in the literal sense of the word. The dead forest on which they build their cities produces immense amounts of pollution, sewage, crime, and materials to consume, continuing a never-ending need to produce, produce, produce. Instead of oxygen, a fine layer of pollution hovers permanently, creating magnificent bright red sunsets, while the vultures and the dogs shift through the piles of garbage that litter the roads.

How different these original river people must see the forest now, how incomprehensible still, this need to cut down the forest to make it “productive”.


Captured for a moment on the river Pisce, in that mystical moment where the sun burns through the mist and brings to life with one wild crescendo the roar of the millions of animals, birds, and insects that inhabit the forest – my breath is taken away. The sheer beauty and power of the largest forest in the world waking up and stretching its millions of arms skywards in a colorful, ethereal dance of sound and light and motion seems to reverberate off my soul and shatter my very being. I am elated

The putter of the motor grounds me quickly in a different reality. I am not oblivious to the irony of my own situation. That this “black gold” – oil –  that is extracted from the very Amazon Basin is what propels me forward in space and time to research the very destruction it causes, while I leaf through dead trees upon which history is written and places are marked, by people not from here. I am not unaware of the irony that my school, nestled for most of the year in the snow and ice of the East Coast, rich from investments in mining, oil, gas, timber, somehow produces people whose knowledge about the tropical Amazon and ideas about how to manage it are valued more than the people that inhabit it.


I want to tell stories of beauty, I really do. I want to tell stories of serenity. Of community. Of harmony. Of magic. Of life. Because this is what the Amazon inspires.In abundance.  But it is not my place to tell them, they belong to the river people, the people of the Amazon, who still largely tell them and have never really stopped, rather we have never learned to listen.

The stories I find myself telling are those of despair, destruction, loss. Because here in the Amazon, that is what my culture inspires. The same blindness that was rooted in the colonizers, is an affliction that runs through my cultures veins, polluting them like the dark petroleum that leeches into these clear waters, covering everything in its silent expansion, leaving fragments of the forest in its wake.

Perhaps, just perhaps,  it is time we learn to see the forest, before there is nothing left to see at all.


3 thoughts on “River people

  1. Beautifully written with an important message. I am impressed Sarah, and I look forward to your future blogs! I’ve only traveled once in the Amazon, a somewhat touristy trip out of Manaus. Still, I loved the experience. –Curt

  2. your story of the thatched roofs occasionally peeping through the green walls along the river remind me of our trip to Bluefields and back. Nicely written! Love you! — Dad

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