The Amazon is burning: Why South America’s leaders are wrong about the 'lungs of the planet'

The Amazon is at risk from the current crop of South American leaders - getty
The Amazon is at risk from the current crop of South American leaders - getty

Presidents Bolsonaro, Vizcarra and Moreno want to hack roads, railways, and mines through the Amazon, while concern grows over the damage forest fires are doing to the 'lungs of the planet'. After visiting Peru’s headwaters, Chris Moss worries about the impact.

Artisanal fishermen sat patiently on their dugouts through the heat of the afternoon, waiting for something in the murky brown waters to shift: an eddy here, a telltale bubble there, a flash of interest from a beady-eyed egret. Some repaired nets. A few took naps in the shade of a cecropia tree. Others hewed the armour-plated catfish they’d caught earlier, scraping out what flesh they could for soup.

As dusk fell, they set to work, casting off, shining torches, paddling upstream to find better waters – where they’d work through till the following morning when, sure enough, we’d see them at their riverside villages, preparing for another day on the great tree of rivers that form the Amazon headwaters.

You might think seeing people labouring and living and sleeping siestas would be pretty far down on the highlights list for an Amazon cruise. But from the first hours of a three-day trip to the Pacaya Samiria reserve in northern Peru, I could see that myself and the other 30-odd guests on the plush Delfin III were not going to be having quite the pristine jungle-and-river adventure we might have imagined.

When I boarded the vessel at Nauta, I was prepared for Amazon lite. After all, we were only 60 miles south of Iquitos, the hot and heaving capital of the Loreto region – perhaps the largest city in the world not connected to anywhere else by road, but home to half a million people, all of whom seem to own at least one screaming three-wheel moto-taxi. Also, the ship was no Fitzcarraldo-style riverboat. Emblazoned with the Relais & Châteaux crest, it boasted beautifully appointed suites with floor to ceiling windows and tasteful ethnic décor, and promised gourmet food and welcome drinks after every excursion.

Delfin III sails along the Amazon, taking in the river's beauty
Delfin III sails along the Amazon, taking in the river's beauty

For all that, the luxury didn’t really cut us off – and the Amazon is never that “lite”. From the wood-and-palm-frond dwellings to the women clearing spaces to grow maize and cassava to the gathering of dead wood for fires, human life on the banks – notwithstanding the football shirts and flip flops made from tyres – was elemental.

Thus I could only despair when, during my largely news-free voyage, I picked up reports that Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro, the scourge of environmentalists, had given the green flag to accelerating development of the Amazon. In Brazil’s portion of the rainforest, deforestation rose more than 88 per cent in June 2019 compared with June 2018. In Peru, president Martín Vicararra recently handed over 22,000 acres of ancestral land and granted gold and copper mining licenses to a Canadian company, while supposedly cracking down on illegal mining. In Ecuador, things are a little better; there, President Moreno has kept up the policy of letting Chinese firms plunder the forest for oil and precious metals.

What could be lost? Well, the most obvious fantastic fauna you see along the Amazon and its tributaries are birds. In Totnes, where I live, I’m lucky to see three kingfishers a year. On the Caño Belluda, a narrow creek off the mighty Ucayali, I was seeing more than three every minute. Most were the large blue-ringed variety, darting down the river letting out a loud call to alert all who might care of our presence.  There were also plenty of emerald green Amazon kingfishers and some people saw rare species, including the tiny pygmy. I missed it, but I wasn’t too upset – wherever I looked there were other amazing specimens of avifauna, including magnificent blue and yellow macaws, woodpeckers, caracaras and many other hawks, and dozens of striated herons and vultures – these last hunting for the same fish as the anglers.

Passengers can leave Delfin I and explore the rainforest from high canopy walkways - Credit: RODRIGO RODRICH
Passengers can leave Delfin I and explore the rainforest from high canopy walkways Credit: RODRIGO RODRICH

I was too lazy to be a birder in the UK and, frankly, I’m too cheap – I tend to be impressed by size and colour or even birdsong rather than rarity or how cunning a bird can be when it comes to camouflaging itself. But in the Amazon, who cannot be swept away by the sheer exuberance of winged nature? Over three days even I become more specialist. I began to ignore the kiskadees and take the swallows for granted, learning from the Delfin’s expert guides about the behaviour of motmots, puffbirds and jacanas, and doing my best to memorise their poetical names: oropendola, donacobius, saltator.

Perhaps the most extraordinary single hour during the whole trip came after setting out at dawn to witness the waking of a parrot roost. This began with a few squawking comments, which became a racket and eventually a cacophony. This was followed by sudden irruptions of movement as a cloud of birds – black specks against the orange sky – burst upward and then another followed, merged with it, and broke away. This was all quite stirring but all was calm until, suddenly, tens of thousands of birds took to the air and, in a single flowing stream, flapped above us – the countless wings now making a loud, gun-like clicking sound – as they headed off to their feeding area in the jungle canopy.

As much of this part of the Amazon basin is flat, it’s the birds that give it levels and form, in the sense that you shift your gaze to see the vultures high up and circling, a jabiru in a tree – crazily big and lanky on a thin branch, its nest a giant heap of poorly executed roof-thatch – or industrious storks, spread out along the banks of the Pacaya river at 100-yard intervals, staring, lurking, striding, spearing. This is my patch of mud, they seem to be saying, so move along, why don’t you?

Mammals are rarely as easy to observe as birds. They avoid humans – who wouldn’t? – and have plenty of jungle to hide inside, well away from the river. Most of our sightings were from skiffs and we were lucky to have keen-eyed pilots who knew where to look for three-toed sloths. Famously slow, often static, sloths beguile us with their ET looks, comical behaviours (armpit and genital scratching are favourite pastimes), apparent vulnerability – though the claws do look fearsome – and unashamed indolence. While walking around an island at the end of the cruise, I saw a mother and baby close up, which was an opportunity to study the details: the matted fur, the dexterous limbs, the gorgeous eyes and, of course, the tiny baby holding on while mum took a leisurely look around.

Sloth - Credit: istock
Among the mammels hidden beside the river are sloths – famously slow, often static Credit: istock

You have to admire an animal that seems to be a kind of raw expression of basic mammal instincts, either scratching its bits or staring rudely or ignoring everyone else or just hanging around,  killing time till the next poop or a wave of scent from the opposite sex demands the full-day ordeal of climbing down and climbing up again.

From the skiff we also saw monkeys, morphos and other butterflies, iridescent dragonflies, long-nosed bats at dusk and caiman after dark. From the lower, less intrusive vantage point of a kayak, I saw mustard-coloured squirrel monkeys at mid-canopy height, leaping and climbing, stretching, picking and probing, far too busy being omnivorous to care about gawking tourists.

If you’d asked Delfin III’s passengers to name their favourite Amazonian animal, I’d guess most would say: the pink dolphin. From the start we saw quite a few grey freshwater dolphins. They didn’t make it that easy like some leaping pelagic varieties, so I got used to catching a silvery fin as it broke the surface near to the ship.

Pink ones were rarer, or at least kept their distance. It was only when we reached a wide open area to the south of the park – well away from caiman and anacondas – that we were able to dive in and take a swim. Then, without fuss from us or any kind of temptation (Delfin’s guides don’t use baits), three pink dolphins began to close. Then three more, though never at the same time. It was hide and seek for those of us who were bathing, as we turned every time we caught a sound – not quite a gasp, but more than an exhalation – as these highly intelligent, specially adapted mammals surfaced to spy on us swimming or to ride on the skiff’s wake.

My own highlight, though, was probably the bushmaster – a venomous, potentially lethal and aggressive snake that sits coiled up in the undergrowth, on the lookout for small rodents, baby caiman and, in theory, human ankles. We spotted one at night, which made the encounter special. You are safe, but you can imagine things going wrong and the snake springing into life. But this gold-brown beauty of a reptile moved me not only because of the danger it represented – but because its utter stillness, its silence there amid the fizzing, buzzing night and its sheer presence just a foot or so off the jungle path were a powerful reminder that the magic of the Amazon is, to a large extent, what you don’t see or hear, what you easily miss, what lies in the shadows.

All this wildlife, and that old human way of life, is what Bolsonaro, his cronies and presidential pals want to destroy. It seems unthinkable to us, based as we are in tidy, wealthy, temperate England, farmed to oblivion and bereft of any true wilderness, that a government or corporation should feel it has a right to take such wonders away from the world. Tourism is, perhaps, one of the last witnesses to the biodiversity the Amazon hoards, and is one of the few ways that outsiders interact with locals in a way that is not wholly exploitative or abusive.

That Delfin III offers its passengers luxury and adventure lite is, then, not really an issue. Cruises can only skim the surface – both of the mighty rivers and of the green swathes that line their banks. What I saw from this ship was one percent of one percent of almost nothing of what really lies within the Amazon’s labyrinthine interior. Yet my imagination was fully fired. Neither machete nor axe was required. No new road or channel needed to be cut. Less is more, as ever.

The writer's trip to the Amazon was arranged by UK tour firm Pura Aventura (01273 676712) and Delfin Amazon Cruises. Pura Aventura suggest a 16-night trip, combining the Delfin III cruise and Iquitos with stays in Lima, Cuzco, the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu. From £5,990pp plus flights.

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