Endless dense tree canopies stretching far into the horizon, leaves crunching underfoot and Howler monkeys swinging between the trees overhead. David Attenborough’s films seen in our childhoods have left us with almost mythological views of how the rainforest ecosystem looks and the symphony of sounds heard there.
The easily accessible areas are where humans have long hunted and fished the smaller tributaries of the Amazon. Activities such as harvesting rubber trees and over-fishing as well as the growth of towns along the river banks have pushed the larger animals further into the more remote areas away from farming and areas of deforestation. This leaves an eerie silence where the documentaries had promised chopping through the dense forest with machetes and sounds galore.
The shock of wandering far into the forest and coming out into the dazzling sunlight of a stretch of felled giant trees is heart-wrenching.
‘Why have they been cut down?’
‘For food’, the local guide replies.
Before us, trees were downed over a wide area with massive limbs strewn about. Small green shoots of the yucca plant were growing in the clearings, an important staple crop in the Amazon area. Our guide from one of the local Peruvian villages explained that the land was owned and the destruction might not be illegal. All this just for small plants with edible roots.
We clambered up over the vast trunks to get through to the virgin rainforest again and search for animals in the trees and gaze at the interesting insects and plants all around us. This is finally the dream that Attenborough gave us. We wandered across the forest floor passing hanging vines and the occasional ancient tree with huge buttresses stretching out to support the enormous trunk. Crossing small rivers cut into the floor by balancing precariously on fallen trees that allowed passage gave the feeling of a Victorian adventurer. When previous crossings had rotten and fallen into the river our guide starting macheting a small tree close to the bank and within minutes the trunk had stretched over the river ready for crossing.
Such was the dilemma facing rainforests, that of pragmatic use by the locals who had few other ways of surviving and making a living. Trees felled to cross small rivers or grow staple crops, rivers over-fished to feed villagers and trade for a living. Close to Leticia in Colombia where the borders of Colombia, Brazil and Peru converge, the balance seems to be in danger. The endangered Pink River Dolphin, which we were lucky to catch a glimpse of, is illegally hunted to provide bait for fishing – for trading with towns along the Amazon. Whether better developed tourism could replace this lost revenue and aid protection for the dolphins and the environment without leading to further human encroachment is hard to say.
The high rainforest of the Amazon is a beautiful and striking landscape teeming with weird and wonderful life. With responsible guides, adventures deep into the forest can match those dreams of childhood. With hope, the rainforest ecosystems will long be protected and help absorb the excesses of humanity with their carbon sinks.