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Reserva de Juruá, Amazonas, August 2007

Gregg set up, through the lovely Goretti of IBAMA (Federal wildlife department), a trip to a non-touristic reserve area about 80 miles from Tefé. Thanks to the helpful folks at AIS, we got in touch with the only airline that flies to the strip in Juruá, Amazonaves, and spent about an hour chatting with Vaspeano and Ronex. Armed with the strip details, and with our permission letter in hand from Goretti, we flew a 45 minute hop to the reserve.

Jurua port
port of Jurua

Although the area is a Federal Reserve, inside the Reserve are about a dozen communities that have lived there since the rubber boom in the late 1800s. Goretti is working with the association of communities so that they can help IBAMA in efforts to protect the fish and turtles and other wildlife in the area. Raimundo is one of the officers of the association, and he picked us up in a pickup truck after we landed. We had a delicious fish lunch with him at a local restaurant, and made plans to visit the two communities of Antonin and Botafogo the following day.

We stayed the Tuesday night in the IBAMA office, a comfy wooden structure in the city of Juruá. We strung the hammocks in a room filled with various office and field supplies, a refrigerator and a sink. Just after I nodded off there was loud, persistent knocking at the door. Capalão, the guy that works for Amazonaves had rushed over on his motorbike to tell me that there was a fire in the brush. The guard from the airport had contacted him thinking ours was an Amazonaves plane, and he thought it would be better if the airplane was moved closer to the office. Confused thoughts swirled in my head, images of the airplane on fire, mixed with doubts about whether this was some kind of scam. I took the precaution of emptying my pockets and leaving the contents with Gregg, before hopping on the back of Capalão's bike. He sped us 5km to the airport through the haze on badly lit roads. We moved the plane by hand, pushing her in front of the office/guard building, and I was soon back in the hammock, sleeping fitfully. IBAMA office
Gregg entering the IBAMA field office

Wednesday morning, to get to the communities from the town of Juruá, we hopped into a little johnboat (lancha) with a 40hp motor and headed north in the Rio Juruá. It took about 1 hour to get to Antonin, and on the way we saw many wading birds and some guys fishing with a net.

We stayed 2 nights in Antonin, where were put up in an empty house in the middle of the community. All of the houses were up on stilts and raised walkways connected the houses. We hung the hammocks and mosquito nets in a room together, and the boat driver and guide each did the same. The toilets were behind each house, raised outhouses underneath which the pigs and chickens occasionally strayed. All of the walkways were built for relatively lightweight people, but the walkway to the outhouse was the most rickety of all and covered some of the muddiest looking dirt, so it made for some interesting travel.

There was a central area for bathing and dishwashing, and the system seemed to be dishwashing during the day, kids baths in the early evening, and women and men later in the evening.

Thursday we took the boat North for 30 minutes to the community of Botafogo, which was very different from Antonin. Where Antonin was muddy and relatively low ground, with boardwalks throughout, Botafogo is on a hill overlooking the river. The erosion is so severe on the cliffside that the people living in the houses closest to the edge had to retreat backwards towards the woods and build new houses. Besides living off fish and other game, they keep chicken and cattle in Botafogo. They make some amazing baskets here, as well as rings and other jewelry from the nut of a type of palm. One of the guys showed us how they take sap from a rubber tree, and there are some photos of this in the photo gallery.

The last time these communities were visited by tourists was back in 2004, by a handful of Germans. I know we are large, strange people for them. The guys seemed to view us more as a business opportunity, but we were very impressed with the openness, kindness, and acceptance of the women in the two communities we visited. The kids were happy, beautiful, quiet, and diligent workers.

The people in these settlements are nearly all descended from families that came to take advantage of the rubber boom at the beginning of the 20th century. The boom went bust thanks to an Englishman taking some rubber tree seeds to Malaysia, but these handfuls of people stayed on, enjoying the thousands of acres of land and rivers. More recently, IBAMA has declared most of this area a Reserve, so there is some conflict between the feds and the residents. IBAMA of course is trying to protect dwindling species such as Pirarucú (fish) and tracajá (turtle). Meanwhile these people are used to being able to trap and fish pretty much anything in the area, and don't have much in life other than a place to sleep and all of nature's food. So you can see where conflict would arise. IBAMA thanks to Goretti is making some inroads and the residents are helping in efforts to keep non-residents from overfishing the rivers, and have designated turtle sanctuaries where they put pens around the turtle eggs.

Antonin kids
kids from the Antonin community

The people living in these small communities really pull together to get things done. Several women in Antonin reiterated to me the idea that, when one family has, they share with all of the others. Another great example is the harvesting and processing of manioc, largely a manual process, which it seems all of the women and kids and some of the men take part in. There are some great shots in the Photo Gallery, of the Antonin community processing manioc. When we were there, they processed in one long day 20 bags of - I think it was - 80kg per bag. The manioc is sold to help the community, and it is beyond popular here in Amazonas, being set on the table as a part of every single meal.

They have more than 12 (maybe it was 20?) places nearby in the reserve from which they harvest the naturally growing manioc root. The root is taken to the river to soak, and I think to be cleaned a bit. The way the women were doing it was using old submerged canoes. From there the roots are carted uphill to the working area. The root is ground - normally by hand we were told - but these guys had rigged up a gasoline-powered grinder. Then the ground bits are pressed in a manual press. Once all the water is out, the ground root is sifted and rolled by hand, by little kids.

The finer stuff then goes to the first stove, a round concrete structure inside which is a very hot fire, and fixed on top of this structure is a huge pan. The guy tending this stove continually stirs and flips the manioc using what looks like a canoe paddle. Once the manioc is the right color, it is transferred to the second stove, which looks the same but is set at a cooler temp. The same process is used, stirring the now-hard manioc with a canoe paddle. Finally it is set to cool and then the finished crispy yellow granules are packed into huge sacks.

We were told that the coarser stuff that falls out from the sifting is used to make Tapioca, served here in Amazonas with desserts, as hard little white pebbles. Tapioca is also used as a very thick liquid in Tacacá soup, a regional specialty made with leaves that numb the mouth, and very salty shrimp.

We ate with the community in the house of the community leader in Antonin, and the food was delicious especially the fish. We both had a hard time eating much though, as we were always asked to eat first, and there was an army of kids and some other adults waiting their turn to eat. So we both tried our best to eat enough to please the hostess, and not so much that we stole from the kids.

I was able to play soccer with the kids and women one day after they finished processing the manioc, and the kids are really incredibly good. None of the men played, but all of the boys and girls played, and the women of the community as well. We played games to two points, with the loser leaving the field. The small girls were adorable, and all of them always wanted to be on the same team as each other. So the first game was on one team myself and 4 boys and girls of 12 to 14, plus about 15 little girls between 4 and 8 years old; versus about 10 boys of varying ages. The little girls, when they weren't busy doing impromptu gymnastics and making jokes, were actually very effective at stealing the ball from the other team.

After our two days and nights in the reserve, we got up early on Friday morning to head back to town and fly back to Tefé. We showed the plane to the boat driver, Santiago, and to Reimundo. After we finished showing it off and preflighting the plane, Gregg slid into the left-hand seat only to realize that the HF radio head had been stolen. So we were delayed about 20 minutes to chat with the local police officer, but opted to fly out rather than fill out a report. We learned another lesson about flying to back-country places, and that is to pay the guard before you leave the airplane alone.