In just six months, between March and August, I spent time in three of the most important ecological zones in North and South America, those being: The Amazon Rainforest, the Mississippi Delta, and Alaska’s Arctic Wildlife Refuge. This is a two-part essay about the people, places, and environments I’ve seen in these parts of the world, and my observations on a warming, changing climate that is accelerating in its pace. The environment in these places is being severely impacted by oil exploration, and compounded by clear cutting in the Amazon Rainforest, confused caribou herds in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge, and the negative impact of heavy equipment and infrastructure on the natural flora and fauna in all three zones.
My observations are firsthand where I saw these environments up close, and not from any political or ideological standpoint where personal bias can distort one’s perception. I have seen directly that we are on the brink of something very dangerous if we do not find a way to curb our fossil fuel extraction and usage and instead begin to harness sustainable energies. If we do not, our planet and our survival is gravely at risk.
When you see the Amazon Rainforest with your own eyes, the intensity of the jungle makes you become very alert and aware. That’s how I felt the first time I went there in 2004, and it’s the same feeling I had on this most recent visit in March 2016. The Amazon is a highly complex ecosystem, immensely diverse, and the canopy of the rainforest is crucial because its falling leaves become the natural fertilizer of the rainforest. But when logging and slash and burn methods are employed by the oil, timber, and cattle corporations, they literally destroy the rainforest in football field chunks, many times in a single day. This destruction must be stopped as soon as possible because at the current rate, the entire Amazon rainforest will be gone in about 20 years. There is so much at stake here, for Brazilians, South Americans, and the health of the planet in general.
I first went to the Upper Peruvian Amazon in June of 2004 when I was finishing up a Bachelor’s degree in Anthropology. I was about to start graduate school the following year, so my research in the Peruvian Amazon became the foundation of my graduate research. There I worked as the sound recordist and musicologist on a documentary film about the Shipibo people, an indigenous culture that resides in the Ucayali River basin, near the headwaters of the Amazon. My assignment was to record and document the curing songs of the Shipibo shamans, the indigenous healers who work with plants and natural medicines, which they cultivate in their rainforest gardens. The Shipibo are also known for their exquisite singing, so I set out to record and document as many of their songs as I could.
“Hummingbird,” from Woven Songs Of The Amazon
It was typical anthropological fieldwork, but it was also very enlightening. I recorded stories from elders about their old way of life and culture, and I recorded over 100 songs during the course of my visit. The final product that our team assembled was the documentary film and CD titled, Woven Songs Of The Amazon. Our work still stands as one of the best film and musical documents of the Shipibo people to date, and all the profits from the CD/DVD go directly to the village shamans to support their good work. As a result of their growing profile in the Internet universe, the Shipibo culture has thrived through a global marketplace that sells their exquisite textiles, pottery, and eco-tourism that brings people directly to their villages. In other words, it is an example of the Shipibo managing their cultural economy in a way they choose to do it.
Trailer for Woven Songs Of The Amazon
What I also took away from that experience was a deep realization that the Amazon rainforest truly belongs to the people who live inside of it, and not to the global corporations who view it as a commodity to be exploited by cutting down trees, drilling for oil, and otherwise devastating the landscape, perhaps irreparably. Having the financial capital to do those things does not inherently grant the right to do such things, which is the larger point of this essay: Just because we have been burning oil and chopping down trees since the early 1900s doesn’t mean we should keep doing so when our planet is on the brink of environmental collapse.
More recently, in March of 2016, I visited Brazil, this time to produce an album for a Brazilian pop star named Nando Reis. We recorded in Sao Paulo and Rio De Janeiro and after the sessions concluded, I visited the Brazilian-end of the Amazon Rainforest. I’ve been to Brazil many times over the last 16 years. The country is without question truly magnificent. But the problems that Brazil is facing now, with its unstable currency, political turmoil and a growing awareness that the government doesn’t really know what its doing — all of this does not bode well for environmental protection in the Amazon.
I was close to the state of Amazonas once before, back in 2000 when our music tour took us right up to the border of the rainforest, and I remember seeing black smoke rising on the horizon from the slash and burning that clears the forest and leaves ash nitrates behind for agriculture. The problem with that model is that the soil is very acidic and the nitrate fertilizer only lasts a few years, and then the soil degrades into a desert-like sand where nothing can grow. If you cut down the rainforest canopy, there is no longer the natural leaf fertilizer for the soil, and where once a mighty rainforest stood for thousands of years, now only dry, acidic sand patches remain.
On this most recent trip I flew north to Manaus, over the very middle of the Brazilian Amazon. My flight left from Rio de Janeiro early in the morning and as we flew over the rainforest I could see the devastation of the logging and slash and burn that leaves giant swaths of nothingness. And this is because there is no law in the rainforest. The lawmen have all been bought by the corporations and the “disappearances” of dozens of rainforest activists have been well-documented in the international press. The process goes like this: the logging companies extract the rare hardwoods, slash and burn the remaining trees, and then sell or lease the land to oil speculators or cattlemen who move their herds in to graze on the short-lived grasslands. Sometimes the land is converted into a cash crop, like palm oil or soybeans. But within a few years that too leads to barren soils and wasteland.
On top of this devastation, the Brazilian government is literally paving the way by building a highway through the middle of the rainforest. It’s called the Trans-Amazonian Highway or BR-230, and it’s being constructed right now. This road will increase and expedite the destruction of the rainforest at an even faster pace.
When I landed in Manaus, the largest city in the Amazon, I saw that things are much different than in the other Brazilian cities. Manaus used to be the wealthiest city in South America, the result of the rubber boom at the beginning of the 20th century. They made so much money from rubber that they built an opera house near the banks of the Amazon, and they hired Gustave Eiffel (architect of the Eiffel Tower) to build a public market in Paris and then ship it to Manaus to be re-assembled there. The stories of luxury in the rainforest are legendary — clothing imported from Paris, ornate jewelry made from the local gold and silver mines, and all manner of luxury goods imported from Europe. Now however, Manaus is a struggling working class city with a few motorcycle and chemical factories, and it has also become the tech-manufacturing hub of Brazil. Giant freighters ply the river so the manufactured goods and rainforest extractions can be moved downstream. Work in Manaus is born of hard, physical labor and the struggle to survive borders on the epic.
Yet the most important product that the Amazon rainforest gives us is not what is extracted or manufactured there; its greatest gift is the rainforest, which teems with enough oxygen to supply the world with about about 25% of its fresh air. Its trees filter all the carbon monoxide, dioxide, and other garbage gasses that we keep pumping into the atmosphere, and the forest eats it up and breathes it in. In return, the rainforest exhales pure, clean oxygen, which is the most important thing we need besides clean water. At its most basic level, the Amazon Rainforest is a giant air filter that cleans the atmosphere of dirty gasses and in return gives us clean air to breathe. It also happens to give us the largest biodiversity of plants on the planet, many of which are currently being studied for their medicinal properties (something the Shipibo shamans know quite a bit about). There is also the incredible wildlife, which has a cultural and biological value that is priceless. All of this is at risk because of cheap gas, the beef in your fast food hamburger, rare hardwoods that are wholly unnecessary, and the growth of cash crops which are destroying a forest at an ever increasing rate.
Satellite data from Global Forest Watch Fires show thousands of fires in the region
Meanwhile, we just lost another football field of rainforest in the time it took you to read these paragraphs, our air is getting dirtier by the minute, the atmosphere is warming from all these carbon gasses, and the ocean level is rising.
In contrast to all of this destruction there are also some very positive things that are happening. Progressive people are promoting good eco-tourism, where people can travel within the rainforest and learn about it. They can interact with the wildlife in a safe way, learn from indigenous people, and gain a deeper appreciation of the immense diversity of the rainforest. I stayed in an eco-lodge resort outside of Manaus and I saw the river by small boat, which employed local people and supported a regional economy. Our boat captain spoke at least 3 different languages (and probably more) and he was joyous in describing every part of the river we explored. We visited tributaries of the river, swamps, forests, and an Indian fishing village where an indigenous man tried to hand me a 12 foot anaconda (I opted for the friendly tree sloth instead). On another day we visited wild dolphins, the presence of which helped support the economy of a local village.
I want to stress the importance of this vital truth: It is entirely possible to have a sustainable economy based inside the rainforest and overseen by the people who live there. An economy that honors and protects the rainforest and does not destroy it for oil, timber, or cattle corporations. This could easily be realized were it not for the rich and powerful corporate oligarchs who have positioned themselves between the rainforest, its natural resources and the rest of the world. What I have seen in my own experience is that there is an entirely different way to use the rainforest — one that moves away from the extractive, corporate economy, and moves towards a regionally controlled, sustainable economy.
All of this raises a big question that I want to posit here: Should something as important as the Amazon Rainforest, something that generates 25% of the Earth’s supply of oxygen — not to mention the biological uniqueness of it — should that resource be under the control of a handful of corporations who do not show the responsibility or mindfulness to take care of it? The second part of that question is: should there be a world body that is specifically designed to look after these global resources, which supersedes the interests of these corporations and the countries where they reside?
We are most certainly at a critical juncture in human history where we have to realize the interconnectedness of everything, of all life, of our sacred relationship to the land, the sea, and to each other. Places like the Amazon Rainforest, the Arctic Wildlife Refuge, the Central African Rainforest, the Great Barrier Reef, and other environments around the globe have to be protected from multinational corporations whose pollution and recklessness are literally destroying not only these sacred terrains places, but us as people. History has shown that if the leaders of nations do not intervene, these corporations will extract everything until they have literally killed its host.
Do we wait until there is only 75% of the rainforests left, perhaps only 50% before we intervene? When do we step in and stop the mindless destruction?
Woven Songs Of The Amazon
Barrett Martin is a Grammy-winning producer, composer, and renowned session drummer and percussionist who has played on over 100 Rock, Blues, Jazz, and World music albums. His work can be heard on albums by REM, Queens Of The Stone Age, Mad Season, Screaming Trees, Walking Papers, Tuatara, Blues legend CeDell Davis, and recording sessions that range from the Peruvian Amazon, to Brazil, Cuba, and even Jerusalem. He recently won a Latin Grammy for his production work on the Brazilian album “Jardim-Pomar.”