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On the road to ruin

By Stanley Johnson. Published in The Telegraph, Saturday 4th December 2004

Although they relish their traditional way of life deep in the heart of the Amazonian rainforest, the people of the Yawanawa tribe are keen to embrace progress. But a planned new highway that will open up the land to cattle ranchers and loggers brings a threat, not a promise.

'I was in Taos, New Mexico, on business," Hylton Murray-Philipson told me, "when I first met Tashka Yawanawa."

"And who is he?"

"Tashka is the chief of the Yawanawa, a tribe of about 700 Brazilian Indians who live incredibly deep in the rainforest not far from the Peruvian border. He happened to be in Taos when I was there. We met and hit it off. We shared a spiritual drink called Uni. At the end of it, Tashka sensed a special connection and invited me to visit the Yawanawa community. I responded by saying that I felt as if one half of me was asking the other half to come home."

When you look at Hylton Murray-Philipson, you see - on the surface - a successful middle-aged banker and fund manager. Eton, Oriel College, Oxford, Morgan Grenfell, wife and two children, home in London - that kind of thing. Beneath the surface, though, you find a raging idealist. Hylton is a man with a mission and that mission is to help save the Brazilian rainforest and the indigenous tribes who live there. He is working with an organisation called Rainforest Concern. I met him through John Hemming, the former director of the Royal Geographical Society, and this, our first lunch, was the prelude to an exhilarating expedition into an incredibly remote, endangered world.

Hylton and Tashka at the airstrip

"The Yawanawa may be one of the smaller tribes," said Hylton, "but they are located in an absolutely vital area of Brazil."

He drew a rough map on our lunch menu. "There is a largely dirt road that runs from Rio Branco, the capital of the state of Acre, to Tarauaca, a small town about 300 miles west. That's not an all-weather highway. You can't run timber lorries along it. But once you widen and tarmac that road, it will be open season on the forest. The logging gangs will move in, the cattlemen will come behind them. A network of secondary roads will be created, penetrating deep into the forests. Even if the Yawanawa reserves survive, they will be surrounded on all sides by a biological desert as the forests are destroyed."

I was puzzled. Where the Yawanawa lived was the middle of nowhere. "Surely, you're still thousands of miles from an Atlantic port? Tarmacking the BR364 to Tarauaca isn't going to change that."

Hylton jabbed once more at the impromptu map. "The timber won't go to an Atlantic port. That's the wrong side of South America as far as the Asian market is concerned. Once you build that road beyond Tarauaca, all the way to the Peruvian border, you can connect up with the Peruvian highway network and the roads that lead across the Andes to the Pacific. The heart of the Brazilian rainforest will be sucked out through that funnel with a giant whoosh.

"Those Asian markets are crying out for timber. They've destroyed the forests on their doorstep - Indonesia, Borneo, Malaysia. The Amazon is their next target."

"And the Yawanawa get trashed in the process?"

Hylton nodded. "That's what we're trying to prevent."

So, less than five weeks later, I found myself gazing down at the BR364 from the cockpit of a small, single-engine air-taxi as we flew from Tarauaca to a rough airstrip, another 80 miles west in the direction of the Peruvian border. I could see that the earth-moving equipment - the bulldozers, the giant diggers - had already moved into position. Great red scars in the earth indicated the route the BR364 would take. The land had already been cleared at either side of the projected road. From the air, the felled trees looked like a collection of matchsticks. Cattle had already been moved into some of the clearings.

View of BR364

I was sitting in the co-pilot's seat, keeping my feet well away from the rudder bar and my hands off the steering column. "How far is the road going to go?" I shouted.

"All the way to Peru," the pilot shouted back.

The light craft bucked in the wind and the pilot concentrated on the matter at hand. Living and working in the far west of Brazil, Francisco has seen more jungle airstrips than he cares to remember. He is a fine example of the adage that, while there are bold pilots and old pilots, there are few - if any - old, bold pilots.

Stanley in the air taxi to San Vincente

San Vincente was where we picked up the canoes. Tashka had come downriver to greet us. The Yawanawa chief has the build of a front-row rugby player, stocky and broad-shouldered, with thick, shiny black hair. Hylton and he greeted each other with bear hugs, like long-lost brothers.

We walked from the airstrip into the jungle, carrying our baggage on our shoulders. This included 20lb of assorted marbles, provided by the House of Marbles in Bovey Tracey as a present for the Yawanawa children from the people of Devon. It's surprising how heavy 20lb of marbles turned out to be.

I took a firm line on this. "We're not going to lose our marbles now."

Tashka, it turned out, was waiting not just for Hylton and me, but for urgent medical help. Upstream, deep in Yawanawa territory, there had been an outbreak of an unidentified illness.

"Four children are dead, 40 are sick," said Tashka. "The governor of Acre is sending help."

We had more or less finished stowing our gear in the two motor-powered canoes that we were going to take upriver when we heard the sound of another plane. Minutes later, after it had landed, a doctor - Paulo Robert - joined us at the side of the airstrip. Having brought with him several boxes of antibiotics and other drugs, he was all set to go to work. The only problem was that there seemed to be no transport to bring him upriver.

Yawanawa children

We were happy to oblige. After rearranging our baggage, our two canoes headed off into the forest. We heard the sound of the planes taking off. Heaven knew when they would be back. We were on our own.

River journeys in the upper reaches of the Amazon basin have their own rhythms and cadences. The helmsman stands at the back of the canoe watching the swirling water like a hawk. The river is full of floating trees and submerged logs. If you hit one, you can easily capsize. Or else, as the depth of the water changes from one second to the next, you can come to a shuddering halt on a sand-bar. If that happens, you have to jump and try to manhandle the canoe over or around the obstacle, hoping that the piranhas and the alligators are looking the other way.

When we started out, it was sunny. If we had not benefited from the breeze created by our movement through the water, the heat could have been harsh, but as it was it was tolerable. The rain was more of a problem. This was no ordinary rain. We are talking about tropical downpours.

On the Rio Gregorio

One such downpour occurred at dusk, after we had been on the river about five hours, and within seconds we were drenched to the skin. We had a tarpaulin on board, but that was quickly thrown over the boxes of medical supplies. Hylton and I, anticipating trouble, had each bought umbrellas in our stopover in Tarauaca, but the first gust of wind blew them inside out.

In view of the rain and the lack of visibility, Tashka decided it was time to call a halt that first day. We pulled in to shore and tied up.

Tashka pointed to the small group of wood and thatch dwellings that had been built high up on the riverbank, out of reach of rainy season floodwaters.

"These are my people." He sounded confident. "We can stay here."

"We don't have a reservation," said Hylton.

"This is a reservation, isn't it?" I said.

Hylton, Tashka, Luna and Rosa

By the time we had slung our hammocks and mosquito nets in one of the huts, it was quite dark. We were all asleep by eight o'clock. There must have been 10 of us altogether in the room, including our Yawanama host family, who took our arrival in their stride. The worst part of that night was the mosquitoes. We thought we had fixed our nets correctly, but we were bitten mercilessly. Hylton and I will bear the scars for months to come.

By 5am the next day, we were back on the river and by noon we had reached the Yawanawa village of Mutum. This is the fiefdom of Tashka's father, Raimundo. Approaching his 90th birthday, Raimundo decided a year or two ago to hand over the chieftaincy to his son, Tashka, but in his own village he still called the shots.

The afternoon we spent in Mutum was in many ways quite magical. First, there was Raimundo himself. As we sat there in his house, eating bananas and fending off mosquitoes, the old man started reminiscing about his wives and children. He had had seven wives altogether, although never more than four at a time.

"I had 47 children by my first three wives," he said. "Fifteen sons survived."

"How many daughters?" we asked.

Raimundo didn't seem to know the answer to that question. He seemed disappointed when I told him I had only had two wives and six children.

"Does wife number two live in the same hut as wife number one?" asked Raimundo.

Yawanawa woman and child

One of the projects Rainforest Concern has been involved with is a new village school. This has been built along traditional lines, with a conical roof and open sides. The idea is to make sure that children learn the vital aspects of Yawanawan culture. The myths and legends have been written down. In time, a book may be produced.

It is in this kind of area that the old have such an advantage. Hylton, whose Portuguese is much better than mine, served as an amanuensis as Raimundo sat us down in front of him, just like schoolchildren, and told us about Yawanawan creation myths and symbols, about how each plant, each animal has its own importance, its own story to tell and how all must be treated with respect.

At one point, he held up the carved figure of an owl. "The owl is not of this world. The owl hoots when someone is about to die," he said. "The owl asks: 'Who is going to die?' And the Yanawanas answer: 'Yes, it is true there is someone here who is about to pass over to the other side.'"

Raimundo looked at us as we hung on his words. "'Give me the name,' hoots the owl, 'and I will look after him for ever.'"

We arrived in Nova Esperanca, the main settlement in the Yawanawa reserve, about three that afternoon. Hylton had work to do. He had to review the progress made with the projects being supported by Rainforest Concern and to plan new ones. One idea is to establish a world-class collection of plants, trees and shrubs.

Tashka explained the concept one evening. "The world owes so much to the tropical rainforest - the coffee bean, cures for cancer, Viagra! And yet all they do is cut it down." Tashka confirmed that they have catalogued more than 1,000 plants - what they look like, what they are used for, what success they have in treating which diseases.

"The first time we tried, we wrote all the information down on sheets of paper, but the rains came and washed most of it away," he said. "Now we want to build a computer database."

That's the extraordinary thing about Tashka Yawanawa. He looks forward as well as back. Like his father, Raimundo, he is deeply versed not just in the Yawanawa language, but in the Yawanawan traditional ways. He knows all the medicinal plants of the forest, where to find them, how to use them. He knows the life-sustaining skills of hunting and fishing that his people have practised for time immemorial.

Yet Tashka is also, in some ways, a complete techno freak. One of the most vivid recollections I have of our trip is of the Yawanawa chief sitting in his hut in front of his solar-powered computer (with connected satellite dish) clicking on to the internet to bring up this or that website, surrounded by his tribesmen.

Stanley using a computer at Nova Esperanca

Although over the past 45 years I have visited Brazil almost a dozen times and have camped in the Amazon, I have never lived in a community of Amazonian Indians, sharing their food, their lodging and, dare I say it, their dreams. What are those dreams?

One night, with the mosquitoes biting, all the elders of the tribe came to a meeting. Those who lived in other settlements came to Nova Esperanca in their own dugouts and moored them beneath the steep cliff, where the path winds up to the village.

The atmosphere was upbeat. The health crisis was over. Tashka went around the table and asked each of them how they saw the future. Most of the Yawanawas wanted to retain their strong links to the past and their strong sense of identity.

But they want improvements at the same time. They need some simple water-filtration systems, a few more domestic animals, the chance to sell modest quantities of some indigenous products, such as the fruit of the urucum tree, which is used in perfumes and toiletries, and the possibility of developing a market for their traditional tribal designs.

When it was his turn to speak, Raimundo summed it up for all of us.

In a practical as well as a symbolic way, he had handed over power to Tashka, but still the Yawanawas listened to him. Because we were sitting in almost total darkness, it was difficult to distinguish the faces of the speakers, but there was no mistaking Raimundo's authoritative voice.

There was one sentence in particular that I remember. "When the owl comes to hoot for me," said Raimundo, "I want to feel that I have done my best for my people."

Distributing marbles

On our last morning, we all took part in the Marbles Ceremony. This was something Hylton and I invented. It involved distributing the hundreds of brightly coloured marbles that we had brought from Devon to the Yawanawa children, who delightedly crowded around us. It is good to know that in this sense at least, Bovey Tracey, Devon, has been twinned with Nova Esperanca, Brazil.


By Stanley Johnson, Copyright The Daily Telegraph, 2004. Published in The Telegraph 4th December 2004


For more information about Rainforest Concern, see www.rainforestconcern.org, call 0207 229 2093 or write to 27 Lansdowne Crescent, London W11 2NS.

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