Listen to this episode of the Green Divas Radio Show featuring the inspiring Green Dude Richard Fuller [around minute 36:00] who is trying to clean up our polluted world. Then read on for an excerpt from his book, which details his “journey—from his dangerous yet ultimately successful fight to save hundreds of thousands of acres in the Amazon rain forest, to establishing Great Forest Inc., one of the leading sustainability consultancies in the United States, to his creation of Pure Earth.”
Following is an excerpt from Green Dude Richard Fuller’s book, The Brown Agenda: My Mission to Clean Up the World’s Most Life-Threatening Pollution. For photos, click here.
Up the River to Find Its Source
I called on Jorge da Silva in Rio with nothing more than Noel Brown’s business card as my entrée. Since I offered the card with gravitas, and since my Portuguese was too crude to express much to the contrary, Jorge and his fellows assumed that I worked for Noel at the UN, and I didn’t do anything to dissuade them of this notion. It was easier than trying to explain that I had flown to Brazil on my own dime. That Noel Brown and I had only met a couple of times. That I’d recently worked for IBM selling telephone systems to enterprises both private and public. That I’d left all that to ski the Rockies for seven weeks. And so on.
“So listen,” I said. “I hear you’ve got this rainforest land that’s threatened with deforestation. What can we do to stop that from happening?”
Jorge put me up at the Santo Daime compound in Rio. It was an eye-opening experience. No one had briefed me on the fact that Santo Daime is a religion whose participants mix Christianity with the ancient American Indian ritual of ingesting psychedelics. Specifically, Jorge and his fellows ingested ayahuasca, a yucky brown tea made from boiling the Banisteriopsis caapi vine and the leaves of the Psychotria viridis shrub. Daime is a slang word for ayahuasca. It also means “give me” in Portuguese.
Therefore, Santo Daime literally means “saint give me.” According to Santo Daime tenets, drinking ayahuasca while focusing the mind through prayer can bequeath a worshiper with literally anything he or she desires. In more practical terms, drinking ayahuasca instigates hallucinogenic episodes complete with visual and auditory stimuli, wild emotional swings, a feeling of elevated consciousness, and, of course, la purga: fits of diarrhea and vomiting.
A few days after my arrival, Jorge escorted me to my first Santo Daime ceremony, where I took the ayahuasca sacrament. The rite took place in a big open room with a cross in the center and six zones organized hexagonally around it. One zone was designated for married men, another for married women, then single men and single women, and, finally, boys and girls. Each zone had simple wooden benches that ran four or five rows each.
I was given a small cup of ayahuasca to drink as I entered the room. The brew was bitter, not at all pleasant to swallow, but could be done quickly if I forced myself. After I had consumed the tea, curates escorted me to a specific spot in the tier and zone I belonged in. They gave me a hymnal that contained sweet little tunes and directions for dances to accompany them. The routines reminded me of kindergarten games. Bah bah bah—three steps to the right. Bah bah bah—three steps back to the left.
The idea, I think, was to loosen us up and give us something simple and fun to concentrate on. One at a time, each tier was led to the center of the room. Standing by the cross, resplendent in ceremonial robes, the high priest doled out shot glass after shot glass of ayahuasca. We downed our sacraments quickly and then returned to our spots, where we sang and danced until we were called to come forward again.
I felt privileged to take part in this ritual, and also some- what prepared for it, given a few previous experiments I had made with LSD and psychedelic mushrooms. The effects of ayahuasca were more like my experience with mushrooms. At first, I thought nothing was happening. Then I noticed how tight my muscles had become, how my jaw had clamped shut. Looking up, I noticed that the colors of everyone’s clothing, skin, and hair had begun to throb and breathe. At this point, I became aware of flashing lights and colors around the cham- ber. Thoughts became physical objects that I could reach out and touch with my fingers, or the tip of my nose. The effect of ayahuasca was strong and not at all unpleasant, except for the nausea. That was the main difference with ayahuasca. It doesn’t matter how many trips you’ve taken on any other drug. In the end, everyone gets the runs.
Picture two or three hundred people swaying back and forth, chanting. The smell of their sweat stings the air like a smack in the gob. Some raise their hands with their heads thrown back and mouths agape, as though rapture is a medication best taken orally. Some close their eyes with their chins slammed down on their chests, humbling themselves before God. But their voices, as one, ascend in song.
Daime forca, daime amor, daime luz!
Give me strength, give me love, give me light!
During all of this, the priest and several novitiates wandered through the masses. They passed out tissues, comforted those who were weeping or scared, and led more than a few toward the toilets staged outside the hall. Congregants occasionally fled the room to collapse in the hot sun outside the building.
Again and again, we went up to the altar. Again and again, we downed shots of ayahuasca and returned to our spots. In no time at all, my mind slipped free of its moorings and started to bounce off the guardrails of infinity.
What am I doing here? Why is that wall bleeding luminescent colors? Who am I that claims this mind, and who am I really, since names are mere masks and identities are leaves that fall to the ground in the autumn of life? My essence belongs in heaven, I thought. In heaven, there are pancakes.
Hang in there. Don’t lose yourself. Deep, slow breaths. Feel your feet on the ground. Feel your center within you.
Daime forca! Daime amor!
Over the next two or three weeks, I attended the ayahuasca ceremony several times, after which I was invited to Santo Daime’s parent church, deep in the Amazon jungle. Jorge warned me that it would not be an easy journey. We boarded an ailing VARIG jetliner that spent five hours bouncing us toward South America’s interior in forty-minute jaunts. It was basically a jungle commuter flight. The only thing missing was a clutch of live chickens squawking from cages stashed under some peas- ant’s seat.
At the final stop on the VARIG line, Jorge unfolded a map of Brazil and began stabbing locations with his finger. He showed me how we had flown northwest from Rio de Janeiro, over the states of Minas Gerais, Goiás, and Mato Grosso. Now we were in Rio Branco, the capital city of Acre, Brazil’s westernmost state and a victim of rampant deforestation.
We switched to a dilapidated four-seat Cessna jet that jerked us into the air, belching smoke and soot from its engines. The Cessna took us to Boca do Acre, a dingy village bordered by the green-grey umbilical kink of the dingier Purus River. At this point, one could fairly say we had passed beyond civilization. However, we were still a long day’s journey from the Santo Daime compound.
Boca do Acre was nothing like I had imagined a place so deep in the Amazon would look like. It consisted of just a few dirt roads and only one building with more than two stories—our hotel, in fact, which had three floors and ten rooms to let. The river flowed just outside the front door of whatever building you were in. Boats of various sizes punted up and down it. Jorge and I ate at the only restaurant, which served only one meal, that being whatever senhora was cooking that evening.
The next morning, while it was still dark, we met by the edge of the Purus and boarded Jorge’s speedboat. He told me that someone had deeded the craft to the church; I presumed that this occurred while the grantor was high on ayahuasca. From my own experience with the psychedelic tea, I would expect that such flights of generosity were not uncharacteristic.
The boat didn’t strike me as particularly seaworthy, but Jorge cast off, gunned the engine, and steered us into the river. Within a few minutes, the scenery changed. The settled shores gave way and I could feel the jungle closing in on either side, and above us, as well. The screech of monkeys off in the woods and the flap-flap-flutter of brightly colored parrots filled the air. Small moths flitted across the surface of the brown water in droves.
There’s no one out here but us, I remember thinking. This is the jungle. I’m in the jungle.
When dawn finally slipped over the horizon, Jorge blasted the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” over the stereo and passed me a monstrous marijuana cigarette, which we smoked while he revved the engines. We were slamming up the Purus now, skipping the surface like a flat stone bouncing at thirty miles per hour.
A few hours later, we put in at a small hut that stood at the confluence of the Mapiá. Where the Purus had often ranged 200 meters wide, the Mapiá narrowed to little more than an iguasu, or stream, which the speedboat couldn’t navigate. Jorge turned it in for a canoe equipped with a propeller on a long stick poking out from the back. Those poles are great because you can lift them out of the water quickly to clear obstructions or, if you like, slam them to one side and spin your craft 360 degrees in the blink of an eye. At this point, a couple of very experienced guides took over and handled the driving.
I sat on a hard wooden bench in the center of the craft with my bags in a pile at my feet. My chief fixation had become the safety of my Epson laptop, a dinosaur by today’s standards, big as a briefcase and cinderblock-heavy.
Rain forests are not hospitable places for delicate electronics.
They’re enormously hot, with humidity ranging close to 100 percent. It often rains four or five times a day. No matter how hard I tried to keep the computer dry, at one point it fell into the river. When we hauled it out quickly and cracked the case, I was relieved to find that water had barely permeated it. Still, the thing became riddled with insects. Quite often during the length of my trip, I would hit a key and hear the soft crunch of a bug’s shell being crushed. And yet, for all this, that Epson never let me down. It was the draft horse of computers, and I still think of it fondly.
With its shallow hull drawing so little water, our canoe zipped straight up the Mapiá. At some point, we left the state of Acre behind and crossed into Amazonas, the largest state in Brazil, spreading all the way up to the Andes and including most of the Amazon basin. The jungle pressed down on us, crushing in from both sides with arms of vine, trunk, and canopy. Just when I thought we were due to be smothered, at the point where the Mapiá itself seemed to have lost itself in the bramble, we steered around a deadfall dam and into the proceeding bend where, miraculously, the forest gave way to open water.
“What is this place?” I said out loud. I couldn’t believe my eyes.
Jorge tapped me on the shoulder and grinned. “Welcome to Céu do Mapiá,” he said.
Heaven on the River.
Céu do Mapiá was a beautiful place, consisting of two clearings carved from the heart of the jungle on either side of the river with a crude bridge built to connect them. The village boasted a couple dozen simple houses, plus another Santo Daime church like the one I’d attended in Rio. As Jorge explained to me then, the colony had been founded a few years before by a mystic named Sebastião Mota de Melo, known more widely as Padrino Sebastião, who was the leader of Santo Daime. Padrino lived here, in the forest, with a large extended family that included Jorge by marriage. Shortly after we landed, Jorge introduced me to a young woman, a daughter of Padrino, that Jorge called his wife. This confused me since, back in Rio, Jorge had introduced me to another woman he called his wife.
“That was my wife back there,” he said. “And this, you see, is my wife for here.”
The colony, I was soon to discover, numbered barely 100 people, most of whom lived in thatched huts and kept chickens and pigs that wandered about at their leisure. The settlers had cleared a few plots to grow manioc, which I knew as cassava. They had one two-story dwelling, which belonged to Padri- no Sebastião. The height and relative fortitude of the structure reflected his status in the outpost. They had also built a crude church where the entire population of the village—men, women, and children—gathered to take ayahuasca. Those who lived in the village took part in the sacrament; that was the unwritten rule.
I stayed in Céu do Mapiá for a month or so and studied the town’s predicament. Noel Brown had been right when he hinted that loggers and farmers had recently stepped up their pace. Each year, their enterprises cut an area the approximate size of England, Scotland, and Wales combined from the heart of the Amazon jungle. There was no question that these operations threatened Céu do Mapiá. To my mind, however, they also spelled the extinction of something greater. Even back then, it seemed clear to me that, if left unchecked, the forces of “progress” could plow the entire Amazon under, destroying the largest and most biologically diverse rainforest on earth.
At the end of my second or third week there, I happened upon an idea.
“Who owns this forest?” I said.
Padrino Sebastião shrugged.