“No one owns it,” he said. “The forest is for everyone. The forest is ours. The forest is God’s.”
It was a lovely sentiment, and one I still uphold in its purest sense, but it wouldn’t stop a bulldozer. We needed more earthly resources.
Back then, Brazilian environmental law was rudimentary at best. Under the Portuguese system, which Brazil still followed, the forest was considered Crown land—owned by the state until someone claimed it. That was good news because, as it turned out, there were also ways to claim the land and keep it safe from the bulldozers. These methods had been tested in other parts of la floresta. I felt certain they would work in Céu do Mapiá, as well.
“Here’s the idea,” I told Padrino Sebastião. “We write a plan to classify the village and all its surrounding land as a park—an extractive reserve, to use the official parlance. This petition will acknowledge the government’s title to the land and resolve not to question it. But it also requests that you are written into the title as the forest’s official guardian, that you are legally recognized as a cooperative group that maintains, nurtures, and protects the land in perpetuity, endowed by government-granted rights to ensure the strength of your mission. We’ll include a clause in this language stipulating that no one else can do anything to the forest without your approval, including cutting it down.”
Padrino Sebastião looked at Jorge. “A park?” he asked. “Exactly,” I said. “With you as custodians.”
Using my Epson, I wrote the proposal to create an extractive reserve. It was basically two documents, each the approximate length of a business paper, and included draft regulations that would have to be passed, some procedures to follow, a sample charter for the guardian community to follow, and a breakdown of total costs, which were modest. The whole scheme, I wrote, would likely cost less than $100,000 to implement. I based all this work on precedents I had read about that were set by similar reserves in other parts of the Brazilian rainforest.
When I was finished, I showed my work to Padrino Sebastião, who read the petition and said he liked it. Moreover, he said that I should take the plan at once to the region’s representative in the government—a woman named Sadia Hauache, who lived clear across Amazonas in Manaus, the state capital. Having no means to communicate from Céu do Mapiá, I left the jungle armed only with my petition, Sadia’s name and address, and a brief note scratched by Padrino Sebastião. Not that I would need much more.
Back then, Manaus sprawled like a spent burro on the confluence of the Negro and Solimões Rivers. There were no roads in or out; visitors could only arrive there by boat or plane. Once I arrived and explained who I was, Sadia and her son, Abdul, accepted me with open arms, since Padrino Sebastião’s word was better than gold. Sadia and Abdul read my petition and loved the idea.
“What are you doing next week?” Sadia asked.
I told her that my calendar looked free.
“Good,” she said. “I have some meetings with the federal government in Brasilia. I’ll get you a ticket. Come with me.”
I spent most of the next few days searching for a printer. The one I eventually purchased cost me a fortune, but what could I do? Nowadays, you can find a Kinko’s or Staples on practically every corner of every small town from here to Timbuktu. Heck, I bet there’s a Kinko’s or a Staples in Timbuktu, with an OfficeMax and an Office Depot thrown in for good measure. But back then? In Manaus?
Finding a printer was like locating a pin in a mountain of needles. Finding paper that would feed into that dot matrix printer was even harder. In the end, I only found one store that carried it, and they only had one batch, which was supposed to last them until the next supply plane arrived, mid-year. When I bought their entire reserve, they looked both elated and deeply suspicious.
Our flight from Manaus took two or three hours. While we were in the air, Sadia explained how Brasilia was a designed capital. It didn’t exist until 1958, when the Brazilian federal government wanted to move itself from Rio de Janeiro, closer to the heart of the country. Like a U.S. senator or congressman, Sadia kept an apartment in the capital for when she arrived to conduct her business. I found the way she described her job as intoxicating as the whirlwind pace we kept.
When the plane landed, we jumped into a waiting car that barreled past gorgeous buildings built in the white-winged style perfected by Oscar Niemeyer, the architect who designed most of the city. I would have loved to stay and stare all day, but Sadia meant business.
At one of the main government buildings, Sadia walked me past the doors of five or six sub-secretaries, straight into the office of the minister of land. I suddenly realized I wasn’t wearing a tie and felt like a fool. I can’t remember the minister’s name, but I recall how he rose at once, embraced Sadia, and blew kisses on either side of her face before turning to me and extending his hand. His Portuguese rattled out far too quickly for me to follow. Sadia’s speech, I noticed, changed at once to match what I gathered was the patois of the capital. But I heard her introduce me as her friend Rich from the UN.
“He has a plan to save the rainforest,” she said. “A good plan. Take a look.”
Back in Manaus, I had printed out eight complete copies of my petition, one of which I now handed to the minister with the most officious air I could muster. He accepted the thick packet graciously, glanced at the title, and read the first few lines before nodding.
“Great,” he said. “What are you doing for breakfast tomorrow?”
“We’re free,” I replied.
The next morning, Sadia, the minister, and I had breakfast with José Sarney de Araújo Costa, the president of Brazil. I still was not wearing a tie. The Brazilians did most of the talking, at any rate. I could barely make out a word they were saying; their Portuguese was far more advanced than mine, and they plied it at the breakneck speed mastered by seasoned political operatives.
At one point, however, President Sarney turned to me and said, quite clearly, “This is what we need.” He held up a copy of my proposal. “More like this. Can you do that for us?”
“Yes,” I said in Portuguese, nodding. “We can make these parks all over the country. How many would you like?”
As I later came to understand, the massive pressure Brazil was facing from the international community worked in my favor. Everyone wanted the government to halt deforestation, but the government had no concrete plans. By luck or fate or whatever you call it, I was one of the first people to bring them something actionable, legislation they could point to and say, “Look. You see? This is what we’re doing, okay? This is our response.”
The president told me to meet with his minister of the environment, a man named Fernando Mesquita, which is what I did the very next day. Senhor Mesquita read my proposal and smiled.
“Yes, yes,” he said. “This is fine. You wrote this quite well for an outsider. It will have to go through channels, of course, but I’ll start the process at once. Let’s see how quickly we can make it happen.”
He was as good as his word. The proposal was signed, sealed, and stamped into law within the year. The village of Céu do Mapiá and its surrounding regions became a park under federal law, with a team of chief custodians at Céu do Mapiá. Mesquita sent me a nice letter thanking me for everything I had done. By that point, I was already back in New York and reporting what I had done to Noel Brown.
Feeling a little awkward, I said, “Hey. Remember your business card? Well, I passed that around a bit and guess what? I ended up establishing a national park in the Amazon rain forest. Now the Brazilian government wants me to do more. I’ve already done some research and I think I can prove six more viable reserves at the locations I’ve marked on this map. Do you want to help?”
Noel got very excited. “This is fantastic!” he said. “I have to go down to Brasilia in two weeks. Come with me!”
So I did.
At a conference in Brazil, Noel took me around and introduced me to lots of people I otherwise wouldn’t have met. Later during that trip, I got Noel a meeting with Senhor Mesquita. Noel was over the moon about that. Though he had tried, he’d never been able to score himself a one-on-one with Brazil’s minister of the environment.
When the conference in Brasilia was finished, Noel flew back to New York while I made a detour back to Manaus to meet with Sadia Hauache and update her on my progress. On her dining room table, I spread out my map of the Amazon and ticked off the sites I was planning to visit.
“These spots,” I said, “are the ones that I feel best qualify for extractive reserves.”
Sadia agreed. All the places I’d marked fell within her constituency. Her husband knew the area very well. Over the next few days, she reviewed my plans and gave me frank advice on which sites would welcome me, and which would not.
“You cannot assume that each effort will go as smoothly as Céu do Mapiá did,” she said. “You arrived at that village as a guest of the Santo Daime. In more remote regions of the rain forest, you will enjoy no such overture. The people who live in these places can be suspicious of outsiders. You must take great care with your words and deeds.”
She promised to hire a riverboat that would take me into the jungle when I returned. I was overwhelmed by her generosity, but Sadia shrugged.
“It will make traveling easier for you,” she said. “And safer. Return to New York, but come back to us soon. Your work here is only beginning.”
I didn’t want to go back to New York, but the small fortune I’d made at IBM looked dismally smaller each time I checked my bank account.
At that time, I was still doing practically all of this work on my own dime.
I would have welcomed an infusion of capital. At one point, Noel Brown had offered me a consulting contract, and I wanted to pin him down on the details before I found myself begging for change in the Times Square subway station.
But when I met with Noel again, he apologized.
“Funding is scarce at the moment,” he said.
In lieu of a paid position, he offered me a desk in his office at the UN. I accepted, although the arrangement felt strange. Had I not proven my legitimacy? How many UN employees, I wondered, had flown to a foreign country on a whim and their own dime, and wound up having breakfast with the country’s president who then empowered them to save large tracts of the Amazon rain forest?
Despite my success, I had no income, was crashing on couches again, and was losing friends in the process.
But things got better, little by little. I won some grant money from an environmental group up in Boston, which meant I wouldn’t starve. Then Noel’s assistant lost her roommate suddenly and offered me a space in her Lower East Side apartment for reasonable rent.
Okay, I thought. Clearly this situation isn’t everything I want, but it certainly feels like I’m moving in the right direction.
After a couple of months’ hiatus, I returned to South America to finish the job I’d started.
Sadia made good on her word and hired a riverboat for me. It was one of those two-story jobs with a hull as thick as a bank vault door, and with damn good reason. The Amazon is a treacherous river, filled with all kinds of destructive debris. An extra-thick hull can absorb almost any impact. Low-hanging curtains of bramble can’t hold it. It can push through downed trees and capsized canoes. Such boats essentially stop for nothing. Like lazy hippopotamuses, they putt-putt-putt against currents and weather to ferry you slowly upriver.
During this leg of my journey, I often felt like I’d landed on the set of Apocalypse Now. Granted, no one was shooting at me (a fact which I deeply appreciated), but I passed many hours lounging in a frayed hammock strung between deck pilasters. The boatmen chattered constantly in a dialect I gave up trying to parse. We drank beer and whisky and the strongest coffee I’d ever tasted—thick, black sludge, which we made by boiling hand-crushed grounds in an old tube sock for half an hour.
We smoked pot occasionally because there was basically nothing else to do. Besides, it made perfect sense to stay numb since it rained twice an hour. The air felt heavy as iron, the heat and humidity sank into our bones, and bugs scratched nests in our nostrils and armpits. Meanwhile, the forest primeval rolled past as thick as castle walls on either shore. Now and then some vine or branch would reach out, grasping with leafy green claws.
The jungle, I thought, is trying to yank me out of this boat.
It wants me, though God only knows why.
We had already ventured deeper into the Amazon than I had ever been in order to reach Céu do Mapiá. Now we were going deeper still, and our journey had barely begun.
I passed nearly two months like this, putt-putting up and down the Purus, two trips in all. We stopped at the towns I’d planned to visit and several I hadn’t, since they weren’t on our maps. The people who lived there were welcoming in a stand-offish way, happy to see strangers but also deeply suspicious of my motive for arriving in such remote places in a big boat. At every location, I presented my UN card, but their moods only brightened when I mentioned I worked with Sadia Hauache. Even in the most remote regions of the Amazon, her name was a gold standard.
Once my credentials were established, I asked to meet with the local mayor and explained my plan to propose their settlement as an extractive reserve. In every case, I asked how far the townspeople had walked into the jungle from their homes. Though somewhat crude, this was the means Sadia and I had decided should establish a perimeter for custodianship.
If any of this makes you think that I was winging it, you’re absolutely right. To be clear, I’d started making things up as I went along the moment I left IBM. But I was getting results and having the time of my life, so I saw no reason to stop.
By the time my second trip was through, I had written proposals for four more extractive reserves, all of which I think eventually passed into law. In total, my efforts probably ended up preserving an area of Brazilian rain forest equal to half the size of Massachusetts. I say “I think” and “probably” because, at this point, something awful happened that kept me from knowing the true results of my work.
Being young, enthusiastic, and an outsider, I didn’t understand the political consequences of what I was doing. In my mind, I was acting for the greater good: saving wide swaths of the Amazon rain forest, one of the most cherished natural resources on earth. In the minds of certain others, however, it was not so. To them, I was this UN guy, an outlander and a white kid who had arrived in Brazil out of nowhere and gone over everyone’s heads. By speaking directly to the president and his minister of the environment, I had not respected local channels. Hell, I hadn’t even acknowledged that such channels existed.
Let me give you a better idea of who these people were. A lot of them carried guns and very large knives and ran certain enterprises out in the jungle that authorities in more civilized places would surely have liked to curtail. Whatever law exists in the jungle is the law that these people approve. By their way of thinking, I wasn’t preserving the land so much as stealing it from them bit by bit and placing it into the hands of the federal government they despised.
The person who explained all this to me was named Tomaso. He worked at Mesquita’s office in a town called Rio Branco, on the edge of the Amazon. I often used Rio Branco as a base of operations, and during one of my stops there…
Tomaso calmly explained that there was a price on my head.
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“My friend,” he said, “you should leave here at once.”