Saving the Amazon rainforest, 'Earth's lungs'
A river like a sea, a jungle twice the size of India
A hearty welcome on National Book Lovers Day to the latest instalment of This Week, Those Books, your rundown on books new and old that resonate with the week’s news and developments.
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Here’s one of the more globally consequential news items from the American continent, which has been barely noticed in the white noise about Donald Trump’s multiple criminal indictments: the first summit in 14 years to protect the Amazon rainforest.
The Amazon is the world's biggest rainforest and a key buffer against climate change.
President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil, which has two-thirds of the rainforest (61.8%) within its borders, hosted the two-day summit ending today (Aug 9). Attendees included seven other South American countries and one overseas French territory in the region, all of which have varying shares of the Amazon.
The importance of the summit in Belém, a busy port city at the mouth of the Amazon river, can hardly be overstated. The Amazon rainforest is often called the earth’s ‘green lungs’. It has roughly 20% of the world’s freshwater reserves and with 10% of all known plant and animal species, is the most biodiverse region on the planet. The Amazon is a vast area – twice the size of India; 28 times as big as the UK and roughly equal to the contiguous United States (ie. minus Alaska and Hawaii). And it’s a crucial carbon sink absorbing roughly half a billion tonnes of carbon dioxide per year.
This week’s summit is the first meeting since 2009 of the Amazon rainforest’s custodian countries and it’s meant to address environmental crimes and secure collaboration across borders to protect a critical planetary resource. Its conclusions will go to the UN climate conference COP28 in Dubai in November to pressure rich countries for environmental aid to the developing world.
But the Amazon rainforest’s imprint on the world of English-language books is surprisingly limited. It mostly runs to accounts of European exploration of the region, the search for uncontacted Indigenous tribes and in children’s material. A slew of such books were published from the 1980s to the noughties (see bonus mentions below).
We can do better. Here’s a real-world update on the Amazon rainforest, as well as a sense of its magic.
Dear Reader, this week reminds me of those books:
The Third Bank of the River: Power and Survival in the Twenty-First-Century Amazon
By: Chris Feliciano Arnold
Chris Feliciano Arnold was born in Manaus, the largest city in the Amazon, and adopted by a California family. In 2014, he went ‘home’ because “Brazil is in my blood”. The return was ostensibly to cover the FIFA World Cup hosted by Brazil, but mostly it was meant to connect with his roots.
The massive sporting event, which included urban parts of the relatively remote rainforest, was supposed to bring “light to the jungle”, Arnold writes. But it showed up the dismal truth of life in the Amazon: “Despite being in the heart of earth’s largest watershed, one in four homes in Manaus lacks running water”.
Arnold tells a compelling story about violence, illegal logging and the drug trade, with tonnes of cocaine shipped via the Amazon river to Belém, across the Atlantic and to Europe. This narrative nonfiction account lays bare the fragile existence of the Amazon’s Indigenous communities and the lingering imprint of colonisation. The book’s title is taken from a bleak 1962 short story by Brazilian diplomat and writer João Guimarães Rosa.
Journey to the River Sea
By: Eva Ibbotson
Now described as a children’s classic, this is for the young-at-heart of any age. Set in 1910, the novel has a deliberately old-fashioned air reminiscent of Enid Blyton. Rich little English orphan Maia Fielding travels to Manaus with governess Miss Minton. Her parents have died in a train accident and Maia will live with distant relatives who own a rubber plantation in the Amazon rainforest. She is excited by the brilliant colours of the South American landscape, the vivid parakeets, “blossoming orange and lemon trees”, the scents, smells and sounds of the “Indian” community. But her relatives have firmly shut Manaus out of their antiseptic English home and Maia’s twin cousins look down on the local people and their food and habits. The family is unkind to Maia, who is presented as a Cinderella figure, albeit a jolly bookish girl with a heart of gold and an inclusive spirit. An adventure ensues, revolving around a mysterious mixed race boy.
Some choice quotes:
“…when I get to Brazil I still have to travel a thousand miles along the river between trees that lean over the water, and there will be scarlet birds and sandbanks and creatures like big guinea pigs called capa.... cabybaras which you can tame.”
“If this is the ‘Green Hell’ of the Amazon, then hell is where I belong”.
The Mapmaker’s Wife by Robert Whitaker, 2008: Its heroine Isabel is the privileged and indomitable Peruvian wife of an 18th century French explorer of the Amazon, Jean Godin.
The Unconquered: In Search of the Amazon's Last Uncontacted Tribes by Scott Wallace, 2011: Seeking out “an ancient culture that predates the arrival of Columbus in the New World”.
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