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Tall tales and true stories from the Amazon rainforest

 

I was recently in Acre in the Brazilian Amazon on a 7-day image-gathering trip.

Out there, I caught up with some of the great work being done on the ground there by our Sky Rainforest Rescue partnership and farmer certification scheme.

And I survived the whole trip with only a toothbrush.

Day 1 – CSI (Can’t Straighten-up In) Miami

I know this trip will be worth it, in terms of the video and photos we plan to get, but I can’t say I’m relishing the 32-hour journey to Brazil.

I won’t go into detail, but suffice to say for someone of considerable height like myself, the thought of three separate flights, knees up around my head for most of the journey, and 12 hours of hanging around along the way, wasn’t appealing.

Right now, as I start this diary, I’m sitting in Miami airport, already 15 hours into the trip, my back aching like an old man (well, at 40 some might say I am anyway), with the joy of another 17 hours to go.

I’m so tired I’m struggling to see properly now, so I’ll stop writing before any common sense that’s left in me goes out the window. Adios.

Day 2 – Into the Amazon, with a toothbrush

After saying I wouldn’t go into too much detail yesterday… I feel what’s happened since then does deserve a mention. After 33 hours of continuous travel we turned up in Brasillia (one stop from Rio Branco, our final destination) to find that all our bags have been left in Miami!

Everyone was so helpful - especially when our stuff had been lost by our airline! © WWF-UK / Greg Armfield

And it got worse. Due to a hurricane sitting over the Miami area our bags won’t now turn up in Rio Branco for at least 48 hours.

OK, I do have my still camera and GoPro (great little wearable video cam) with me, and one toothbrush, but that’s about it.

Simon (our excellent photographer on this trip – check out his website if you want proof) at least does have the majority of his equipment in his hand luggage. But as with me, no clothes, no toiletries (I can’t let him use my toothbrush!), and no idea what we’re to do.

Never fear, the helpful folk from WWF-Brazil are here to meet us at Rio Branco, full of smiles and quickly into action to sort out the mess that an airline whose name I won’t mention has got us in! A quick trip to the local supermarket, and two shirts, two pants and a pair of shorts later, we’re back on track!

On a short trip like this, where the timing of everything has been nailed down in order to achieve our goals, decisions have to be made quickly. So rather than change plans and wait for our bags, they’ll have to catch us up.

Cows grazing in the AmazonCows grazing in the Amazon - one of the major pressures on the rainforest is land for grazing cattle. © WWF-UK / Greg Armfield

Tomorrow we head off from Rio Branco toward Feijó, where WWF and Sky are working with local communities as part of the Sky Rainforest Rescue programme – helping create sustainable livelihoods that benefit both people and their natural environment.

Along the route we hope to capture some of the beautiful scenery that makes this country so amazing, but also highlight some of the destruction that threatens this precious landscape.

Heading to bed early tonight as we’re up at 6am. I feel lonely without my backpack but excited at the thought of documenting some of the brilliant work going on in Acre. I just hope we can do it justice.

Day 3 – Love trees, hate airports

Do you sometimes feel that the big man/lady in the sky is looking down on you and thinking: “Let’s see how far we can push this person until they break?”

After getting up at 5.30am (please, let these early mornings stop!) to travel to the airport for our ‘overflight’ of the Amazon – a brilliant opportunity to capture the size and majesty of the rainforest – we were told that unfortunately the airport was undergoing renovation (that’s decorating to you and me), and so was closed until 11am!

Seriously, an airport closed for decorating. Magnolia I bet.

The Amazon rainforest truly is a marvel to see from high up, whatever the time of day. © WWF-UK / Greg Armfield

The whole purpose of going this early was to capture the Amazon in the best possible light, with the sun rising over it. So in photographic terms this was a disaster. But after much discussion it was decided we had to go for it at 11am, so after a 30-minute journey back to the hotel, a sit-down and a de-stressing tea, it was back to the airport (nice wallpaper I must say) and up, up and away.

Although our worst fears were confirmed in terms of the light, the Amazon from the air is still a marvel to see. So lush, so green and so perfect. A real honour to view it this way.

Acre state still has around 87% of its rainforest intact, and even with the occasional patch of de-forestation blotting the landscape, it remains a beautiful sight. Long may it stay that way – and hopefully with the work of WWF and Sky, it will. More on that later.

After touching down in Feijó (our base for the rest of the trip) and a quick check-in at the hotel (even quicker when you have no bags and only a toothbrush to carry!), we headed down to the river and a boat journey along the Envira to capture images of some river life. And hopefully pay a visit to some of the families that have signed up to the Acre government’s ‘certification’ scheme.

These families and individuals have signed up to work with the government, who are being supported through WWF’s partnership with Sky Rainforest Rescue in order to live more sustainable lifestyles that benefit themselves and their surrounding habitat.

With most of its rainforest still intact, Acre is absolutely beautiful. Lush green foliage and blue skies! © WWF-UK / Greg Armfield

While some are growing – like rice, beans and corn – in a sustainable way, others are involved in small-scale rubber-tapping or fishing for pirarucu – the largest freshwater fish in the Amazon.

But the scheme isn’t just about specific crops or activities. It’s about small-scale farmers ensuring they use their land as productively as possible.

With help and advice from WWF and government technicians, farmers involved with the scheme learn how to use natural fertilisers (such as mucuna beans) that enrich the soil. It means that the same land can be used over and over again to plant food crops, so they don’t need to cut and burn forest for fertile planting ground. A simple but effective idea.

Unfortunately, this being the middle of the Amazon rainforest, and with no means of contacting our farmer friends beforehand (mobiles are not an option here!), it soon becomes apparent that the family we have come to visit are out and about.

No problem, we have a forest on our doorstep and cameras to hand, so after a quick walk we’re soon surrounded again by the incredible noise of insects, the flight of butterflies and the magnificence of wild forest life. Imagine having that on your doorstep!

Needless to say, I love trees.

Day 4 – Butterflies, rubber, fish, and photos

I’m finally starting to feel more myself after the hellish journey to get here, and the fact that my tummy has been dodgy to say the least. Simple food for me from now on I think!

After the beautiful flight over the Amazon, today it’s all about the farmers and families who live alongside the BR-364 road outside of Feijo, and who are either part of the government’s certification scheme.

In the Amazon, a road can only take you so far, and soon we’re walking through the rainforest on route to our first farm, where a local collective of rubber tappers are waiting to meet us.

Walking through the forest is a fascinating and wonderful experience. As the sun filters through the dense canopy, the sounds of the forest surround you.

For someone like me, who’s spent most of my life in south London suburbs, the site of a cabbage white butterfly is usually the best I can hope for. So to see so many incredible butterflies and so many colours is overwhelming and fantastic.

The butterflies in the forest are amazing - so many colours and varieties. Very different from back home! © WWF-UK / Greg Armfield

I’m a lover of butterflies anyway – one of my favourites is the blue morpho, impossibly huge in size (up to 20cm wingspan), almost clumsy in flight, but its wings are an electric blue that startles in its clarity and beauty.

I’ve only ever seen one before, so to see four in one hour here is brilliant. After the first few days of this trip, I’m starting to feel our luck may have turned.

As we finally approach our first farm I begin to notice lots of trees with the tell-tale signs of rubber extraction. Rubber trees grow wild in the Amazon and their sap can be extracted without damaging them, so it’s considered a forest-friendly product.

And that’s a good thing, as rubber-tapping is big in Acre state. A lot of the families who’ve signed up to the certification scheme are involved with it. In return for signing up the farmers receive tools and equipment that help in the extraction and processing of the rubber.

And as the resulting processed sheets of rubber are currently more profitable per kilo than beef, it means it’s not only sustainable but profitable too. An essential element if projects like these are to continue.

This is the stark reality - without trees, little can survive. Smashed and twisted, the core of this beautiful ecosystem is broken. © WWF-UK / Greg Armfield

As we travel on the dirt track back to the BR-364, we’re soon confronted with the stark reality of the situation that faces the Amazon. Cresting a hill we see what can only be described as a scene of devastation. Huge trees lie smashed on the ground, twisted and broken. It looks like a whirlwind has blown through this one small area of forest and flattened it without a care in the world.

The silence is eery – and such a contrast to the natural forest cacophony from earlier. As I scramble over branches with my camera, capturing the scene around me, I can’t help thinking back to my encounter with the blue morpho butterfly.

All that life and richness is missing here – it’s just gone. It’s a stark reminder of the threats the Amazon faces.

Enough of the bad news. Let’s look at the good stuff – what we’re doing to make it better.

Charles, the head of the local pirarucu associationCharles, the head of the local pirarucu association, shows us how he fishes. © Simon Rawles / WWF-UK

Our day ends with a visit to Charles, the head of the local pirarucu association down on the banks of the river. Charles is such a lovely guy, welcoming and helpful (as are all the people we’ve met so far), and he’s happy to take us out on his small boat for a short fishing trip, and a chance to see life on the river at sunset.

And what a site it is. As we round the bend of the river, with the sun setting in the distance, we’re confronted with so many boats, full to the brim with people fishing and jostling for space.

Nets are thrown, shouts of encouragement called and fish are caught. It’s a wonderful picture, and to be honest I have no idea where to point my camera, with so much madness going on.

Who knows what the local fishermen think of us. Here I am, 6ft 4 and definitely not local. Here’s Charles, all of 5ft 1. We make an odd couple to say the least. It’s at times like these you wish you had a few more hands to carry cameras, but two will do for now!

I look at Simon for a quick second and know he’s feeling just as excited as I am. Sometimes, just sometimes, I have the best job in the world.

Day 5 – Inspired by the passion and pride in the forest

Today is all about meeting farmers who’ve signed up to the certification scheme in order to farm in a more sustainable way. Previously they would have most likely slash-and-burned the forest around them to create more space for crops or livestock. The resulting ‘scorched earth’ is good for a few years but quickly becomes infertile and poor in soil quality. That means low yields from the crops, so the farmer soon has to move on and burn more forest. (Remember you can find out more about our Sky Rainforest Rescue initiatives here.)

It's obvious that the land I visited was cared for. © WWF-UK / Greg Armfield

Once off the BR-364 the road is dusty, red and bumpy, to say the least, but it’s obvious that as we travel further away from the main road the forest is denser, more lush and less affected than what we’ve seen so far.

After a good hour’s driving we finally reached the farm of Senhor Poti and his family. Senhor Poti has been on the scheme for only a few months, but has refrained from burning the land since 2007.

It’s obvious as we walk around his farm how well this land is managed. Mucuna beans grow in one patch, while bananas and pineapples grow around the mulched up leaves (creating a rich fertiliser for the soil) of last year’s mucuna crop.

A lake has been built on one corner of his land allowing Senhor Poti to harvest fish, while in another corner cassava grows. This variety of crops and activities allows Senhor Poti to bring in money all year round, while also ensuring slash-and burn techniques are not needed. Always a good thing.

We chat as we walk. When I ask Senhor Poti why he originally stopped burning the land back in 2007, I’m fascinated to hear it was a gut feeling he had that what he was doing was wrong – not only for the forest but also for himself. So when the certification scheme began, it felt natural for him to want to join. It’s a really inspiring moment, and one I won’t forget.

It's almost as big as my head! © Simon Rawles / WWF-UK

Speaking of not forgetting, I will also never forget the 15 kilo pineapple that Senhor Poti gives me as we leave the farm. Wow – that’s a big pineapple! A juicy fruit and just one more example of the generous nature of the people we’ve met so far.

As the afternoon sun continues to blaze, Simon and I take a strategic decision to split up for the rest of the day to allow us to capture as much as possible (we just don’t have enough days here!).

While Simon interviews another farmer and his wife, I have the pleasure of visiting and photographing Lindalva – who combines teaching and farming (not a usual mix!) and has plans to sign up to the certification scheme.

It’s great to see it’s not only men signing up to the scheme but women too. And what a woman Lindalva is. Recently divorced, she’s spent the last few months living in the local school, but happily she will soon be moving back onto her farm.

Lindalva, who both teaches and runs her farm with her boundless enthusiasm and infectious passion for her natural surroundings. © WWF-UK / Greg Armfield

Her enthusiasm and passion is infectious. Even within the confines of her small school she has still managed to grow any number of flowers and crops, and she shows us round with obvious pride.

It’s people like this that totally inspire me. The passion and love for their natural surroundings have always been there. Just on occasion they need a helping hand to kick start their ideas. Hopefully this is where WWF comes in!

I’m rather sad to be leaving Lindalva so soon, so in typical Greg Armfield style (informal to say the least!) I make sure that before I do I get a promise from her that she will be my adopted mother in Brazil for any future visits!

An extreme measure, I agree, but there’s something in this woman that totally reminds me of my late mother. Perhaps it’s the fact she’s around the same height – 5ft 2!

The day finally ends as the sun sets over the BR-364. (After 12 years of photography I’m finally beginning to realise that photographic trips mean being up before sunrise and staying up and photographing until the sun sets. Damn that golden light!)

As darkness once again takes over, we can finally put the cameras down, sit back and have a drink… of acai fruit juice. Oh, and re-charge our camera batteries with the one single adaptor that made it here with our hand-luggage. Great. Night all.

Day 6 – Purple pasta, healthy juice and sustainable farming

Rogerio shows off his amazing tree-climbing ability, whilst I'm stumbling through the undergrowth. © WWF-UK / Greg Armfield

Question: what’s the best way to start an early morning?

Answer: a walk into the Amazon rainforest – find the tallest acai tree and watch a man scale the trunk in 10 seconds flat, returning 15 seconds later with a huge bunch of acai berries, ready to be drunk. Well, almost ready.

Acai production is a growing (forgive the pun) trend in Acre, and to say acai dominates Feijó would be an understatement. We’re staying at the Acai hotel, where acai lasagne is served (it’s purple!) and the local juice bar is ‘Cafe Acai’. It’s good if you like acai.

Acai is just one of the crops that many farmers living alongside the BR-364 are growing on their land or harvesting wild in order to live more sustainably.

Today’s tree-climbing host is Rogerio, who has been on the certification scheme for the last two years. He happily canters through the undergrowth as I scrabble and mostly crawl to our final destination.

This man definitely knows the forest better than me. Rather than follow his lead up a tree(!), I decide it’s far more sensible that I stick to filming the forest.

And what a forest it is. Looking up at the canopy from the ground, I’m totally struck by the beauty of the trees. Filtered light streams to the forest floor. Butterflies proliferate again and the noise is incredible – have a listen to the sounds of the Amazon…

It’s actually quite hard to concentrate on the job there’s so much racket here! But it’s a good racket – and a reminder that this is the untamed natural environment we’re all trying to protect, along with the local jobs and communities. It shouldn’t be a choice of one versus the other.

The acai berries aren't good straight off the tree - they need to be washed and squashed before being made into juice. © WWF-UK / Greg Armfield

As we travel back to the road, berries in hand, it’s once again great to know that by choosing to go on the certification scheme, Rogerio and his family have not only chosen to lead more sustainable lives, they‘ve also chosen not to de-forest. Their lives now go hand-in-hand with the forest. One depends upon the other.

One point about acai – it’s probably best not to eat these berries straight from the tree! They need to go through a few stages before being ready for consumption. So our next destination is the local acai processing plant.

It’s not all glamour here! The plant we visit is not actually part of the scheme but it’s hoped that, as things progress, similar plants, associated with the certification scheme, will be started. It will mean farmers will earn more for their harvest and have more control in the overall process.

Acai juice, once all of the washing and squeezing has been done. Tasty! © WWF-UK / Greg Armfield

After much washing and squashing of berries, we’re left with a beautiful sachet of purple liquid – pure acai juice! It’s only for the most dedicated of drinkers, I must add. How does it taste? ‘Earthy’ comes to mind. ‘Healthy’ also pops up. Not terms that always equate to ‘nice’ – but hand on heart, I’m loving the stuff. And after the upset stomach I’m sure it’s the prefect remedy.

Our final destination for the day are the farms of Senhor David Dodias Aquilar and Senhor Dario. Both are on the certification scheme and both are shining examples of how farming can be sustainable and profitable.

Unlike other farms in the area that have recently signed up to the scheme and are going through a transitional process, it’s clear from the outset that both these farms are that much more productive.

Both Senhor Dodias and Senhor Dario are involved in agro-forestry, which in a nutshell means they’re using a wide variety of rotated crops (meaning regular income throughout the year and natural fertilisation of the land) and utilising their land as effectively as possible.

Better use of the land has meant that Senhor Dodias and Senhor Dario have more stable and effective farming - good for them and for the environment. © WWF-UK / Greg Armfield

The result is that both Senhor Dodias and Senhor Dario produce more crops on less land than neighbouring farms. Sweet.

Another beneficiary of this is the surrounding forest. By working with WWF and farming in this way, these farms are in effect attempting to re-create the surrounding habitat as closely as possible.

No, it’s not the same as the forest, but people do need to work the land somewhere – and by farming in this way, biodiversity is maintained, and soil no longer erodes. And the wildlife noise is still as loud as ever!

I’ve visited many farms in my life (mostly on holiday) and I can safely say that these two are the most beautiful farms I’ve ever seen. Surrounded by verdant forest, with the sun setting and with a recently cut coconut in hand, it feels a long way from home – and I love it.

Day 7 – Parting shots, and environmental lessons for all

Our final day in Acre and in Brazil. No one can say it’s not been eventful! A 33-hour journey to get here, our bags going walkabout, illness and an itinerary that’s so packed it’s hard to remember what day it is. It’s been interesting to say the least!

The work being done in Acre isn't just aimed at the current generation of adults, but also at helping and educating the next generation. © WWF-UK / Greg Armfield

Regardless of everything, it’s been fantastic meeting the people of Acre, who live alongside the majestic Amazon rainforest. It’s these people who in many ways hold the future of the rainforest in their hands. And with WWF working alongside them I have every reason to believe that the forest will still be standing for future generations to enjoy.

Speaking of the next generation (I left that zone a long time ago myself!), it’s fitting that our last day here is to be spent at a local school, where WWF is involved in an environmental scheme that teaches children the importance of the rainforest and surrounding ecology. How farming does not have to be unsustainable. And how the land and forest can be farmed for food and provisions without damaging its fragile ecosystem.

While Simon is off capturing the morning sunlight, it’s down to me to meet the kids and get snapping as they carry out any number of environmental lessons.

The local kids are bursting with local knowledge and keen to show us what they know! © WWF-UK / Greg Armfield

I’m not sure how often a tall, pale-skinned, sunburnt Englishman has walked into their school, but by the looks on their faces it’s not a common sight! As with all children, though, inquisitiveness and a willingness to learn soon overcomes any inhibitions and, well, I may be tall but in many ways I’m on the same level as the children!

It’s great to see how knowledgeable they are about the forest and the important role it plays. Many of them live on farms that surround or sit in the middle of the rainforest, so teaching them at such a young age about the forest, wildlife and sustainability is such an important thing. It may well be these young people that are soon making decisions that directly effect the forest.

It’s a great way to spend our final morning here. The children show us round the local farm, where many of their lessons are spent, and they take obvious pride in the plant species they’ve planted and the local knowledge they’ve picked up along the way.

Greg - reunited with his bagAfter what seemed like a long time apart, I was finally reunited with my bag! © WWF-UK

By getting hands-on with the forest and learning the vital role it plays, I can’t help thinking that in the future, these same children, when faced with the option of saving or losing the forest, will remember these lessons and know that the forest is worth more alive than dead.

Our time here is over all too soon. Rio Branco beckons, and our flight home. But on the road from Feijó it soon becomes obvious that, although WWF is working with many farms along the BR-364, there’s still a lot of work to do.

We see patches of forest burning as we travel along, and agricultural land everywhere. It’s rather depressing, after all the good work we’ve witnessed this week.

But I’m optimistic. Because, just as the farmers we met on our visit used to slash and burn and are now part of the certification scheme, I see no reason why these other farms can’t be part of the scheme in future too – working in harmony with the forest to create a better environment for all.

(And just so you know – our bags did finally turn up in Rio Branco. When we were on the way home. Wonderful.)

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Comments


  • francesca hannah

    I really enjoyed reading that. thank you so much Francesca x

  • http://www.facebook.com/rachal.gordon Rachal Gordon

    Wow, what an adventure. It’s great to read about all the good work being done and although there is still much more to achieve I think back to the late 1980’s/ early ’90’s and realise how far we have already come. I am optimistic that the future generations will see the potential a healthy rain forest has to offer.

  • Sheila

    Excellent, I feel as though Ihave been there.

  • http://www.facebook.com/rachel.bloodworth.77 Rachel Bloodworth

    Thanks Greg, very helpful pre-reading before I go. Will be packing as much as I can into my hand luggage!

  • chump

    great trip, whats the music in the first vid? Ta

    • http://twitter.com/kleinmush Oana Mondoc

      Hi Chump, so the track is called Dirty Money (by Tom Quick and Adam Drake). You can find it on audio libraries such as Audio Network, and I have a feeling is was produced to be used in video-production. Couldn’t find it to be a part of an album, in the little bit of searching that I did. Hope this helps…

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