Journalist Gabriela Antunes's soot-soaked sneakers from the fire
Journalist Gabriela Antunes's soot-soaked sneakers from the fire.

The Amazon: from Borges’ Paradise to Dante’s Inferno

LABS journalist and columnist tells what she saw in the forest, accompanying an American TV crew

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The Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges used to say that “paradise was a type of library.” A voracious reader, Borges imagined himself surrounded by books. That was his “Eden.” Without a woodsman’s vocation, Borges was not referring to the living library of the Amazon rainforest. Borges imagined words, phrases, and poems.

In the biological paradise of the Amazon, we may dream with 10% to 15% of the biodiversity present in the world today, as well as 40% of the rainforests in the planet, hundreds of indigenous communities, whose culture, language, and customs still lack the appropriate research; and like water, the lifeblood that unfortunately may become a future commodity.

We are talking of undiscovered insects, tribes in isolation, plants that could feed and cure evils and diseases that affect the human population. It is a 3D library, alive, in transformation, whose impact on life is so pervasive that human conscience might not yet be ready to process. And that is where our limit of human understanding may spell our death sentence.

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On the 24th, I arrived at Rio Branco, Acre, where part of the Brazilian Amazon is on fire. I was following a North American television team, in the condition of journalist. We had barely landed, when the plane’s cabin filled with smoke. Asking the pilot what he saw in the radar, he responded that it was the smoke coming from Bolivia, whose border was 200 km away from Rio Branco. But there were still urban and forest fires on all sides. On that day, flames surrounded the perimeter of the airport, and the city seemed like a large smoker. In ten minutes, we all smelled of barbecue. It was “Dantesque.” 

LABS journalist and columnist Gabriela Grosskopf Antunes, on the first day in the Amazon region, soon after seeing the size of the forest devastation with the fires.

Already in the hotel, a well-known scientist of the region came to visit us. I realized, while we spoke, that I had made an unfortunate analogy with other tragedies of large proportions. To my surprise, he confirmed that it was not that different, considering the appropriate scale of the event. More specifically and concerning human health, he agreed with me: the effects of fire smoke on health are immediate and cumulative. That is, the consequences were toxic and irreversible for those who had been exposed to so much smoke, a tragedy for human health and the environment.

Firefighter trying to prevent one of the fires from spreading.

During the week that we travelled by land and air, flying in small planes and relocating to the outskirts of Acre and Rondônia. We talked with everyone that wanted to speak: chiefs, indigenous communities, government representatives, river folk, scientists, firemen, representatives of NGOs, small landowners, fire victims, and countryfolk. Our aim was to give them the most autonomy possible, so that they could share their experiences and perspectives, strengthening the journalistic independence of our content.

In the photo, Gabriela talks to tribal chief Tashka yawanawa.

I saw indigenous people fighting for their reserves, animals dispossessed by the fire, river folk trying to row against rivers filled with fallen trees, clearings in the forest the size of cities, fire, smoke, but also the strength of agro-businesses, with families dependent on that activity.

At one point in the trip, I remembered a phrase attributed to the North American journalist Truman Capote that says something along these lines: “that when God gives us a virtue, he also gives us a lash to inflict self-harm.” Our biggest vocation, the treasure that fell on good part of our national territory, has been transformed, in part, into our misfortune. It was a treasure chest, heavy, desired by so many pirates, with millions of animal and plant species, indigenous communities, and, perhaps, it was far too heavy for the country to carry.

Recreio Farm, on the outskirts of Rio Branco, Acre.

The Amazon rainforest is linked to our navel, where our umbilical cord is found, extension of flesh that shapes our origins. We came from that house that has a green rug, padding our identity. In my opinion, it is less productive to know whether the current government is Nero playing the harp and allowing Rome to burn, or whether our current situation is the cumulative result of small, medium, and large political, economic, and environmental tragedies.

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We can no longer flee from the issues that deal with economic sustainability; that is, how to enjoy this treasure by keeping it alive. With the proximity of the flames, we no longer have the luxury of taking our time.

We need to decide whether we will drink from that knowledge with the rainforest still standing, with infinite possibilities, with the support of science, technology, and sustainability, or whether we will raze the rainforest to the ground, betting on an agro-exporting and mineral extraction model.

The difference between those two models, a controversial topic, pragmatically consists in a single one: if we opt to maintain the rainforest, we can rethink its purpose every time the discussion is launched. On the other hand, if we destroy the forest, we may never be able to rethink that model.

It might be prudent, and counter-productive, to point fingers and offer simple solutions for such a complex situation. I returned from the Amazon with more questions than answers. Dense and humid doubts as the closed foliage of the forest. The biggest one? As a paradise, as Borges once dreamt, a library filled with knowledge, can be transformed into a hell not unlike the one narrated by the Italian Dante Alighieri?

Translated by Axel Diniz