Jungle, a new film starring Daniel Radcliffe, recounts the true, near-death experience of a traveler lost in the Amazon. But now, the indigenous community that saved him faces a danger of its own.
“I want to eat,” Yossi Ghinsberg pleaded with the man who came to his rescue on a boat. “It doesn’t matter if I die, but I have to eat … ” The starving Israeli adventurer had lasted 21 days, lost in the Amazon rainforest, wondering when he would find food.
On October 20, 2017, movie-goers can see this real-life ordeal played out in Jungle where Daniel Radcliffe [of Harry Potter fame] plays Ghinsberg as he fights for his life in the Bolivian jungle. The backpacker had become separated from his companions and survived for three weeks before being rescued by one of his party—who launched a search mission—and locals from a nearby village.
An intrepid explorer, Ghinsberg worked several jobs to fulfil his dream of traveling around South America. Once there, chance, separate encounters with Karl Ruprechter, a mysterious Austrian geologist in search of gold, Swiss teacher Marcus Stamm, and American photographer Kevin Gale—the four had never met before—saw them join up for the expedition into the Amazon, but the dream turned into a living nightmare when issues caused the group to split.
Ghinsberg and Gale built a raft to take them to the nearest town, but after losing control, Ghinsberg ended up downstream. After four days heading upriver in search of his companion, he finally concluded they were both lost. Ruprechter and Stamm were never found.
Madidi hosts the greatest biodiversity on earth, home to 8,000 plant species, 1,000 bird species, 2,000 vertebrates, and a host of endangered wildlife.
With no knife, map or survival skills, 21-year-old Ghinsberg spent three weeks seeking shelter and food, suffering hallucinations, leeches feasting on his body, an encounter with a jaguar, and shredded feet. When he was found, he was “half naked, without shoes, with a thin face, very thin,” recalls Don Tico Tuvela Rivera, the boat man who rescued Ghinsberg in 1981.
After his rescue, Ghinsberg was cared for by the indigenous Quechua-Tacana community of San José de Uchupiamonas, a tiny remote spot nine hours upriver from the jungle town of Rurrenabaque—itself 260 miles north of Bolivia’s capital La Paz.
But also fighting for survival were the San José villagers themselves, as Ghinsberg discovered. They needed alternative sources of income and dreamed of building a hostel to encourage tourism to their far-flung patch of Madidi National Park and provide employment for their children. According to the Wildlife Conservation Society, Madidi hosts the greatest biodiversity on earth, home to 8,000 plant species, 1,000 bird species (a staggering 9% of all the planet’s birds), 2,000 vertebrates, and a host of endangered wildlife.
Ghinsberg felt he owed his life to this remote community and decided to help them. To raise the funds, he went knocking on the doors of the Inter-American Development Bank and the environmental NGO, Conservation International.
Thanks to Ghinsberg’s fundraising, the villagers’ dream to bring tourism to Madidi became a reality. For three years, from 1992 to 1995, Ghinsberg lived with the community to develop the ecolodge and in 1999, Chalalán Lodge, Bolivia’s first eco-lodge, opened in the national park. Around five hours by river from Rurrenabaque, with smart rooms on stilts, the eco-lodge sits next to a tree-fringed lagoon. As well as supporting the Uchupiamona villagers, it is also a Bolivian blueprint for community-based tourism.
“In an area known for hosting the richest biodiversity on the planet, this is nothing short of a crime against the Earth. This is not just a Bolivian matter; it should concern the entire planet.”
Local guides—trained by Conservation International—lead guests along the 15 miles of trails around the lodge and lagoon where sightings include monkeys, caiman, capybara, the mohican-crowned hoatzin bird, and peccary, a not-to-be-trifled-with wild pig.
But now, the lodge and the entire 1,895,750 million hectares of Madidi National Park, is under threat. Outside a restaurant in Rurrenabaque, a poster from local action group CODA (Coordinator for the Defense of the Amazon), booms: “No to the Bala-Chepete dams. Dams = Death, Debt, Pain. Bolivia says a resounding No.”
Chalalán Lodge’s manager Rodrigo Mariaca explains: “The government in La Paz has a vision—to drive a road through the Madidi area, deforest the area to grow sugar (when sugar doesn’t grow here), and to exploit hydrocarbons.”
The government first announced plans to authorize the exploitation of Bolivia’s 22 protected areas in 2015, but the construction of the Chepete and Bala dams for hydroelectric power is worrying: “If the Bala project goes ahead on the River Beni,” says Mariaca, “Chalalán Lodge will close as the boats will not be able to pass.”
For Ghinsberg, now a motivational speaker and ambassador for Indigenous people and the Amazon, protecting Madidi is paramount. “The proposed hydroelectric power plants would flood Madidi,” he says. “In an area known for hosting the richest biodiversity on the planet, this is nothing short of a crime against the Earth. This is not just a Bolivian matter; it should concern the entire planet.”
“Chalalán, which employs around 120 families, has generated economic benefit and this arrives directly to the community.”
Rodrigo Mariaca, lodge manager
Indigenous Bolivian president Evo Morales was elected in 2006 on a platform of empowering his country’s poor and he has nationalized the country’s gas reserves and mines, and the ramped-up revenues have been invested in social programs, in turn improving Bolivia’s poverty statistics. But his plans may create new problems, even for those he wished to help.
But there’s a price to pay for the government’s expanding energy plans: The pristine jungles of this South American nation. The $6 billion dams would be built on rivers close to Rurrenabaque, and according to Bolivia’s campaigning Solón Foundation, would flood around 680 square kilometers of the Madidi zone—an area larger than the La Paz basin—and several Indigenous communities would be displaced.
The Bolivian government says only 180 square kilometers—0.79%—of Madidi, and neighboring Pilón Lajas parks would be affected, adding that of all the options, this one was the “most environmentally appropriate and socially viable.”
They also claim 60,000 jobs would be created, and 3,600 megawatts of power generated each year—for export—making it one of the largest sources of energy in the country. Final plans have not yet been signed off.
For many, these expanding energy plans are a huge setback. Back in 1996 (before Chalalán even opened) Bolivia’s indigenous communities were granted rights from the government to protect their ancestral lands (known as Tierras Comunitarias de Origen) and San José villagers eventually acquired 210,000 hectares.
“Thanks to this law, and to Chalalán, the community has health, education, sport, and communications,” says Mariaca. “It’s allowed the community to emerge from anonymity. Chalalán, which employs around 120 families, has generated economic benefit and this arrives directly to the community.”
And their pioneering blueprint has a legacy: 120 lodges have followed the Chalalán model and opened in the land-locked South American country.
Tourism, currently already on a downward slope, would also be hit. Some 20 years ago, Rurrenabaque was a small jungle town of hostels, backpacker bars, and unpaved streets. Adventurous travelers came for the chance to swim with pink river dolphins, fish for piranhas, and catch a glimpse of capybara [world’s largest living rodent], monkeys, and the elusive jaguar. And most had heard of Ghinsberg’s gripping yarn (originally published as Back from Tuichi.)
Today, the now-tarmacked streets of Rurrenabaque feel emptier, and whisper with a different set of stories. Tourism is quiet, Mariaca says, citing the falling value of the euro, cost of getting to Bolivia, new entry rules, and increased visa charges.
Mariaca feels ecotourism and protecting protected areas doesn’t factor into in the government’s vision. But perhaps Daniel Radcliffe and the silverscreen treatment will inspire intrepid travelers to not only explore the jungle, but to follow in Ghinsberg’s footsteps and invest in protecting it, too.
What does Ghinsberg think? “My highest aspiration that the release of my movie Jungle with the star power of Daniel Radcliffe will drive a renewed attention to this remote part of the world, the Madidi,” he says. “It is where the story not only took place but also still unfolds. The densest, richest biodiversity that is at real risk.”
For Chalalán, the communities who live around it, and the wildlife that calls Madidi home, it is too soon to say what’s in store. But Ghinsberg is hopeful,, “If the movie can draw attention to it, it could make a real difference to the life of the indigenous Amazon dwellers and their ancestral lands.”
Watch Jungle in selected theaters; it’s also available now on iTunes UK.
Find out more about Yossi Ghinsberg and his book, Jungle: A Harrowing True Story of Adventure, Danger and Survival.