When filmmaker Reza Pakravan and journalist Pip Stewart cycled along Brazil’s Trans-Amazonian Highway into Peru, they discovered the road to development hadn’t been kind to all. Meera Dattani talks to them about their revealing adventure.
In 2016, filmmaker, writer and adventurer Reza Pakravan, whose documentaries have taken him to some of the world’s most remote spots, decided to cycle along the Trans-Amazonian Highway for his next project.
Built in 1970, the ‘Transamazonica’, as it’s called in Portuguese, was built by the authoritarian government then ruling Brazil. The route opened up the rainforest, paving the way for human settlement and deforestation in one of the world’s last great virgin forests, home to isolated indigenous communities and endangered wildlife.
The more he learned, the more he realized this was more than an epic cycle ride: He wanted to document the fragility of ‘the lungs of the planet’ and the lives of those who call it home.
“I needed help to raise awareness about my discoveries,” says Reza, “and I couldn’t find a better person to accompany me than Pip Stewart, a great adventurer and journalist.”
We catch up with Reza and Pip (who’s recently recovered from leishmaniasis, a flesh-eating parasite carried by sandflies, picked up on her last expedition kayaking in Guyana) about this monumental trip across Brazil and into the Peruvian Amazon.
Adventure.com: What was it about the Transamazonica that appealed?
Reza Pakravan: I first heard about in a book a friend lent me called The Impossible Ride by Louise Sutherland, which chronicled her bicycle journey along the Trans-Amazonian Highway. Since then, my obsession with this road grew. I was determined to cycle it.
Pip Stewart: I’d signed up to a site called Explorers Connect and saw that Reza was looking for a journalist who liked cycling so I met him to find out more. Once I started researching this region, I realized I hadn’t appreciated just how damaged it is. I’m also fascinated by human stories—for me, the hook was the people for whom the Amazon is home.
At one point, you had access and time with the indigenous Munduruku community in Brazil and took part in their annual fishing ritual…
Reza: I felt so privileged—I’ll never forget it. It happens once a year in a lake near the Tapajos river in the Brazilian Amazon. We started helping the men to collect venomous roots, which we bunched together and laid out on a log.
I sat with the men, each of us holding a wooden stick in his hand, then the Chief gave a signal. I followed the others, bashing the root to a pulp as they did. Then they called the women—who Pip was with—with an unusual noise. The women arrived and put a white, gummy liquid onto our faces to bring us good luck for our fishing trip later.
At 3am, I heard the call. Boats were filled with men ready to go. The Chief pointed me towards one and we set off, quietly putting the roots into the lake. It was pitch-black, just torchlight to guide us. We waited in the boats and after about half an hour, I saw fish begin to surface. It turns out the roots suck the oxygen out of the water, which makes the fish come up in search of air. And that was when the Munduruku speared them. I was on paddling duty while the little boy in our boat stood at the front, skillfully spearing fish.
Yours was a carefully arranged community experience, but how can travelers ensure their own encounters are ethical and appropriate?
Pip: Being invited into communities is important; often this involved us getting written permission to visit in advance. We also teamed up with a charity, ProPurús, who work in this region and they reported back to the communities with which they work that filmmakers were coming and helped us ask for approval to be there. Much of what we did isn’t accessible to travelers as we had to apply for special permits. In some of the more remote areas in Peru, we were accompanied by officials from the Ministry of Culture to ensure we didn’t go into areas where isolated communities have been reported to be living.
As a traveler, however, show respect. Ensure that communities want you there in the first place. Tourists have a responsibility not to go barging in.
Many of the communities we visited told us that they felt that many international NGOs and charities have often taken images and then buggered off. Tourism should be consciously community-led and of benefit to the people who live in the area.
You met a family who’d recently come out of isolation in the Peruvian Amazon near the border with Brazil. How was that?
Reza: Yes, in Puerto Breu in the Yurua and Alto Purus region. This family were attracted to the modern goods that loggers were carrying, like machetes, shotguns, axes, knives and so on, and decided life would be better with those goods and with clothes. But they’re struggling to adapt.
To understand more about the isolated indigenous communities, we took a dangerous boat ride upstream and after four days, reached a small village called Nuevo Eden, the last outpost before their territory.
We learned from the local Ashenika population that the isolated communities’ only contact with the outside world has been limited to arrows from one side and bullets from the other. The area is protected, but narcos and illegal loggers constantly enter their territory, and encounters often turn nasty. We also learned there’s been pressure from missionaries to move them out of the jungle.
These communities are extremely vulnerable and do not have a comprehension of our material world—they have every right to stay in isolation and there shouldn’t be any pressure to force them out. Their territory has to be respected and they should not be visited.
We read that the gold-rush town of Puerto Maldonado was of particular interest to you, why was that?
Reza: I couldn’t believe the scale of illegal gold mining operations on the banks of the Madre de Dios River in southeastern Peru, contaminating the river with mercury. Workers here toil in conditions that seem to be a hair’s breadth from slavery and at night, the town becomes a hive of prostitution.
Pip, you spoke to an ex-illegal goldminer whose wife died from exposure to the mercury. Can you talk a little about that?
We turned up at an eco-lodge, expecting to interview staff about ecotourism. Over dinner, it emerges, through a translator, that one staff member’s wife died a few weeks ago.
She’d died from the mercury poisoning caused by gold-mining. You realize so many people are affected by what’s going on in the Amazon, then you consider your own role and think, OK I won’t buy gold, or I’ll make sure it’s sustainably sourced—but it’s in our watches and smartphones. I feel big businesses need to take account of what we’re using.
So what happened in the aftermath of that woman’s death?
Pip: For this man, his wife’s death was the catalyst to change jobs, but the reality for many is different. With illegal loggers, for example, if they think they can get $10,000 for a certain tree and there’s a family to feed, you understand why they do it. It’s the same with gold. It’s easy to think it’s ‘bad’ but most people are trying to do their best. And it comes down to demand—what are we as consumers demanding?
It’s ironic as the Trans-Amazonian Highway was built to help economic development, but what do we mean by development? I had a bit of a crisis after this trip. You cycle past burning trees, being cleared for cattle-ranching. At the mines, you feel the ground shake below and hear about people whose families were murdered while trying to protect their homes and land.
Then you meet farmers trying sustainable processes and you realize you can’t focus on the negatives. But I did become more aware of my own responsibilities—we’re inextricably linked, and you can’t think, ‘That Amazon in South America doesn’t affect me’.
After everything you saw and heard, what did you take away from this experience? Is there hope for this region?
Reza: Seeing the destruction of the rainforest by cattle-ranching, monoculture, gold mining and illegal logging was heartbreaking, especially when you see their impact on the indigenous people.
But we also saw a Japanese village in the middle of the Brazilian Amazon which used the agroforestry method, preserving the environment while growing crops between trees. And we saw a cattle rancher using a sustainable farming method that meant he didn’t have to keep cutting more trees.
We can’t stop the population growth and need for more food, or expect everyone to become vegetarian or not want gold, but we can focus on where things come from and at what cost. Sustainable development is the key.
Pip: One thing that gives me great hope is what’s happening with single-use plastic. I’d love to see the same being done for gold and how it’s extracted. I had no idea before I went of the damage it causes and the social impact. The whole industry around it, from prostitution to drugs, is very seedy.
I also realized just how connected we all are, and the need to take on the challenges as a planet, not as nations—the Amazon doesn’t care for borders, and borders have no relevance when it comes to the environment.