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Read the first story in this series here.
When we set out on the expedition Seu Edmilson had not been to his rubber tapping camp for nearly twenty years – a place where he lived half the year for 50 years, before the bottom fell out of the Amazonian rubber economy. In fact, he still hasn’t been back.
Seu Edmilson, whose full name is Edmilson Rosero Campeiro da Silva, is one of a couple hundred people who live in the Extractive Reserve of the Xingu River. It’s a type of conservation area here in the Eastern Amazon, in the middle of the vast Brazilian state of Pará, set up as a park with people in it.
The families that live in these Reserves are prohibited from logging, mining or setting up cattle ranches, which is what they want. A generation or two back migrants came to the forest to tap rubber for the global rubber boom of the early 20th century, – a process that leaves the trees alive. Their children and grandchildren have mostly lived collecting forest products and fishing. The Reserves where hard fought victories for these families and for Brazilian environmentalists, both groups trying desperately to stem to rush of land grabbers, cattle ranchers, loggers, and miners.
At 82, Seu Edmilson has watched various economies come and go on the Xingu River. Born on the river to a family of migrants from Brazil’s arid and poverty stricken Northeast Coast, he grew up at the end of the rubber boom in the 1930s. He started helping his father collect the latex from the rubber tree when he was a child, spending half the year in their rubber outpost on the Pardo River – a small tributary that flows into the mighty Xingu River.
He watched the rubber economy fade, hunted big cats for their fur, had children go off to a gold rush, watched loggers pull nearly all the mahogany out of this forest, and had gun toting land grabbers burn his house to the ground. He was able to stay, in large part, as he tells it, thanks to the creation of the Extractive Reserve in 2006.
Standing under a towering forest canopy Edmilson says, “Here I’m at home.” And Edmilson never stopped tapping rubber. At the outskirt of his garden he pointed out a tree he has cut his entire life. He held onto a way of life that allowed living in the forest long past it’s economic viability. But, he did eventually abandon his outpost up the Pardo River, as did the dozens of other rubber tapping families.
Edmilson’s wife, Dona Eliza, has never been to the outpost. Through all the years she stayed home on the Xingu River, raising the children and tending the gardens, while Edmilson tapped rubber or hunted cats.
In March of this year, 2017, Edmilson set out to return to that place he called a home for more than half his life. He says it’s likely for the last time he will visit, and he wants to show the beauty of the place to his wife.
We set out on this voyage along with three of the Silvas’ sons, two grandsons, two neighbors, and a team from the Instituto Socioambiental, a non-profit that helped set up the Reserves. It’s a crew complete with a nurse, an anthropologist and two-year old son, videographer, and an American geographer. That would be me.
Storm clouds looming on the horizon, the expedition leaves Edmilson’s compound of gardens and grand fruit trees in two boats – a large wooden canoe and one metal boat borrowed, begrudgingly, from the Brazilian environmental agency. The journey should take weeks, and I’m told we will carry the boats over a waterfall.
As we travel up the winding Pardo we quickly leave the Reserve and enter a National Park – a conservation unit where human habitation or disturbance is forbidden, in theory. Seu Edmilson points out the old rubber-tapping outposts that dot this riverbank. To me they look like any other patch of forest. He explains, “This river used to be full of families in the rubber season… We would travel weeks, paddling upstream, and would stay at somebodies camp each night.”
We don’t have that luxury, cutting open patches of forest to set up hammocks and mosquito nets beneath blue tarps. However, we spend one night with Brazil nut gatherers. Several years ago some of the families of the Reserve arranged with the environmental agency to return to the Rio Pardo, not to tap rubber but to collect Brazil nuts, a budding cash crop.
Nearly a week into the trip we come to a clearing on the river bank – an illegal cattle ranch operating in the park, spanning thousands of acres, and only one of several in operation within the park.
The next day we reach the waterfall. Years ago Edmilson came up the river after the rains had past. With his father, and then his sons, he would unload the canoe, carry the belongings up the waterfall, and then carry the dug out wooden canoe over the rocks. But in the middle of the rainy season, that was an impossibility.
With no options we head downriver. Edmilson calls out as the boats pull away from the bank, “Goodbye beautiful waterfall! Until next time!” But Seu Edmilson and Dona say they are happy with the trip. Edmilson says he is happy most because of the future he sees for the Rio Pardo and this piece of the Amazon more generally.
Three of their sons, after years mining gold and working in the city, decided to come home and have families in the Reserve, collecting Brazil nuts and tapping rubber trees, and this year they collected nuts on the Pardo. A forest economy is now viable, thanks to the non-profit’s work to secure direct buyers for local rubber and other products. After twenty years, there is budding life on the Rio Pardo.