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Published March 21, 2008 12:49 PM

Lost in the Amazon

By Elizabeth Dwoskin
Wading in muck up to the rims of his black rubber boots, Manoel dos Santos proudly showed off his tall palms of acai (pronounced ah-sie-ee), the deliciously bitter Amazonian berry that American health food stores tout as a miracle fruit. “Ten years ago, we didn’t even have enough acai for ourselves to eat,” dos Santos told the first tour group to ever visit his community.

Only recently have the people of Gurupa (an Amazon riverfront municipality of 25,000, about 2,200 miles northwest of Rio de Janeiro) begun to practice sustainable logging. Gurupa is a rare success story in the threatened Amazon rainforest. The town is buried so deep in the jungle that the most intrepid traveler would be hard pressed to find it. For the past five years, Brazilian non-governmental organization Projeto Bagagem (Project Baggage) has been taking people to such places. They call what they do “community-based tourism.”

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Here’s how it works: Project Baggage partners with a community that has a thriving social movement in place. The organization is a pioneer in a region plagued by vastly unequal access to land, poverty and an annual deforestation rate that’s sometimes as big as the state of New Jersey.

Project Baggage brings people from all over the world to learn about the community’s triumphs and struggles. Guided by local activists, the trip is part ecology class, part social history lesson, part adventure movie. And it’s also thoroughly uplifting.

A Success Story

Sitting in wooden houses built on stilts in the Amazon River floodplain, a place where the ground is so muddy that houses are connected by elevated boardwalks, the residents of Gurupa told us their story. In the 1980s, they fought off the rubber barons, and, soon after, they unwittingly deforested their lands because timber was the only source of cash. Shocked at what happened, people formed village associations and spent years drawing up resource extraction “use plans.” But imagine, they said, if one person breaks the rules and sells wood or acai at a cheaper price? More often, though, the threat comes from logging companies that set up shop without permission.
Gurupa’s residents spoke about their lives with candidness. They offered up the longest and strongest hugs I have ever received from strangers.

This year Project Baggage was selected from nearly 1,100 organizations to win a Seed Award. The award—sponsored by the Switzerland-based World Conservation Union, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) —honors social entrepreneurs that are “translating the ideals of sustainable development into action on the ground.” The organization runs four trips throughout Brazil, two in the Amazon and two in the dry, poverty-stricken Northeast. One third of every trip’s costs go to the villagers and another third to the hosting non-profit.

Luxury is not included in the $800 price tag, nor is airfare. We slept on hammocks hanging from a little boat or in residents’ houses. Our food—fish caught fresh from the milk chocolate-colored Amazon River and acai from the tree—was prepared by 4-foot, 11-inch Seu Curio, one of the locals who slept side by side with us on the boat.

All the participants walked away with an intimate sense of how the most urgent environmental and social struggles in the Amazon region get played out, told by those who have put themselves on the front lines.

“We have always lived off this forest,” said dos Santos, echoing the sentiments I heard in villages throughout Gurupa. “It has to be there for our children’s children. Who is going to save it if not us?”

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