It was 4.30am and still pitch black as Francisco, my guide and seringueiro (rubber-tapper) by trade, was trying to persuade me it would be a good idea to wear a poronga on my head, a kerosene headlamp with a naked flame. In fact, these are no longer used and have been replaced by the more sensible, not to say safer, battery-operated ones, but the idea was to learn about how life was for the seringueiros and this was all part of the experience. Nevertheless, being over six feet tall, I could just picture myself hitting an overhead branch and starting a major forest fire, so I posed for a few pictures and then went out into the jungle armed only with my torch.
I was spending a few days at the Pousada Ecológica Seringal Cachoeira which stands in a preserved part of the jungle near Xapuri in the state of Acre in the far northwest of Brazil. So far west, in fact, that it’s in a different time zone from the rest of the country. This is where Chico Mendes first worked on the rubber plantations before his assassination in his house in Xapuri in 1988. Chico organised the rubber-tappers into a union and also fought in direct confrontation with the landowners, loggers and ranchers who began moving in and turning the forest into pastures and farms for cattle.
My guide for the three days, Francisco, was related to Chico and he had great stories to tell. His first wife came from a family who lived in the jungle and her father taught him much about the plants, trees and animals of the forest. Plus, he has worked there for 48 years and his knowledge of the surrounding nature was staggering. He delighted in tearing leaves of trees and trying to get me to identify them through smell. I correctly got cinammon, but the next was more fascinating – it smelt like an ointment you’d put on a strained ligament and, in fact, that’s exactly what it’s used for.
On our treks into the jungle he showed me not only how to extract the latex from rubber trees (best done before dawn), but also Brazil nut trees, the samauma (the biggest tree in the forest) and the açaí palm from which comes the purple berry which is eaten all over Brazil usually as a kind of frozen yoghurt in a bowl with granola and fresh fruit. It’s one of my favourite things in Brazil and is a must when you’re travelling here.
Another tree which Francisco showed me was what he called quina-quina, good for malaria, he told me. I realised it was where we get quinine from, used to treat malaria for centuries. Wildlife was pretty scarce. Francisco told me that in all his time in the jungle he’s only ever seen a jaguar three times and admitted to being quite frightened. He did a very good impression of one snorting and roaring though.
I travelled there from Brasileia on the border with Cobija in Bolivia and the scenes from the bus are ones of depressing devastation. All the way to Rio Branco and further to Porto Velho in Rondônia, a journey of hundreds of miles, the road is lined with cattle ranches and farms. Occasionally, there is smoke to be seen as fires burn, clearing the way for pastures. On the television screen in the bus station the commercials were dominated by companies selling tractors or pest control; cattle flies can really damage your profits if not treated, we were warned. Nobody seemed too concerned about the damage to the environment.
In these two remote states of Brazil everything seems to be about commerce, raising cattle or popping across the border into Bolivia for cheaper goods. Tourism and indeed ecotourism are not promoted here, with the honourable exception of the Seringal Cachoeira. But when I was there, I was the only guest.
It was a privilege, though, to spend time with Francisco and marvel at how in touch with nature he was. He told me he once spent a year in the jungle and declared that all you need to survive is a lighter and a knife. Not totally true, I replied, pointing to my head, you need knowledge too. He smiled wistfully in recognition, as if aware that that knowledge, like the jungle itself, is slowly disappearing.