The idea of logging in a protected forest is probably abhorrent to most people, at least those who aren't loggers. After all, what's protected supposed to mean? In the United States, the question of logging protected land is a recurrent faultline in environmental politics. Here in the Tapajós, though, Brazil has proposed a new model, allowing a collective of people who live on the margin of the forest to operate a "sustainable" logging concession. The idea is that this will offer them alternatives to slash-and-burn agriculture and illegal logging, and provide economic development and improve living standards in the community without severely degrading the forest.
The key is that the people making money off the forest are the ones who call it home. Once they are living off it, they become critical stakeholders in its preservation; the community can only be sustained by the forest so long as the forest continues to exist. Suddenly it isn't just a few napping forest wardens who stand between the jungle and an army of illegal loggers and rule-bending soy farmers. The forces of not in my backyard are hitched to the cause of preservation.
The air changed as we entered the forest, becoming suddenly rich and earthy, the heat of the day eased by moisture and shade. The truck dropped us off and drove away, leaving us to follow a small survey crew on its morning rounds. I listened to the jungle: squeaks and whoops, squawks and trills, sounds that must have been coming from a bird or an insect but that sounded like someone blowing across the mouth of a bottle. Cascades of insect noise, almost electronic. Calls and responses. Sounds weirdly familiar—I had heard them before in movies and museum exhibits. The soundscape makes the jungle.
The survey crew went about its work. I tagged along behind a cheerful man with a machete, doing my best to stay out of the swinging whirlwind of his blade, and marveling at how I could sweat so much. In the deep shade of the canopy, it wasn't even hot—yet I sweated. I could not have been more drenched by a sudden downpour. Moisture dripped from my arms, from my face, even from the brim of my hard hat. How? The question asked itself. How does a plastic hard hat sweat?
The morning survey done, we came back to the service road and walked along it for a while, toward a meeting point where the truck would pick us up. Every curve revealed a narrow vista—another towering queen of a tree, wearing a leafy corona over an impossibly slender trunk. A patch of brilliant indigo half the size of my palm materialized in the air: a butterfly. Adam crouched over a snail at the edge of the woods. In the middle of the road, a thin cable of succulent green hung out of the sky. I held it, felt the elastic connection between my hand and the distant canopy—then gave it a tug. It broke, length after length of vine spooling down on my shoulders.
Gil roamed back and forth, taking videos with his iPod. He had a special connection to this place. His grandfather's family had lived here once, before it was a protected forest. They had made a settlement of their own, with about a dozen family members living off a piece of land that Gil's grandfather considered particularly rich. In the early 1970s, though, the government had decided to protect the area by creating the Tapajós National Forest, and had expelled many of the people who lived there. Gil's grandfather had been forced to sell his land.
"It was a reasonable amount of money," Gil told me. But it had been disastrous for the family. Instead of farming together, they found themselves looking for new and unfamiliar jobs. "Like truck driver, gold prospector, fisherman." One uncle had opened a brothel and eventually sank into drug trafficking and violence.