Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from Visit Sunny Chernobyl: And Other Adventures In the World's Most Polluted Places, by Andrew Blackwell (Rodale, 2012).
The highway in the dark as the kilometers ticked by. We were driving south from Santarém on BR-163, one of the few highways to cut across the Brazilian Amazon. This close to Santarém, the road was paved and free of potholes. Further south it is unpaved, becoming almost impassable in the rainy season.
Locations on the road south of Santarém are found not by signs or named roads but by their kilometer number. My friend Adam and I were headed for a turnoff somewhere in the low 70s. There, we would meet some people who spent their days ripping trees out of a protected rainforest. Yet as much as I would have loved to befriend a secretive band of lumber pirates, I had had no such luck. Somehow, it was all legal.
Dawn brightened by increments behind the tinted windows of the car. The Amazon canopy flew past, mist rising among the treetops. We were inside a vast hydrological pump, which lifts and distributes an ocean's worth of water across the Americas, shaping and driving weather patterns around the continent. Or rather, we were at its edge. To our right was the boundary of the Tapajós National Forest, the trees lining the shoulder of the road. To the left, though, the vista modulated between forest and rangeland, then would fall away in the flat blankness of soy field: mile-long rectangles of bare earth. Gil—a scruffy Amazonian windsurfer whom Adam and I had hired to be our translator and guide—squinted through his window, looking for kilometer markers.
If you're interested in deforestation, you go where the action is. So I'd come to Brazil, where I hoped I would be able to catch the bleeding edge of a booming economy in midsweep across the rainforest. I wanted to see the worst of the worst.
But I was a few years late. When it comes to leveling the Amazon, Brazil has been falling down on the job. Gone are the go-go days of the mid-2000s, when more than ten thousand square miles of rainforest could disappear in a single year. That number has since fallen by more than two thirds, to less than 2,500 square miles in 2011, which is the lowest rate of destruction since the country began keeping records in the late 1980s. And all this at a time when Brazil's economy has been growing steadily—a situation that would normally have resulted in more deforestation.
The most convincing explanations for this all have to do with economic factors that are beyond anyone's control. But many people are hoping—and the Brazilian government wants you to believe—that the lull in the destruction is also attributable, at least in part, to recent innovations in the monitoring and management of forests. Which is why we were headed now for the Tapajós National Forest.
We reached the logging camp at around seven in the morning. The loggers were meeting in a bare, wooden room in the main building. Men and women in hard hats and work clothes stood in a circle and made announcements. There was laughter and applause. They joined hands and said a prayer, looking not at all piratical. Then we went out and got into the back of a large, covered truck that bounced and shuddered down a rutted dirt road in the direction of the Tapajós River, into the heart of the national forest. We were riding with the Ambé project.
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.
Gil didn't think that creating the national forest had been wrong—only that it had been created on the wrong model. "See, in those years, the policy was based in the USA's Yellowstone," he told me.
He couldn't have chosen a more relevant example. Yellowstone was the first national park in the world, and its creation, in 1872, marked the moment in which white Americans truly fell in love with the splendor of the land they had conquered. But for that love to grow, the ideal of wilderness as a source of rapture and recreation had to be separated out from the loathing we all felt for native Americans, whose presence in the West tended to distract from our John Muir-style reveries.
Muir himself, the St. Francis of the American West and a prophet of wilderness preservation, admitted that he was barely tolerant of the native Americans he encountered. In 1869, he wrote that he would “prefer the society of squirrels and woodchucks.” Muir's reverence for what he saw as the natural order of things continues to fuel conservation today, but it didn't extend so far as to include humans—of any color—as part of the environment. "Most Indians I have seen are not a whit more natural in their lives than we civilized whites," he wrote. "The worst thing about them is their uncleanliness. Nothing truly wild is unclean."
Native Americans were excluded from Yellowstone at its creation. Though people had been present for thousands of years in the area that was to become the park, native American practices of hunting and planned burning were anathema to a view of nature as sacrosanct from human involvement. If native Americans had been allowed to remain, they would have gotten in the way of all the nature white people wanted to appreciate. The creation of Yellowstone formalized the idea that human beings have no place in a protected wilderness—unless they are tourists.
As a result, some of the places we consider most pristine, most wild, are in some ways deeply artificial. A popular park like Yellowstone is in some ways every bit as controlled, as managed, as the Exclusion Zone of Chernobyl. And even parks less besieged by visitors than Yellowstone or Yosemite are premised on ideas and laws that define human beings as outside of nature.
This artificial division between natural and unnatural pervades our understanding of the world. Industrialists may hope to dominate nature, and environmentalists to protect it—but both camps depend on the same dualism, on a conception of nature as something to which humanity has no fundamental link, and in which we have no inherent place. And it's a harmful dualism, even if it takes the form of veneration. It keeps us from embracing a robust, engaged environmentalism that is based on something more than gauzy, prelapsarian yearnings.
But we cling to the ideal of a separate and perfect nature as though to give it up would be the same as paving over the Garden of Eden. When I met with the writer and academic Paul Wapner, whose ideas I'm stealing here, he told me that a colleague had warned him not to publish his book on this subject, titled Living Through the End of Nature. His colleague thought it was a bad career move, and that anyone who argued that the concept of "Nature" was no longer a useful one was giving away the farm.
But the farm has already been given away. We're just so entranced by the concept of nature-as-purity that we won't face facts. Our environment is not on the brink of something. It is over the brink—over several brinks—and has been for some time. It was more than twenty years ago that Bill McKibben pointed out the simple fact that there is no longer any nook or cranny of the globe untouched by human effects. It's time to stop pretending otherwise, to stop pretending that we haven't already entered the Anthropocene, a new geological age marked by massive species loss (already achieved) and climate change (in progress).
But the dream of nature is so dear to us that to wake from it seems like a betrayal. The sense that we have not yet gone over that brink—not quite—is what motivates us to our ablutions, our donations, our recycling, our hope. But it is a great untruth. The task now, perhaps, is not to preserve the fantasy of a separate and pure nature, but to see how thoroughly we are part of the new nature that still lives. That's what it will take to preserve it, and us.
We went to find the rest of the loggers. The truck dropped us at the edge of a large, muddy clearing with a dozen large, felled trees stacked around its periphery. The air was alive with the riot of engines and saws. The clearing was a temporary holding area for trees that had been felled in the surrounding forest. A man with a chainsaw went from log to log, sawing off the sloping protrusions of roots at their bases, while other workers, both men and women, measured and marked them. An angry, saber-toothed forklift picked logs up in twos or threes and dropped them into a pile. They landed with a deep thunk.
After our peaceful stroll through the forest, we were a little freaked out by the crashing industry of it all. I had expected a sustainable logging collective to involve a dozen nice folks and a good chainsaw. Instead, the nice folks had serious machinery and meant business. You could have taken pictures here that looked like every conservationist's nightmare—a mayhem of logs and mud. Or you could have taken pictures of the jolly, hardworking crew, and of the communities they supported, and of the forest that, it was hoped, their logging was helping to protect.
"The skidder is coming!" Gil said. "You can't see this very often! Let's go, let's go!" We ran to the edge of the clearing and into the forest. A corridor of crushed vegetation led deeper into the jungle. Something had been through here. Trees were scraped and bruised where it had passed.
From the forest, we heard the shriek and growl of an engine. It heaved into sight: the skidder. This was how logs were brought out from the inaccessible interior, where they had been felled. They were dragged out behind a narrow, streamlined tank, a low, blunt-nosed hedgehog of a machine that was now headed our way.
Gil raised his iPod to record it. "We want to make sure not to be near it when it passes," he said, in the staring voice of the awestruck. The skidder plunged toward us, a colonizing robot from another world, surprisingly fast, shouldering trees aside as it bore closer, nearly on top of us.
And then we were running for our lives, screaming with joy and terror, leaping out of the way. It passed just a few yards from us, wheels grinding, and was gone. In its wake, a gigantic log slid coolly, massively, over the forest floor.
Distressed, Gil waved the iPod in the air. "It wasn't recording!" His disappointment took the form of an intense, quivering joy. Then we turned, and the machine was there again, back from the clearing, outbound for another log, bullheaded, inhuman, implacable.
On our way out, we stopped at the patio—the storage area near the highway, where logs awaited transport. They were piled twenty or more to a stack, each log three feet in diameter. We drove over soft ground flooded with rainwater, winding our way through a dozen stacks, two dozen. Flying ants wavered against the mountainous piles of logs. The purple stylus of a dragonfly appeared and disappeared. The air was thick with wood and rot.
Gil shook his head. "It's hard to believe this won't f--- up the forest, isn't it?"
Adapted from Visit Sunny Chernobyl, by Andrew Blackwell. Copyright (c) 2012 by Andrew Blackwell. By permission of Rodale, Inc. Available wherever books are sold.