Since last week, I have received a lot of requests for a translated version of the book … I am sorry, there is none. But we did a rough-and-ready translation of the preview piece that appeared in today’s Die ZEIT. Here goes!
The last Guardian of the Forest
Our author Thomas Fischermann went to meet an endangered Amazonian people. The young warrior Madarejúwa Tenharim explained to him how man and nature can live in harmony. He wants to defend his home to the death
I did not look happy when I ate the monkey. “Here, have an arm”, my companion said. “It is really well done. Get rid of the black crust on the outside first. Do you want manioc flour to go with that? Please, don’t give me that look!”
Madarejúwa Tenharim, my host in the Amazonian forest, was 20 years old at the time. The young warrior was proud to serve a feast to his guest from faraway Germany. All day long, he had been making a big secret out of what the plastic bag he was carrying around. What kind of treasure might be inside? When the sun set, his secret was revealed.
„We are going to have a barbecue. I have a surprise. I have hunted a monkey for us. It is a capuchin monkey, a female. Good barbecue material.”
We had set up our hammocks for a night by Rio Marmelos, between the trees of an old castanhal, for hours away from the closest village. One of those cold and wet Amazonian nights had begun, and we sat close to the fire where our monkey was being grilled.
Hesitantly, I nibbled on the meat, half because I was hungry and half because I was polite. Madarejúwa said that the smoke of our fire would keep the mosquitos away, it would have to burn the whole night. When there was a noise in the underwood, I shuddered with fear. Had we attracted some predator with the smell of the monkey’s meat?
Madarejúwa laughed, he is not afraid of anything in this forest at all. The Tenharim live in a reservation roughly of the size of Schleswig-Holstein. It is a region of rainforest full of rivers and cascades, wild animals and rare plants. The about 900 members of this indigenous people maintain a surprisingly traditional lifestyle, although they have for decades been in contact with the white man – at times peaceful, at times violent.
Only a tiny number of Tenharim families still live without any contact with the outside world. They are naked with the exception of a protective cloth for the loin area, they roam their forest as hunters and gatherers. My guide Madarejúwa was not one of them. He is more of a wanderer between the worlds. When I got to know him, he was sitting on the floor in a village close to a road that crosses the reservation, where they have power generators, water toilets and other comforts of modern life. He was wearing a football shirt and a rather loud pair of sunglasses. He had visited the settlements of the white people a number of times, he had gotten in contact with television and even the internet, and he was even carrying an old mobile phone around. He had no use for it, though. In the land of the Tenharim, there is no cellphone reception.
But Madarejúwa has also grown up with the stories that the elders of his people told him in the Kagwahiva language.
„I am learning things since I am a child. First, my grandfather gave me a tiny bow and arrows with a rubber tip, so that I would hurt no one. Later, I went hunting with him. I know how to hold an arrow – yes, like that, you look along the arrow with your yes. You give it direction with the fingers of your left hand. You have to be quick when you shoot your arrow. This, you have to know if you want to hunt.”
When we left his village by the road, Madarejúwa turned into another person. He was now wearing his feather crown and he painted his body with the red paint made from urucum. To increase his attention and the sharpness of his sight, he sometimes took drugs prescribed by the Shaman. For a couple of months per year, he and his family roam the forest in this way. They live from fishing and hunting, like nomads in the old times.
My first encounter with the Tenharim was four years ago. For ZEITmagazin (49/14), I was reporting on a war (with a team of esteemed colleagues: the writer Philipp Lichterbeck, the photographer Giorgio Palmera and the documentary maker and passionate forest guide Davilson Brasileiro). A Tenharim chief had been found dead by the road, and little later, three inhabitants from the nearby settlements of the woodcutters were found dead on the reservation of the Tenharim. As a response, a mob of 300 white people took up torches and firearms against their villages. The military had to be called, and a massacre was avoided, but it was a near miss.
I was interested in these conflicts, because the speed of deforestation in the Amazon has been increasing again. The Brazilian government likes to declare its support for environmental protection, but up here, they support the development of the region by large-scale farmers, wood producers and energy companies. In many places, indigenous people rise up against these advances, and they are paying a high price. The stories of those last guardians of the forest frequently end with expulsion or with dead.
Continuous areas of forest are mostly find in the nature parks set up by the state, and in protection areas for indigenous populations – places like those where people like the Tenharim defend their home. On satellite photos, they look like dark zones made up of dense crowns of trees, with rivers running through. All around, the photos show chessboard patterns of agricultural areas that have been deforested. Over the last 50 years, about a fifth of all trees have been destroyed.
Over four years, I went to the Tenharim again and again. I wanted to understand what drove them into their desperate conflict. How did they think this would work – defend a huge area of forest with arrow and bow alone? Did they even have a chance?
The Tenharim answered that my questions were wrong. They told me that I should learn what the forest means to them. Madarejúwa was chosen as my guide, and he did his best to explain his world to me.
Soon, we navigated our boat through the streams and rivers of the reservation. We walked on the old paths this indigenous people, the reporter in boots and with his collection of high-tech equipment from the adventure store, Madarejúwa barefoot, with a quiver of arrows over his shoulder and a machete in his hand. He called the animals in their own language, and he killed them at times. When he saw that I did not like the business of killing monkeys, he wanted to talk.
„I see, you don’t like it that we are eating a monkey. What would you have preferred – a wild boar? But it is not right to kill a boar or another large animal. There is only us here. If we hunt a big animal, parts of it will be left over. It is wrong to kill an animal if you cannot eat all of it. Then, we have to smoke the rest and prepare to take it on our journey. Today, there is no time.”
So there was I – in the forest, far away from my German home with its laws on emission control, its environmental certifications, animal protection rules and high minded ideas on how to live ecologically correct. Next to me, by the fireside, sat a monkey killer from an alien culture who was teaching me one ecological insight after the other.
I learned that I had to listen really well when he talked about hunting, about how to defend against jaguars and snakes, or the demons of the forest. I learned about an ancient set of ideas on how the balance between man and nature should be, it was much older than modern science. The Tenharim have been transferring this knowledge for hundreds of years, and they also keep developing it further. I had a lot to learn from those monkey murderers of Rio Marmelos.
„The chief decides when a man is allowed to first shoot a large animal like a tapir. Some are allowed to do this at the age of 14 or 16, in my case, it was at the age of 8. It is not enough to learn how to shoot. How do you want to shoot anything if you are blind in the forest? When we are children, we learn where to find the animals, we get to know their paths and their hideaways.
We learn it from the stories that the elders keep telling us: about Mbaira, the god of the worldly things, and about Boahã, our first chief. He was the best hunter of all times, he invented the best weapons for hunting and for war. He came up with the paint that makes us invisible in the forest. Before he died, he passed on his secrets to his sons, and until today, the Tenharim tell the old stories from the old times. Boahã even taught us to talk to our elders when they were long dead, to ask them questions and hear their answers.”
The Tenharim maintain their knowledge in the form of such stories. Frequently, we sat around a fire or under some tree, and we talked about the forest. I could not make out any particular system of didactics. Stories were just told as they came. I learned about the yporokweruhua, the great deluge of the forest, about the magical herb garden of grandmother Ami, about how old Mohã ran away from an Anaconda, and so on.
The more extensive versions of these stories came with long lists of plants and animals, complete with where to find them, how to eat them, how to make them into something useful with tools, how to apply their healing powers. Some of the mythical events seemed to explain ecological processes in rather direct ways. Others reminded of how people had made mistakes when dealing with nature in the past, so that those mistakes were not repeated by their descendents.
Never was it only one person alone who told these stories. “They say that all of the stories have to be told together, and that everybody is allowed to add a piece”, Madarejúwa scolded me when I got frustrated one day, sitting there with my writing pad on my knees. Everybody was talking at the same time, and all the storytellers had started running around.
„A single person cannot remember everything. He forgets, or the things he remembers lose their life. Somebody else will remember. This way, nothing is lost. The old people have their habits when they want to remember things. They say that one should dance and sing, paint their body, put on some kind of ornament. They advise you to visit the graves of great chiefs or the places where the elders used to hunt. All this protects against forgetting things. It also helps to keep things that belonged to somebody important. It should be something durable, in this case.”
In the end, I gained the impression that all those collective memories were some kind of user manual for the rainforest: an unwritten book of wisdom whose first edition came out before history. A Brazilian botanist who does research at the University of Rostock, Luiza de Paula, told me later that indigenous people like the Tenharim perform astonishing feats when it comes to the taxonomy of animals and plants. In their territories, they distinguish a lot more different kinds of species than modern science. “But their system cannot be compared to ours”, she added. “The indigenous want to know different things about animals and plants than us. They are mostly interested in: how can we all survive together?”
„You have already seen how we can call the animals. They come to us. First you did not want to believe it, and then I showed it to you. You do not yet know that we also talk to their souls when they are dead. It is good to do so, an important part of the hunt. The elders know a song for every animal: for the tapir, monkey and wild boar, even for every kind of fish. The old people say: When you kill an animal, you must sing a song. It is a message to the animals, to their souls and their relatives.
The animals talk to the Tenharim in our dreams. Old Topeí from the village tells us every year: When we kill to many pigs, the lord of the pigs comes to complain with him. In the middle of the night, he sings a sad song: Eee! Please do not stop, so many have died, mothers and their kids! This is how he tells it. Topeí says that this is not just a request, but also a threat.
There are hunters that hunt too many animals in a mad rush. They kill more than their family can eat. It has happened to a lot of young hunters. When their fathers cannot stop them in time, the hunters turn into pigs.
Yes, the lord of the pigs has such power. He farts, a horrible smell from his ass. He farts three times, pu!, pu!, pu!. The hunter faints, and nobody sees him again. On the next day, he runs with the pigs. The old people say, it has happened a number of times.”
Madarejúwa would never admit as much, but the Tenharim are horrified about the escalation of violence, about the mob that came to threaten them four years ago. The Tenharim know that, all around their reservation, the trees are gone. There is nothing left to feed the sawmills of the white man. The pressure on their reservation is growing fast.
“I am ready to die while defending my people”, Madarejúwa told me in great seriousness. In the beginning, I had trouble understanding the degree of his dedication. I was not sure if he literally meant that he would fight to the death.
It is not that Madarejúwa and his contemporaries do not know the modern world. They even enjoy some of it. Once, Madarejúwa told me: “Some like to go to the city. They like the displays in the shops and the advertisement on television. They come back, and they wish for more money, better mobile phones, new sports shoes, or scooters.”
But I also learned that for Madarejúwa, those things could never make up for what he is set to lose. Without his forest, he does not know who he is. Food and medicine from the forest could probably be replaced by purchases in the city, but communicating with nature gives Madarejúwa his identity. All the knowledge that his elders have passed on to him, all the old stories and the practices of his culture – they only make sense in here.
“I know that you have doubts that we can win a war against the woodcutters”, says Madarejúwa. This made him furious. He insisted that the Tenharim had won many wars against their indigenous adversaries. He told me about his people’s forest excursions as “indigenous vigilantes”, where they got to see the invaders.
„I was close to their bases in the forest, where they stood with firearms. I could have killed them with my arrows, this is how close I was! They did not even see or hear me.”
But he never talked in belligerent tones for long. “We are a peaceful people, we want to live in peace with everybody”, he insisted. I think that, in his heart, he would love to lead all his neighbours from the settlements through his forest just like me. For him, it would be a victory if they could see the world like a Tenharim.
„I believe that nature needs man to take care of her. She rewards us if we do so. We are sitting under a tree, because the tree provides us with shade. Under a tree, there is a special kind of air, a tree can refresh a man, and make him very calm. A man knows when he is under a tree, there is no other place where he feels like that. The best place to sleep is under a tree. The Tenharim have been protecting the trees since the beginning of time.”