Humanity is exalted not because we are so far above other living creatures, but because knowing them well elevates the very concept of life. E.O. Wilson, 1984

29 Oct 2013

Dispatches from Amazonia: 2. Golden Guyane, France’s Wild West

Three time zones and four inflight movies later, but still in France. With euros and cheese, hammocks and palm trees, Guiana, France’s 97th department, is also its final frontier. The overseas province began life as a penal colony, before whispers of precious metals reached the coast. Soon began a gold rush of the down and out, heading inland and upriver, southwards towards the rolling hills and inselbergs. The small village of Saul lies at the heart of the territory, established at the beginning of the 19th centuryto accommodate the wave of potential prospectors who began skimming nearby rivers and creeks for nuggets of prosperity. Some left unhappy, some lined their pockets, and others emptied those pockets at gunpoint. And over one hundred years later, the dream of finding a hunk of treasure at the bottom of a jungle stream is as strong as ever.

I too came looking for treasure, but of a very different nature, and if you are a regular reader, you will by now be aware of my particular penchant for all things formicine (ants).  Along with twenty other researchers, I headed to the forest to the south of Saul, within the Parc Amazonien de Guyane to document its biodiversity. Fish, mushrooms, trees and plants, butterflies, moths, beetles and ants! We set up camp next to the crique limonade, absent, we were informed, of parasites and pollution caused by illegal gold miners and their mercury used to agglomerate gold dust. Over two weeks, we collected samples and measurements which we hope will reveal the mysteries locked in unstudied rainforest.

A few days after our arrival, the ranger of the reserve we were working in came to camp on his quadbike, to inform us that an artisanal gold mine had been seized and shut down to the north. The miners, illegal Brazilian clandestines, were told to head back across the border, which turned out to be roughly in the direction of our camp. Discussion around dinner that night was naturally centred on the miners. We were told anecdotes of gunfire, theft and fortune, only enforcing our panic of their arrival. A couple of days later, whilst out at a survey site, I bumped into 3 of them, burdened with the largest rucksacks I had ever seen. They were wiry thin, with hardened and dirty faces, but were polite and respectful. I immediately felt guilty of having judged them. A colleague who spoke Portuguese learnt more of their desperation, from a female member of the group who could not hold back her tears.

It is not only the poor who are interested in the metals beneath the rivers of Saul. The international mining conglomerate Rexma have also applied for and gained permission to begin extraction. This goes against the wishes of the local population, and the ethos of the national park. Rexma, however, have been taken to court by a local campaign group, having been accused of modifying the environmental report produced for them by an independent eco-consultancy group.

The extraction of gold dirties not only the waters of the rivers which flow above it, but the lives of those around, from the ants of the forest (used by certain researchers as bio-indicators of the impacts of mines), to the local populations who drink the contaminated waters and undergo the contamination of their local economies.

Dispatches from Amazonia: 1. Mud, sweat and tears

I’m dragging bruised feet through thigh deep mud. The swamp began 6km from base camp, itself a good hour and a half walk from the jungle choked landing strip. And it is here, with one week left to the expedition that I strike my wellington boot on a jagged tree stump with just enough force to pierce the rubber. Thus begins the drenching of my socks, and the eventual fungal rot and infection of the central toe of my right hand foot.

A jungle can over-weigh on arrival, a visceral screaming spectacular for the sensory organs. On certain days this cornucopia of flora and fauna can cease to exist, instead replaced by a dripping wall of verdant monotony. For a field biologist such as myself, a jungle can fracture the spirit, instilling in its visitors a schizophrenia of awe and bore. The leap of the heart upon discovering a new species, quick dulled by the throbbing itch of your one hundred and seventy third mosquito bite (the window to your next bout of malaria/dengue/yellow fever). The wanderlust inspired by its unending entrails quick dulled by only ever seeing 20m ahead.

Once the mud has soaked through and my sweat has dried, I reload the weighty bags of sampling equipment onto my back, and continue to trudge. But not without smiling, and upon reflection with my colleagues, I realised that I would struggle to be happier elsewhere. I pictured friends in London, hunched over office computers, lab desks or hospital beds, or others in Paris struggling to find work at all. I may be paying the price in mud, sweat and tears, but in the heart of the jungle I have found a life of my own.