Where the River Fairies Are: A Quest on the Amazon River with the Pink Dolphins

In her year as a Thomas J. Watson Fellow, Jasmine Qin traveled through four great rivers (Rhine, Amazon, Mekong, and Ganges) from source to delta, living with communities, interviewing experts, hiking mountains, and traveling on boats. Here, she shares her adventure through the Amazon River and the complex, intertwining stories that follow the boto.

It was the fourth day that I had been traveling on a passenger ship named Oliveira, swinging my way through the Amazon River on a hammock, weaved in among hundreds onboard. Fully loaded, Oliveira was on her first voyage after Christmas from Tabatinga, a small Brazilian town bordering Peru and Colombia, heading east towards Manaus, the heart of the central Amazon.

Hundreds of hammocks onboard the passenger ship Oliveira traveling from Tabatinga to Manaus, Brazil.

Just below Manaus, our ship passed the famous meeting of waters. Everyone flocked to see coffee-colored Rio Negro converge with cream-colored Rio Solimões, joining each other like lovers’ fingers clutching. The dark water of Rio Negro hails from the ancient Brazilian highlands, whose sediment trickled away millions of years ago. Filtering through fine sandy soil, organic chemicals from fallen leaves and dead wood leach directly into Rio Negro and brew a nearly sterile river of acid tannin tea. The milky water of Rio Solimões, however, is loaded with nutrient-rich silt collected from the headwaters in the young Andes, swarming with remarkable creatures fitted to navigate in limited visibility.

I had dreamed of encountering the Amazon long before I acquired my first passport. 10,000 miles away, in southern China, I became infatuated with the Amazon’s luscious rainforests and world’s largest river, pulsing with marvelous lives. Growing up among concrete jungles, I kept my eyes peeled for TV programs about majestic jaguars camouflaged in spots, flocks of raucous parrots, giant fish charged with electricity, miniscule brilliantly colored frogs, and butterflies bigger than my palm.

So finally there I was on the river from my childhood dreams, the artery of the world’s largest rainforest, home to one-third of all species on Earth, looking for one rose-colored river fairy: the Amazon river dolphin. In Brazil, people call them boto and believe the dolphin can turn into a beautiful person and take you to an enchanted city underwater. In Peru, the creature is known as bufeo colorado (rosy dolphin) because of its pink coloration. The shamans believe that every breath of the dolphin has power. I could not resist the allure of these pink dolphins to guide me into the Amazon.

***

In downtown Manaus, there is another meeting of the waters – on the stage curtain of Teatro Amazonas (Amazon Theater), featuring the naked goddess Amazonas and bearded river god Negro. Those deities witnessed the rise of Manaus during the rubber fever fueled by aspirations to motorize the world on wheels. Inaugurated in 1896 after fifteen years of construction, Teatro Amazonas was the centerpiece of the European rubber barons’ dream of building another Paris in the Amazon. Lauded as the most beautiful opera house in the world, Teatro Amazonas was built piece by piece from across the ocean: iron structure from Glasgow, crystal from Venice, silk from China, and furniture from London. During its most glorious days, audiences in the opera’s harp-shaped theater were among the world’s wealthiest, thanks to sales of the milky gold of the forest – rubber latex. Women of Manaus decorated their silk dresses and fans with diamonds. Men sometimes tipped waitresses with gems. But the opulence of Manaus was built on the bones of millions of indigenous people from the forest. Captured, cajoled, and tortured to serve the rubber barons’ frenzied way of life, few slaves survived.

Teatro Amazonas at dusk.

Teatro Amazonas at dusk.

Today, Manaus’ ambition for affluence is powered by another wave of global desire for wealth. Soon after we passed the meeting of the waters, the scene changed dramatically: oil refineries, floating gas stations, and high-rise buildings packed the shoreline of this mega-city, home to over two million people. No more could I see the green belts of rainforests that formed the backdrop of breathtaking sunsets, where callings of the howler monkeys gave me thrills. Ahead of our boat, the first bridge over the Amazon River came into view. Stretching three kilometers across Rio Negro, a sleek suspension bridge named Iranduba is the new pride of Manaus. Over the past thirty years, the city has tripled in size, pushing forest farther from sight and choking streams and harbors with litter and sewage.

Modern port of Manaus at the heart of the Amazon.

Modern port of Manaus at the heart of the Amazon.

The stark modern reality completely overwhelmed my dream of untouched wilderness and mythical legends of the Amazon.

***

The legends of botos as the shape-shifting rulers of the enchanted city underwater come in different narrations. In some stories, the botos turn into handsome men with blonde hair and pale complexion, dressed in white suits, join local parties and seduce the most beautiful girls to the enchanted city underwater. People who are taken will never want to leave because everything is more beautiful there. In others, amorous botos approach girls who are near the water and impregnate them; their children have holes on top of their heads and flipper-like arms. These stories have instilled fear and detestation of the botos in people living near the river. In these predominantly Catholic communities, people often blame the botos for out-of-wedlock pregnancies and birth defects. But 100 kilometers northwest of Manaus in Novo Airão, a small town of around 15,000 residents on Rio Negro, is the home, I learned, of some women who beckoned botos and became a modern legend.

Before the construction of the Iranduba Bridge, a trip to Novo Airão from Manaus would take about ten hours on a passenger ship. Nowadays air-conditioned buses can transport people over in fewer than three hours. People told me that I could find the boto women at the Boto Floating House by the river beach, which is a short walk down the only main street. Around the white façades of the green-roofed floating house, pink dolphin caricatures invited people to visit.

Marisa Granjeiro, eldest daughter of the floating house owner, looked exactly like the boto princess I had imagined. Charming and plump, she flaunted everything dolphin-related in a delightful manner: a tank top with an embroidered boto figure and a line below that read Ama Boto (love boto), a silver dolphin-tail pendant dancing around her neck, a gold ring featuring a small jumping dolphin, and a dolphin-tail tattoo on the inner side of her wrist.

Marisa had her first close contact with the pink dolphins sixteen years ago when she was still a nine-year-old girl. Back then, the floating house was a family restaurant owned by her mother. Marisa had always noticed the dolphins nearby. One day when she was helping her mother cleaning fish, a curious one came close. Like most people in town at the time, Marisa’s mother, Marilda Madeiros, was afraid that the botos would seduce her daughter and warned Marisa to stay away. Undeterred, Marisa went ahead and made friends with the wild dolphins. Later when Marilda found her daughter feeding the dolphins with fish from the restaurant, she furiously stopped her. In order to keep the newly formed friendship, Marisa set up a stall and sold sweets and barbecue to make money and buy fish for the botos. In time, Marilda surrendered to her daughter’s love for the dolphins and converted her restaurant into a tourist facility where people could come and admire those enchanting animals up close. Over the years, the number of botos visiting the floating house has increased from four or five to sixteen and Marisa has grown into a young woman.

The back of the floating house was an open deck. From there I could see as far as where the river, islands, and sky met. Several hundred meters away from the deck, a string of red buoys drifted, signaling boats and ships to bypass the area where botos frequented. When I arrived, a group of tourists was already waiting for their encounter with the most charming creatures of the Amazon. Josiane Nascinemto, staff at the floating house, brought a bucket of fish and sat on the lower platform, barelegged and barefooted. She lowered a piece of fish into the water while splashing to send signals to the dolphins. Within a few minutes, the crowd started to fizz with excitement. I looked out towards the far-reaching horizon and spotted a school of dolphins marching towards us.

A group of four to five dolphins arrived, circling and playing nearby. When Josiane handed out the fish, the botos came close and struck their heads in the air with their beaks wide-open, jostling each other like a group of children for candies. It was the first time that I was close enough with these pink dolphins to see their features clearly.

At up to two hundred kilograms and two and a half meters in length, the botos, bearing little resemblance to their modern day marine relatives, are striking creatures. The black water of Rio Negro turned their bodies – naturally light to dark gray or flamboyantly pink – orange. Scientists who study the Amazon river dolphins call them Inia geoffrensis. The genus, Inia, denotes an ancient lineage of freshwater dolphins that diverged from their marine ancestors and became stranded in far-flung rivers as a result of sea level drop about 15 million years ago, when mammoths still roamed the plains. One lineage of the Inia has evolved into the wizard hunters of the Amazon River.

A pink river dolphin in Rio Negro.

A pink river dolphin in Rio Negro.

With fat, melon-like foreheads, the Amazon river dolphins navigate and spot prey in dark muddy waters through echolocation. Their tubular skinny beaks allow them to seize fish from submerged branch tangles and to grub around river bottoms for shellfish. With unfused neck vertebrae, reduced dorsal ridges, and extra-large triangular flippers, they use their bodies and heads to steer through complex flooded forests without getting stuck.

The initial quietness of the crowd grew into a chorus of giggles when one dolphin nimbly snatched the fish from Josiane’s hand and blew loudly into the air like a satiated customer burping after a meal, filling the air with a fishy smell. The crowd burst into cheers when one very bold dolphin threw almost its entire body in the air while standing on its tail to fetch a piece of fish that Josiane held above her head. I couldn’t believe my eyes.

One pink river dolphin threw almost its entire body in the air.

One pink river dolphin threw almost its entire body in the air.

Josiane told me her job was very different years ago. In the beginning, tourists were allowed to feed and swim with the dolphins. But problems soon followed. Instead of fish that tourists could purchase from the floating house, some fed the dolphins sausage, beer, or whatever they had with them; others went too close and even put their fingers in the dolphin’s blowhole. Some distressed dolphins attacked tourists in return.

In 2010, scientists and government agencies started collaborating with the floating house to protect both the dolphins and tourists. Today the floating house ensures fresh quality fish and limits the amount of fish fed to the dolphins in order to avoid changing their hunting behavior. Before watching boto feeding, tourists are required to watch a documentary and attend a lecture to learn about the biology and behavior of the dolphins, the threats they are facing, and conservation measures. Tourists are no longer allowed to feed or swim with the dolphins. Only trained staff like Josiane can handle the fish during a fifteen-minute feeding.

Through the floating house, Marisa and her mother opened a new window for people to enter the world of the botos, which has become the pride and joy of Novo Airão. Tourists travel from around the world looking for their own magical encounter with the pink dolphins, bringing in added income to the entire community that depends heavily on tourism. The town learned about the botos beyond the legends and began to realize the benefits of sharing Rio Negro with these enchanting river fairies, joining hands with government agencies to look after the animals and the river.

Before I left the floating house, Marisa took me to say farewell to her special friends. Shortly after Marisa descended the deck, a dolphin named Danni swam close and emerged from the water. Danni was one of the sixteen dolphins that frequented the floating house. I remembered him because he lost the tip of his upper snout in a fight. He did not allow anybody but Marisa to touch him. Marisa held his chin, lowered her body, and gave him a light pat. Danni breathed gently; the corners of his mouth formed a small curve as if he was smiling. Both Marisa’s golden brown skin and Danni’s pink-gray body glowed under the Amazon sun. The two looked like lovers whispering, a conversation only they understood.

***

Despite the legends and close contacts, people still know little about the pink dolphins, as the Amazon itself remains a huge mystery. Few researchers can estimate the number of dolphins in their study area, or fathom the social structure and interactions, or know if the animals migrate or hold territories. They don’t even know for sure why the dolphins are pink. Some say that females prefer males with more prominent pink coloration as a sign of dominance; others state that individuals turn pink as they age; still others argue that the dolphins flash pink when they are excited.

Brazilian biologist and conservationist Vera da Silva at the National Institute of Amazonian Research (INPA) in Manaus has studied these dolphins for longer than any other researcher. Born in Rio de Janeiro to a French father and a Brazilian mother, Vera spent her childhood and university years in Brasilia. When she later came to the Amazon to pursue graduate studies, Vera found herself “enchanted” by the pink-hued botos. In 1993, Vera and her colleague Antony Martin from England pioneered a long-term behavioral study of the Amazon river dolphins. The study, Projeto Boto, has developed into the largest and most successful river dolphin research project in the world.

I was lucky to get a hold of Vera in Manaus amongst her packed schedule. Having admired Vera’s work since I started planning for my river journey, I was bubbling with excitement to meet her. Dressed in a cream-colored silk blouse and sporting a dolphin-tail pendant, Vera reminded me of the botos swimming in the river. Smiling with radiant poise and her dark eyes gleaming with wit, Vera spoke softly, accompanied by the monsoon rain outside. As Vera recounted her twenty years of work with the dolphins, I could hardly imagine this same elegant lady climbing tall radio-telemetry towers to track dolphin populations, fixing boat engines, and holding down brawny botos to freeze-brand them with liquid nitrogen for photo-identification.

As Projeto Boto grew bigger each year, administrative responsibilities have tied Vera to her desk. Although she would have loved to spend more time on the water, Vera had to hire researchers and local young people to continue the fieldwork. Convinced that I was keen to learn about the river dolphins and would not be deterred by a long and treacherous journey, Vera penned down all the names, phone numbers, and midpoints that I needed to reach Projeto Boto. The project site is located about five hundred kilometers west of Manaus, hidden in the largest flooded forest reserve in the world – the Mamirauá Sustainable Development Reserve. Covering a vast network of black waters from Rio Japurá and white waters from Rio Solimões, Mamirauá boasts unparalleled richness of animal and plant species – a paradise for the Amazon river dolphins.

Several days after my meeting with Vera, I left for Mamirauá to join the researchers stationed at Projeto Boto. After twelve hours on a speedboat riding the waves of Rio Solimões from dawn to dusk, I landed in Tefé, the biggest transportation hub in the area with a population of seventy thousand. On the following day, Wezddy del Toro, one of the researchers from Mexico, and Sarney Martins de Oliveira, a local young man who regularly helped with the project, came to Tefé to take me back to their floating facility. After another three-hour windy ride on their open-aired project boat, we reached the Projeto Boto floating house named Boto Vermelho – Pink Dolphins. Having served Projeto Boto for the past fifteen years, the modest wooden floating house was moored deep in the flooded forest, at a meeting of black water and white water, which the locals call café com leite (coffee and milk). That night I went to bed listening to a symphony of the jungle and river, cadenced with breaths of the botos that frequented the floating house.

Sunset over the Amazon River.

Sunset over the Amazon River.

Early the next morning around seven, after the rain had washed everything fresh, I joined Wezddy and Sarney to count botos. Traditional photo-identification for dolphin research falls short when it comes to studying botos. These animals, particularly the males, fight so much that they are scarred regularly, making it impossible to recognize individuals by natural markings. Each year in November when water is low, Vera and her team capture the dolphins and brand them with unique marks for researchers to identify individuals. Vera and her colleagues tried other methods like radio telemetry, but the thick forests significantly hindered signal reception. Since the start of the program in 1993, the pool of individually-marked botos has grown from five to over six hundred, allowing researchers to examine their behavior, interactions, and movements through daily observation.

The rain had washed everything in the morning.

The rain had washed everything in the morning.

We steered a boat through narrow channels of forest roofed with lavish vines. Shielded by surrounding forest, the water was dark as ink, perfectly mirror-like, reflecting the sky and the forest and creating another world. No wonder people believed the story of the enchanted city underwater.

“F 9, female, with a calf,” Wezddy called out, directing my attention to a pink dolphin ahead of our boat, whose silhouette in the golden morning light formed a beautiful bend. When Sarney gave her a confident nod, Wezddy recorded the marking number and time of observation.

Pink river dolphin in Mamirauá Reserve.

Pink river dolphin in Mamirauá Reserve.

Staying in Boto Vermelho for months is not all otherworldly beautiful. Researchers like Wezddy live in Boto Vermelho for three to nine months, going out to observe and record dolphins seven hours each day, six days a week. After a day’s hard work, they go home and analyze each of the thousands of photos in comparison to a key of all the marked dolphins to date. Without cell phone reception, researchers use internet from a tourist lodge sporadically when nearby. Once a week, a cargo boat drops mail, food, and other supplies. Living inside the jungle, researchers have to constantly watch out for blood-sucking bugs and man-eating monsters. Several years ago, a young intern lost a leg in a caiman attack but miraculously survived. Yet Wezddy and Sarney were the most joyous and passionate researchers I have ever met. I wondered if they had been touched by the pink dolphin’s magical power.

Wezddy and Sarney at work.

Wezddy and Sarney at work.

As we secured our boat at the entrance of a river channel, botos surfaced everywhere – I wished that I had three pairs of eyes and eight hands to record everything. But these elusive creatures only let us see a fragment of their bodies – the elongated snout, the melon-shaped head, or the tip of a flipper – for a split second. Wezddy and Sarney, however, could almost always tell the markings of individuals. They told me that the botos love the waves when the boat goes in a circle or a figure-eight. Or if we wait patiently, the botos will come close to the boat, announcing their arrival with a string of bubbles.

These dolphins’ curious nature made them not only the most fascinating but also the most vulnerable creatures in the face of such close human contact. In the Amazon region, fishers have long had problems with these mischievous dolphins. The fishers dislike the animals for stealing from their catch and destroying their expensive gear. As fish stocks plummet, many see the dolphins as their direct competitors. Some annoyed fishers chase away the botos with harpoons, while others even place fish stuffed with poison or needles around their boats. In the past, the power of legend that used to protect the mythical creatures kept the confrontation in check. People still revered and feared the botos, believing that bad luck would follow anybody who kills an Amazon river dolphin. But at the turn of a new century, the lure of money led the fishers to declare war.

In recent years, members of Projeto Boto discovered that fishers were killing botos to use their carcasses as bait to catch a type of catfish called piracatinga. Piracatinga or mota, as they were called in Colombia, are sold at a high price there, replacing another sought-after local catfish, capaz, whose stock already collapsed due to overfishing. Although traditionally not consumed in Brazil due to people’s cultural distaste of scavenging fishes, piracatinga has recently found its way to Brazilian markets with a different label under douradinha, heightening the crisis of boto killing. Most killings happen when dolphins come close to fishing boats looking for easy meals. The team observed evidence of cruel boto slaughter: dead or wounded dolphins with deep harpoon scars or other body damage, and often with their tails tied to ropes. Fishers stuff the decaying boto carcass in a wooden box about the size of a cradle and sink the box underwater to attract large numbers of piracatinga. Fishers of the same village often share one box and use the box several times each week. They will then transport their catch to freezing plants and markets of cities like Tefé, where much of the yield is directly exported to Colombia without control.

Before entering the reserve, I went to the Tefé town market, which offered me a glimpse into the marvelous riches from the enchanted world of the botos as well as traces of human crime. Amongst sweaty bare-chested fishers carrying carts of fish that easily weighed over fifty kilograms, massive slices of pirarucu (the largest freshwater fish in the Amazon, which can reach more than two meters in length) draped over the counters like shiny tablecloths. Arrays of red-eyed tucunaré showing off their peacock-looking tails. Fat black tambaqui (fruit-eating fish found in the flooded forest) outweighed human babies. Spotted among the impossibly diverse offerings were piracatinga, gray-colored with white-bellies and black spots. Vera told me that some 1,600 botos were killed each year near Tefé to catch these scavengers.

Fish market in Tefé.

Fish market in Tefé.

“We had been aware of the conflicts, but we did not want to tackle the issue.” “We are biologists; we didn’t want to set foot in social studies. But we realized that we have to.” Vera said, “Over the past seventeen years, the boto population has been reduced by half in our study area. We need to educate and inform people. We need support from communities.” Vera and her team have started working with fishers and collaborating with freezing plants on better control of export.

In the morning that I was leaving for Manaus, Wezddy and Sarney took me on my last dolphin observation mission. After three days, I was able to recognize individuals occasionally. I wished that the botos offered us their magical power to let us see everything under the impenetrable water. That morning the botos seemed extra active, frolicking amongst the waves and throwing their entire bodies in the air. Wezddy winked at me and said, “The botos are asking you to stay!” Totally hooked, I wanted to stay and learn everything of the enchanted city. I remembered Vera’s last words before she had to dash to another meeting, “The work takes a long time, and I probably won’t see results during my own life time, but I am not giving up.”

***

The booming economy of Manaus and the appeal of city life have drawn more and more people away from river communities, leaving rivers and forests at the mercy of commercial fishers, loggers, developers, and poachers. No agency can protect the vast Amazon without support from local communities, no matter how many rangers are stationed. Along Rio Unini, a tributary of the where the pink river dolphins abound, people have found ways to continue to live with and guard their treasured river and forest as they confront the modern reality.

In mid-February, Fundação Vitória Amazônica, a non-governmental organization based in Manaus took me on a ten-day expedition up Rio Unini. The organization had long supported local communities to live and work sustainably in the lower Rio Negro region. This time, the project team led a journey up Rio Unini to advise communities about how to collectively manage and operate a new Brazil nut factory. The factory is the first of its kind set up in the Amazon forest to help local residents live a better life by valuing their traditions and natural assets. I went along to learn whether these local residents, if allowed to survive upstream along the banks of Rio Unini, might in turn help defend the survival of their region’s botos.

For travelers on the Amazon, time moves on a different scale – completely opposite of the Brazilian samba rhythm. Hours after we left the heat and noise from Manaus, the white suspension cables of the Iranduba Bridge were still visible through the mist. As the cityscape of Manaus slowly evolved into a world of black water and emerald forest, I sat down with the group and learned about the story behind Brazil nut factory, basking in a river breeze lightly fused with a subtle tropical aroma and humming of the boat engine.

Amazonas State Flag on boat into Rio Unini.

Amazonas State Flag on boat into Rio Unini.

South of Rio Unini lies a World Heritage Site enjoying rich biodiversity, Jaú National Park, protecting over two million hectares of the Jaú River watershed, the largest forest reserve in the Amazon Basin. In the 1970s, the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources decided that designating a national park for the Jaú River would be a good idea, reckoning nobody lived there. But communities were living there along the river; they were just invisible to authorities and even hidden from satellites. Once the agency found out about the villages, they began pushing people to leave at all costs in order to abide by regulations. Communities were no longer allowed to build houses or harvest lianas or rubber latex.

Levi Castro da Silva, president of the Unini Resident Association, was onboard with us. Levi, in his mid-forties, lives with his wife and two sons in Unini. He moved to Unini from Jaú with his father after the designation of Jaú National Park in the 1970s. Years of fishing and working the fields carved his face with wrinkles and made him a broad-shouldered man with strong hands. When asked what it was like to live in Jaú before moving to Unini, Levi raised his solemn eyebrows and recalled the dreadful time when people did not know where they would live next. “Living in a national park,” he said, “was like living in a prison. But we love the land and water and that’s why we kept fighting not to leave the region.”

The situation took a turn in the 1990s when Fundação Vitória Amazônica joined government agencies in drafting a management plan for Jaú National Park and invited community representatives, including Levi, to Manaus to talk about their life on the river. Communities soon realized that they needed a form of organization to improve the lives of people living in Jaú. Together with the foundation, they hatched the idea of creating an extractive reserve on the other side of the river from Jaú. Different from traditional concepts of protected areas like Jaú National Park that deny people access, an extractive reserve is a protected area based on the idea that traditional and indigenous communities can sustainably harvest natural resources for  subsistence, thus preserving local culture and tradition as well as the natural environment. With the help of the foundation, in June of 2006, on the northern bank of Rio Unini, the Unini Extractive Reserve was established allowing communities to utilize and manage the resources.

Four years ago, the foundation and Unini communities came up with an idea to build a Brazil nut factory in the reserve. In Unini, people manage and depend on natural riches the forest and the river have to offer. While all the natural riches are within reach, people need money to buy commodities. Producing only manioc flour and planting bananas have been increasingly difficult to make ends meet. Living far away from marketplaces, residents of Unini have very limited means to travel, and thus often have to accept meager payment from patrons who come in to purchase or barter products. People of Unini turned their eyes to the hardy Brazil nut trees, a native giant that defines the extent of the Amazon rainforest and produces edible seeds rich in nutrition and commercial value. Unlike rubber latex that is weather dependent, Brazil nuts are a safe bet as long as there is good crop and labor to harvest. With a factory to process the yield, the villagers of Unini could expect to multiply the value of their Brazil nut crop and generate much needed alternative income. With four years of hard work, the communities built the Brazil nut factory in the forest of the Unini reserve.

A family processing manioc flour in Unini.

A family processing manioc flour in Unini.

After a whole day of traveling up Rio Unini, our boat passed through the lower Rio Negro, where at times the width of the river reached several kilometers, and entered smaller braided channels where I could almost touch the branches of the trees that were half standing in water.

I was the first one to wake up the next morning. The boat had already turned off its engine and docked by a community. The air had spent the whole night soaking up water and now rendered my first morning in Unini a Chinese ink-and-wash artwork with broad strokes of heavy mist. The morning was so quiet – as if the fog had absorbed all the sound. While I was trying to figure out the blurred outlines of the island in the middle of the river, a gentle puff broke my peace of mind – “chaaaah” – like a long sigh, a gentle whisper, or a soft chuckle. Before I realized that the sound was a morning greeting from a river dolphin, the last bit of its small dorsal fin had already vanished into the painting.

Morning in Unini resembles a Chinese ink-and-wash artwork.

Morning in Unini resembles a Chinese ink-and-wash artwork.

When I told everyone about my morning encounter, Levi smiled and said, “Be careful with the botos! Don’t let them take you away. Ask the kids; we have a lot of them in our river.” As soon as we got off the boat, a group of children surrounded me like groups of happy butterflies, calling me titia (auntie) in their sweetest voice. Unlike the kids I used to know back at home who were shy and polite, children of the Unini were all about curiosity, energy, and over-the-top displays of affection. They found it amusing that I like the river dolphins so much and giggled as they asked me if I knew that the boto could take me away to the enchanted city underwater.

While the adults attended the meeting, the children took me in as one of their own. Some boys climbed to the top of a soursop tree in less than a minute, picking fruits and playing air guitar while hanging from the branches. They took me swimming in the stream and taught me how to fish with a nylon string and a hook. They told me stories of jaguars, crocodiles, and big fishes. When we all sat down on the benches by the river, they spotted every breath of the dolphin, as fast if not better than the researchers of Mamirauá.

Children of Unini.

Children of Unini.

These children were descendants of mixed European and Indian ancestry; they call themselves caboclos, people of the river. About seven hundred caboclos live in ten different communities on the river banks of Unini. The communities are usually strategically situated on higher grounds where families live in stilted wooden houses, so their homes can stay dry during the wet season. Sharing the river with the botos, families depend on fishing during the dry season when fish are most concentrated, while during the wet season they retreat to work the field and hunt as fish disappear into the flooded forests. Most communities can rely on no more than several hours of electricity generated from diesel generators every night. Without enough teachers, children only go to school one or two days a week. Communities often face very dire situations when people fall severely sick because the nearest hospital for treatment is days of travel away, not to mention the exorbitant fuel cost that few families can afford.

Communities are built on the highland in the Amazon.

Communities are built on the highland in the Amazon.

On the last day of our trip, we made it to the newly built Brazil nut factory, a complex of brick buildings on high ground in order to withstand the unforgiving Amazonian storms. The factory was especially designed to collect and process Brazil nuts in a streamlined fashion, using machinery to detach, crack, dehydrate, select, and pack batches of fresh nuts and turn them into beautiful packages ready for sale. Although still facing challenges, the factory revolutionized the production of Brazil nuts and other forest products for the villagers. Before the factory, villagers could sell one kilogram of raw Brazil nut for half a dollar. Now with the help of the machines, one kilogram of processed and packed Brazil nut could sell for 15 to 30 dollars.

Villagers of Unini know the limits of hunting, fishing, and crop cultivation. They don’t take more than they need. When commercial fishing and sports fishing were allowed in the region, swarms of boats came in every day, taking large amounts of fish to sell in Manaus while communities could hardly compete, jeopardizing the fish stocks for people and wildlife like the botos. The project team told me that they hoped to provide more options for the communities in Unini with the Brazil nut factory, so that people could have more income and build better schools and clinics. They envisioned the Brazil nut factory would help keep more young people in Unini to continue taking care of the reserve and protect the river and forest.

At the end of the tour, Levi pointed to a small sapling that was less than half a meter tall and told me that it was a young Brazil nut tree. He hoped that it would one day grow up to produce fruits for the factory. Levi told me: “People dream about having a good house and a boat. We want to have the freedom to come and go. It is our dream to keep living here to raise our children and eat fresh fish.” Levi and his fellow community members are born to thrive in and guard the Amazon jungle, just as the pink river dolphins are born to roam the Amazon River and rule the enchanted city underwater.

***

In mid-March, I had to depart from Manaus and proceed to the end of the Amazon River near Belém in Pará State. As the plane was taking off, for the first time the city of Manaus embedded in the vast Amazon rainforest gradually rose in front of me, stretching far beyond where my eyes could reach. Gently framing the edges of the patchwork of concrete and jungle was the meeting, visible again, of the coffee-colored Rio Negro and cream-colored Rio Solimões. Passing islands and flowing parallel to each other for miles, the two long silk ribbons of contrasting colors slowly melted into each other.

Meeting of the coffee-colored Rio Negro and cream-colored Rio Solimões.

Meeting of the coffee-colored Rio Negro and cream-colored Rio Solimões.

Looking out the window, I realized that the Amazon is not just an exotic wilderness anymore. It has become a new frontier of opportunities that calls for conscious decisions to allow the survival of the Amazon river dolphins and achievement of human prosperity – which we have long perceived as opposite strands like the two contrasting rivers – be able to embrace finally, together welcoming both old dreams and new realities.

Yiyuan Jasmine Qin

Yiyuan (Jasmine) Qin is a Research Analyst at the World Resources Institute, where she works at the intersection of water, forests, and cities to help improve water management around the world. Prior to joining the World Resources Institute, Jasmine journeyed through four great rivers of the world – the Rhine, the Amazon, the Mekong, and the Ganges – and explored the interactions between different human communities and their rivers as a Thomas J. Watson Fellow. Jasmine earned a Master of Environmental Management from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, where she was a Berkley Conservation Scholar and Tropical Resource Institute Fellow. She holds a B.A. in Environmental Science from Colby College, during which she studied field ecology in Belize and urban development in Detroit, São Paulo, Curitiba, Cape Town, and Hanoi.

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