Tuesday, April 20, 2010

When A Tree Falls in the Amazon...

I stood under a massive tree much like those under the threat of extinction in the Amazon. It was among many other trees planted by a group of Portuguese military officers who operated a gunpowder factory in Rio de Janeiro around 1800.

Among these men were botanists who saw the threat of extinction of many flora and fauna in the region. The threat came from plantations destroying vast tracts of land for the cultivation of coffee, sugarcane and many other farmed crops. Near the factory the botanists began collecting some 6500 different species of trees and plants under the threat of extinction and created a space where subsequent generations could one day come and observe nature. The space opened to the public in 1822.

I was dwarfed by the magnanimous efforts of these foresighted men as much by the tree I stood under.

Bounded by steep granite hills and deep lagoons and bays, the city of Rio de Janeiro has since been preserved as much by tourists coming to the region as by the foresight of those early botanists who felt a need to protect the environment many years before it became necessary.

Today, Rio’s Jardim Bot├ónico is hemmed in by a rapidly growing city ravenous for space. This garden is an anomaly in an urban area that is equally colonial and newly modern, with a predictable lack of harmony. Beautiful colonial walkways and buildings fall to the plunder of mixed modern architectures as quickly as trees fall in the forests to commerce.

Here, there is a sense of cool spaciousness under giant trees sheltering walkways from the tropical sun. Water flows along stone channels built to water the garden. The space is a sanctuary for birds and monkeys and an occasional tourist searching for a refuge from the everyday world.

For a moment I understand I am a part of a mystery as an inheritor of the natural world and not its master. Listening to the birds I am pleasantly devoid of hubris, if only temporarily.

But still, I cannot imagine true bio-diversity in a place like the Amazon, where every cause of discomfort has its equal in a cure, and where there is balance in the same way a flowering plant provides the antidote to a mosquito borne in a nearby pond.

Modern man has no language or experience in bio-diversity. We would not survive for long in a place like the Amazon. Perhaps this is why man needs to destroy it.

The coming devastation planned for the Amazonian rivers and trees will remove what has been there since the beginning of the planet. Many natural remedies will be swept away by the all-powerful hydro people who bring concrete to solve a problem without considering other more efficient means of energy generation. Bio-diversity will be drowned in the floods created by dams.

Bio-diversity is the promise of a healthy planet; it is based on the notion that everything is here because it is intended; nothing is out of place, except for humans who have no tradition of respect for the natural world.

Perhaps there are those in power who will notice that the entire Amazon needs to be preserved in the same way their ancestors kept nature sacred for our generation.

Photos by Delma Godoy

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Floods of Easter

Currently, there are some 200 dead, with perhaps hundreds more missing, as mudslides continue throughout the City and State of Rio de Janeiro.

Most of the 50,000 people who are currently homeless live in poorly constructed slum housing built on or near mountainsides. They are part of the 1.5 million poor who live in favelas, which comprise 20 percent of the City’s population.

The rains came Monday afternoon, April 5, following a sultry, quiet Easter Sunday with 90 percent humidity. For the next 24 hours the biggest rainfall in the past 25 years was recorded.

Up to this point the city’s plan worked well enough to divert the water during recent storms. Unseen, however, was the shoddy new modern construction that had over-taxed a fundamentally weak city infrastructure, originally built early in the last century.

Hidden underneath the surface of roads and sewers already strained to their limits were whole sections of land built on landfill comprising garbage dumps and crumbling concrete. On the hills, the problems were magnified by massive deforestation by people living in the favelas.When the mud flowed it took homes and people with it.

While the government points to its achievements featuring elegant modern buildings being constructed in the city proper and to the rapid expansion in the middle-class suburbs, next to nothing has been done about the long-standing problems of housing for the city’s poorest.

This coming October, voters – including people living in the favelas – will go to the polls to elect a new president and new leaders, each of whom is busily promoting their recent achievements in bringing the World Cup and Olympic Games to Rio, along with developing new off-shore oil.

The politicians boast they will have some $7 billion to create a city worthy of hosting the Cup and the Games.

Little mention has been made about how much will be spent for building new housing for the homeless.

The rains continue to fall on the poor and the rich, alike.