Spark of hope in blighted Amazon

Sit in one of the open-air bars in the central square of Manaus, admiring the imposing bulk of the Amazonian state capital’s military police headquarters, and within minutes someone will whisper in your ear, “Pasta?”

The Amazon trade and tourism hub of Manaus is hard hit by unemployment
The Amazon trade and tourism hub of Manaus is hard hit by unemployment

But this is not the helpful suggestion of an Italian waiter.

Pasta is a cheap and highly addictive base mixture of cocaine whose street name comes from the Portuguese for “paste”.

Addicts of the drug, subsisting on bags for 10 reals ($3) can be seen slumped on benches and in parks all over this city of 1.5 million people at the heart of the rainforest.

The pure refined drug flows in from Colombia and out to Europe through French Guiana, Guyana and Surinam. What remains in the town is mostly waste product, cut with dangerous impurities.

Locked up resources

Manaus’ burgeoning drug trade is one symptom of the crippling unemployment afflicting most of northeast Brazil.

With more than 85% of the precious rainforest protected by environmental laws, anglers cannot fish and loggers cannot log.

Last week 10,000 people queued to apply for one of 300 jobs at a new supermarket in the city that opens in December.

Underworld employment is swelling to fill the gap. Aside from the drug trade, prostitution is also rife, and gangs of thieves have begun to prey on tourists.  

The Fundacao Almerinda Malaquias paints parrots rather than smuggles them for profit

The Fundacao Almerinda Malaquias paints parrots rather than smuggles them for profit

Another way to make a quick dollar is the illicit trade in exotic animals and plants. Legislative efforts to save the biodiversity of the rainforest are being undermined by people who will make a living by any means.

The cocktail of illicit trades brings an edgy feel to a city where murder rates are soaring.

Figures released last week by the Amazon state, show killings are up by 33% on last year with 264 deaths.

Now people are looking for jobs outside of the city, and discovering ways of living in closer harmony with their environment.

Jorge Maranhao, 24, has found work as a taxi driver in the small neighbouring municipality of Novo Airao on the Rio Negro, a tributary of the Amazon River. “I had to escape the violence in Manaus, I’m happy here,” he explains.

The mayor calls on the First World to support sustainable living in the Amazon

The mayor calls on the First World to support sustainable living in the Amazon

Need for balance

Luis Carlos Mattos Areosa, 53, is the region’s mayor, and one of those working to turn the tide. He argues that there needs to be a balance between protecting the environment and sustaining the human population.

“Yes, let’s protect the environment here but we need the help of the first world. If we prohibit fishing, we also have the right to be able to have food on our tables,” he says. 

“Look, this (could be) the richest country in the world, we have all the resources but we are not of the First World. Why?”

He points at the mighty river by his dockside office. “It might be after I am dead, but one day this will be worth more than oil. The next wars will be fought over water,” he adds.

Miguel Rocha da Silva has an alternative vision

Miguel Rocha da Silva has an alternative vision

Turning the tide

Nevertheless, here in Novo Airao there is a spark of hope. It comes in the form of a smiling figure with bushy white hair and eyebrows – Miguel Rocha da Silva.

Twenty years ago, Rocha da Silva set up a foundation to address problems he foresaw of people losing jobs through the protection of the environment. His dream was to set up alternatives for the community.

His idea at first was to use the cast-off wood from boat building to create art to sell to tourists.

“We wanted to instil in the next generation a feeling of the worth of their environment by using resources in a sustainable way,” he says.

“These huge blocks of mahogany have just been left abandoned in the forest. Their trunks used and the rest left as waste. I liken it to taking ivory from elephants in Africa and then throwing the rest away,” he says.

The Fundacao Almerinda Malaquias quickly grew and now directly teaches and employs 45 young people, with another 150 benefiting from the effects. Jean-Daniel Valloton, a Swiss citizen, has spent the last six years developing its programmes along with Rocha da Silva.

Another way

Learning new skills in the workshop

Learning new skills in the workshop

“Without sensible alternatives people here will go down the routes of drugs and illicit trade. We can teach them that there is another way. And they will then be trained to teach others,” he says.

The Foundation set up Nov’Arte, a shop in the high street to sell their wares of wooden frogs, musical instruments and paintings. Students who complete a year’s courses receive a professional certificate.

“We are now working with children who can go to school in the morning and train with us in the afternoon. It is a question of self-esteem and feeling associated with something positive,” says Jean-Daniel. “This is a poor area and the people do not have much. It is as much an issue of health as education.”

Source: Al Jazeera

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