Joan Wilder: Journalist, Writer, Editor

Life is not easy in Nazari, Brazil

“We Try to Help Them See the Value of the Forest”

Voice of New England / Dan Nepstad

WOODS HOLE — Life is not easy in Nazari, a hundred-family farm community in the Amazon rain forest of Brazil. Each family lives off its forest plot (about 150 acres apiece) eating fruit, beans, corn, and cassava, a starchy root. They also fish and hunt armadillo, wild pig, and deer, and they live in small mud houses and rarely have money for ready-made goods. But every time Dan Nepstad, a forest ecologist from the Woods Hole Research Center, visits Nazari to study the climatic effects of deforestation, he leaves with a faint sense of longing for their way of life. An edited excerpt of a conversation between Nepstad and Globe correspondent Joan Wilder follows.

From our base in Paragominas, a plank house on the edge of a huge ranch, it takes three hours by dirt road and boat to get to Nazari. Like other forest communities, the people hand-carry their water and cook on stoves they fashion out of clay. They have little or no furniture. The idea of having your own bed is non-existent; at night they just look for a place to hang their hammock. I visit Nazari for days at a time with a team of researchers and students. We walk the land with the farmers; one man — his name is Mangueira — is very committed to changing. He knows his way of agriculture — chopping and burning virgin acres of forest — is eliminating the forest and he wants solutions.

We’ve shown Mangueira what we’ve shown many others: that rather than continuing to burn acreage for the nutrient-rich ash the charred wood gives his crops, he can use a field for two years and leave it for 10, then come back to it. That way, the same group of fields can be used indefinitely. Along with other simple practices like planting in rows and arranging crops, farmers can increase their yields 30 to 40 percent.

People hear about us by word of mouth and invite us into their communities for advice. We’ll bring food with us sometimes and ask someone to cook it and then we all eat together and stay up very late talking. Not like in the US when everything shuts down by 10 p.m.

Despite the isolation — sometimes roads are washed out for six months — radio and the occasional generator-run TV have exposed these people to Western culture and made them feel dissatisfied. But there is no escape from their poverty — Brazil has 15 million landless poor — except by learning to get the most from the one resource they have. We try to help them see the value of the forest. At a big meeting, one village we worked with acted out a skit for another community showing that it’s better not to sell a tree, when you can continuously eat and sell its fruit instead. Some of our researchers also started a program to rescue the people’s knowledge of medicinal herbs — knowledge traditionally carried by midwives but beginning to be lost. They have many forest medicines — barks and roots they use for parasites, cuts, headaches, and for inducing abortion, an antibiotic oil that can sell for $10 a bottle. They are learning there is a market for these things.

The culture shock is greatest when I come back to Boston. Despite their poverty, Brazilians have a raw joy and a generosity that I love. They know that they have to share to stay alive. Here we live behind walls, isolated from one another, there people come and go into each other’s homes.

I get a sense that the comforts of this society have encouraged us to stay apart. Even in a restaurant here you sit and talk just with your friends; it’s rare to find a place where people can mingle publicly. I’m more comfortable in Brazil.

One thing I like coming back to the US: this huge middle class with so many fewer people living on the edge. Also, Brazil is way behind in sex roles, a very macho society. Most of the women carry the lion’s load for their families. Still, Brazilians are very accepting, warm, open people. They meet in the street or in town and parties spring up with dancing and everybody’s together, kids, parents, and people over 60. A generator, a couple light bulbs, a homemade guitar or a scratchy braga or lambada tape and that’s all it takes.

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