I looked down upon a sea of green that spread out below me in every direction as far as my eyes could see. I had flown out of Manaus, the capital of the state of Amazonas, destined for Rio Branco in the western part of Brazil adjacent to the border with Bolivia. But it wasn’t water we were flying over; it was a tightly knit canopy of trees covering the Amazon basin. Every so often a river curved through the forest, meandering back and forth like a giant snake making its way to the horizon.
As we got closer to the largest city in the Brazilian state of Acre, the clearings in the forest made way for expansive deforested areas that had now become savannas, farms, pastures for grazing cattle, and suburbs of the core city. The cutting down of the forest is a violent and an irreversible action. After losing the complex biodiversity of the forest, the clear-cuts will never again rejuvenate into the dense ecosystems that had evolved over the eons. My feelings were conflicted. As we approached the modern airport in Rio Branco, I felt the comfort and familiarity of the human landscape that had been carved out of the vast green wilderness.
I was on my way in 1999 to Mapia, a settlement deep in the heart of the rainforest. It was accessible at the time only by several hours of travel in a small motorboat navigated by guides going upriver on small tributaries to a community of a few hundred people that had been only recently settled in the 70s. These were the followers of the Brazilian religion of Santo Daime. They are the self-chosen pilgrims who traveled from cities throughout Brazil, seeking shelter and sanctuary from the coercive and oppressive currents of mainstream society.
The residents of Mapia have been drawn to the rainforest to experience a way of life handed down from the Amazonian indigenous peoples. During the early 1900s, the Amazonian natives in the upper Amazon were first contacted by rubber tappers whose work was to sustainably harvest the milky liquid latex extracted from the rubber tree. The indigenous forest dwellers they encountered had expertise in plant medicines. And to a few select foreigners, they revealed the source of the visionary plants used in the preparation of their sacred brew, ayahuasca. The modern Brazilian religion of Santo Daime evolved from the shamanic teachings and rituals surrounding the consecration of this tea.
The intoxicating sacrament sweeps the initiate into a guided exploration of the inner spaces of the collective primordial mind. The voyage can be quite alien and frightening. The contact with the vastness of the divine within can be overwhelming. The group spiritual works provide the support and guidance for the inner journey. Intention and focus are needed for the initiate to navigate the powerful forces surging through the body and psyche. If one is humble, asks for healing with an open heart, and is able to surrender to the experience of the Daime – deep personal insights may be revealed.
The teachings and instructions for the work are sung in Brazilian Portugese through hymns and prayers. The Santo Daime doctrine is a syncretic blend of spiritual traditions derived from the African Orishas, the Amazonian nature spirit deities, and the catholic saints and Holy Family. There’s no need for dogmatic belief in particular deities nor are there sermons delivered from the pulpit dictating what and how to believe. Through the sacrament of the Daime, each person receives their own spiritual experience and a connection with the divine. And as the practitioner gains more experience with the rituals and shamanic practices, one is able to awaken into the material world with an elevated consciousness and awareness.
In the years since the founding of the Santo Daime religion in the thirties, the number of initiates has spread throughout Brazil, and more recently worldwide. For those who are seeking knowledge and healing, the plant spirit medicines from the rainforest are now accessible for those who are willing to do the work. Visiting the Amazonian community of Mapia has become a pilgrimage for urbanized Brazilians as well as Santo Daime initiates from all over the world. The works are joined by the local indigenous Indians who come to participate in the all-night-long spiritual works. Although it was difficult work, I received immense care and healing in the time I spent with the community.
We should heed the advice of the remaining Amazonian native peoples before they have become completely modernized and their extensive botanical knowledge has been lost. Ecosystems are being devastated and the native peoples are under siege, being displaced from the forests they have fought so long to guard and protect. Research has shown that the tribal lands of indigenous peoples have some of the lowest rates of deforestation — better than federally protected national parks.
There are numerous groups in addition to the religious communities of Santo Daime who partner with indigenous Amazonian peoples. The missions of these international non-profits are to protect tropical forests and strengthen traditional culture. The Washington based Amazon Conservation Team was founded by ethnobotanist Mark Plotkin and works to preserve the tribal knowledge derived from their deep relationship with the forest. An enlightening documentary about their cross-cultural plant-based work titled The Shaman’s Apprentice is worth seeking out. Another worthy non-profit is Amazon Watch whose website is a wealth of information.
The destruction of the forest and the assault on the native Amazonian peoples has accelerated under the policies of the current president, Jair Bolsonaro. The ultra-right-wing corporatist got into power by leading a successful impeachment campaign against the previous president, Dilma Rouseff, Brazil’s first woman president. Bolsonaro initiated his own presidential campaign against the popular past president Lula da Silva of the Worker’s Party who was running once again for president. But before the date of the election, Lula was framed by a corrupt system of partisan federal judges for unsubstantiated charges of accepting bribes. Having lost his case, Lula is now wasting away in prison. Meanwhile Bolsonaro won the election and has become a partner-in-crime with our own corrupt regime in Washington. An excellent new doc about the Brazilian corporate coup can be streamed on Netflix, The Edge of Democracy.
Bolsonaro has opened up the rainforest for international business. Soon after being elected, the American agribusiness giant, Cargill, announced it was building a new soy terminal port in Porto Velho in the Amazon, increasing its soybean export capacity almost twofold. It appears that increased rainforest devastation is calculated into the business plans of Cargill, as well as being the strategy of other agribusiness, mining and logging companies, and cattle ranching operations. Nearly 50 percent of the Amazon could be lost or severely degraded in the next few years if the U.N. is unable to legislate and enforce international regulations upon rogue governments.
The colonial legacy of divine entitlement over nature in the name of economic progress has driven the arson in the Amazon. And when indigenous people stand in the way, they must be removed, by any means necessary. This sentiment is blatantly revealed in Bolsonaro’s public assertion, “It’s a shame that the Brazilian cavalry hasn’t been as efficient as the Americans, who exterminated the Indians.”
The same impulses which are burning up the Amazon are driving the planetary-scale arson that has created the global climate crisis as well. All the world will be paying close attention to the U.N. Climate Action Summit in New York City starting the week of Sept 23. At the top of the agenda will be the global transition to renewable carbon-free energy and a net carbon zero economy.
Leading up to the Summit, there will be a series of Global Climate Strikes in cities across the world. The young Swedish activist Greta Thunberg who just recently arrived in NYC will be instrumental in drawing support and media attention for the youth movement that she catalyzed in Europe and is rapidly spreading worldwide. The European actions of Extinction Rebellion will join forces here with the youth-led Sunrise movement. “There’s no time left for business as usual; the climate crisis is here,” the D.C. coalition stated. “This is the mass uprising that everyone with climate anxiety has been waiting for. This is an uprising for life itself, fighting back against the forces of destruction.”
In conjunction with the UN Climate Summit, the Naro along with other art theaters across the country will premiere Anthropocene: The Human Epoch. It’s the newest film from the award-winning team behind Manufactured Landscapes and Watermark. It’s a cinematic meditation on modern industrial society’s massive re-engineering of the biosphere. The film highlights the photography of Edward Burtynsky whose work has been widely exhibited in art museums including a 2016 exhibition at the Chrysler Museum. Anthropocene will show on art screens across the country on Wednesday, Sept 25 with an introduction by Chrysler Museum curator of photography, Seth Feman.
The film follows the Anthropocene Working Group, an international body of scientists who argue that the preceding geological epoch gave way to the Anthropocene Epoch in the mid-twentieth century as a result of profound and lasting human changes to the Earth. Co-director Jennifer Baichwal says that the film is “a part of an attempt to get it out of our echo chambers. That is why the film is non-accusatory. It’s very experiential. It’s not an environmental rant. It’s not a polemic.” The images speak for themselves – a view of a planet that’s been altered on a massive scale.
But there are more subtle effects of climate change that are not so easily visible. The cover story of the current issue of National Geographic, ‘The Arctic Is Heating Up’, contains important articles with new research about permafrost melt. Not only is it happening much faster than predicted, there’s much more carbon sequestered in the permafrost dating back to the Pleistocene Epoch than had originally been estimated. In fact, twice as much carbon is stored in the permafrost as contained in our atmosphere. And as the Arctic tundra thaws, a cascade of events in the form of a negative feedback loop has allowed the rapid release of carbon gases and methane back into the atmosphere at ever increasing rates.
The article concludes that we will soon reach a tilting point of no return. The lowest range of the Paris Climate Agreement of a global increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius is now essential to avert a cascade of events into climate catastrophe. But we’re heating up fast. With the new data from permafrost research, the most recent study estimates that we have less time than we had thought to transform our entire worldwide power system and economy to green renewable energy. The new modeling necessitates a target of 2044 for the worldwide cessation of carbon emissions. Otherwise it’s a completely different planet than we have now.
We’ve been under the assumption that we had much more time than 25 years to transition away from fossil fuels. Most of the countries that have subscribed to the Paris Climate agreement have yet to mobilize the necessary political will to implement new policies. And with continued Republican obstructionism, the U.S. is lagging far behind. Regardless of what one thinks about the Green New Deal in its present form, it’s an initial working blueprint for implementing the systemic changes necessary for transitioning to a new carbon-free economy. We must educate ourselves and get behind those progressive leaders who have the fortitude to stand up to the abuses of Wall Street and the fossil fuel industry – and who have the vision to legislate for carbon-free energy policies.
Many scientists have speculated that modern man’s ancestor, Homo Erectus, evolved their larger cerebral cortex a million years ago through the controlled use of fire for cooking. This behavioral adaptation made possible an efficient, high-caloric diet that fueled the growth of our neural networks. Advances in the technology of fire led to the metallurgy of The Bronze Age and The Iron Age. In the modern era, the invention of the internal combustion engine and the extraction of fossil fuels ushered in the industrial revolution. Two centuries of the massive burning of carbon-based fuels have released eons of sequestered carbon back into the atmosphere as greenhouse gases.
Fire has provided us with the attributes of what it means to be human. Among all the animal species, we are the ones who are the keepers of the flame. But unless humans can learn to live in harmony and have respect for Mother Earth, our misuse of fire will soon lead to our downfall.