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Sao Miguel, Brazil
  Francisco du Silva Bentes


Francisco du Silva Bentes, shipbuilder

Three years ago Francisco du Silva Bentes and his family moved to Nuovo Airao, the largest boat building community in the Amazon, from the slums of Manaus in search of prosperity. Today, they barely get by.

The town's saw mill is almost idle, as the demand for fishing vessels declines. Ironically, the source of their lumber is the deforested floodplains.

They were once thriving commercial fishermen, but now they work the waters alone or with a neighbor. Their primary objective is not to earn a wage but simply to keep hunger away from their tables. The dream of a better life seems so far away, but he remains hopeful for the future of the Amazon River and the lives it sustains.

The lives of the Brazilian spear-fishermen of Sao Miguel are also governed by the pulse of the Amazon river. They stalk the Pirarucu, one of the largest freshwater fish in the world, but their attempts have often been futile. They continue the hunt because one fish is equal to a week's wages. But deep within their silent vigil, the men sensed that something is wrong with the largest river system in the world.

Spear-fishing for Pirarucu

Spear-fishing for Pirarucu

Fed by the melting snow of the Andes, three of its tributaries are larger than the Mississippi. The river discharges one sixth of the world's flowing fresh water and one day's release is enough to satisfy New York City's needs for 12 years.

As it enters the flatlands of Brazil, the river carves a maze of uncharted channels through the world's largest rain forest. This is the primeval Amazon, the dark interior feared by early Western explorers. Today the indigenous people who once dominated these waters are experiencing a new darkness. Pushed aside by outsiders, they have almost disappeared.

The Amazon discharges one sixth of the world's flowing fresh water and one day's release is enough to satisfy New York City's needs for 12 years.

Every year the Amazon undergoes a major transformation. For six or seven months, dense tropical rains dominate the landscape. A pattern of intense activity emerges over the Amazon Basin of South America. For six months each year, rain is the driving force of the river.

There are no vast engineering projects here, so the river is free to invade the floodplains, with as much as thirty feet of water. Such a deluge would torment the people of other river communities, but here along the Amazon, these yearly floods are a blessing.

Video Excerpt: The Amazon River is enormous. The river discharges one-sixth of the world's flowing fresh water. One day's release is enough to satisfy New York City's needs for 12 years, but something is wrong with the world's largest river system.
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They give birth to an enchanting underwater forest. Fish swim among the trees, snatching insects or fruit from limbs normally high above the forest floor. This rich, almost inexhaustible feeding ground, is the primary reason the Amazon is home to over three thousand species of fish — three times more than in all of North America.

For centuries, the Indians who lived along these shores guarded the floodplain as a sacred source of food for their fish. Today, those who live here have forgotten that the fate of their fishery depends on the health of the flooded forest.

For decades, these fragile lands have been plundered by ranchers and farmers; outsiders who covet the fertile soil of the floodplain. Matching the loss of Mississippi wetlands, less than 30 percent of the trees along the lower Amazon River floodplain remain standing.

Over-crowded shantytowns are breeding grounds for disease and crime, as poverty stalks those who once looked to the river for income.

Located in the heart of the Amazon, Manaus is a metropolis of over a million people. Years ago, a thriving rubber industry made it one of the wealthiest cities in the world. Today it's a free-trade zone and the economic capital of Amazonia.

Shantytown in Manaus

Shantytown in Manaus

It is the mismanagement of the city's natural resources that has created severe economic pressure. Over-crowded shantytowns are breeding grounds for disease and crime, as poverty stalks those who once looked to the river for income. Along the waterfront, riverboats are swollen with people on the move. Most are in search of a better way of life.

But five hundred miles downstream, the fishermen of Sao Miguel are doing better. Their patience finally pays off. Quickly converging on their prey, they will share the prize when they bring their Pirarucu to market. Because of newly acquired resource-management skills along this part of the river, this year's catch has actually increased.

Sao Miguel is a major success story. Its fishery has now been completely revitalized. Farmers and ranchers were encouraged to work together to preserve the integrity of the floodplain forest. The problem of a dwindling Pirarucu population was solved by controlling the catch: by having the fishermen return to the traditional ways of their ancestors.

Once each month the children of Sao Miguel gather outside so their classroom can become a meeting place for the community's leaders. They continue to discuss the issue of the destruction of the Amazon floodplain forests, which is hardly unique to Brazil. It's happening all over the world. This poses the most fundamental question underlying the destinies of all rivers: what is the relationship of people to nature? What are the obligations of this relationship?

The people of Sao Miguel have responded by taking control of their own destiny, by treating their land and water as a shared commons, and by balancing the needs of the farmers and the ranchers with the fragile feeding grounds of the floodplain forests.



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