Lost Paradises and Imagined Frontiers

Ye´kuana man making a dugout canoe in the forest, near the village of Culebra, Cunucunuma River.

Begin any journey to try and understand Amazonia and you will find repeated motifs. There is the notion of Amazon as Paradise and Frontier. Paradises have been imagined, once and again, and by different peoples. Frontiers have been made and unmade, trampled on, moved to different sites. In a way, the history of these lands has been one of multiple frontier-making and unmaking processes, following the lead of feverish, fictionalized, imagined or systematically constructed visions about what these places hold inside or what they could become. Paradises imagined and lost have driven voyages of discovery and conquest, through peaceful agreed-on exploration and through violent and bloody trespassing. But Amazonia has also been about shaping, reshaping and crossing borderlines between different groups of people, locals and travelers, natives and explorers, and the clash and crossover between their life projects and worldviews.

In the pre-Columbian past, vast networks of trade and communication between different language and cultural groups marked blurred or sharp frontier lines. Independent centers of emergence of agriculture were recognized in Southwestern Amazonia and the Orinoco basin, around  5,000 years ago. The major language families Arawak, Tupí, Carib, Panoan, Tucanoan and Macro-Je seem to have developed between 4,000 and 2,000 years ago. Together with extinct and independent languages, they serve to articulate the histories of the 300 indigenous languages spoken in the area today.

Different modes of production and livelihood strategies developed in the pre-Columbian Amazonia, from complex societies to independent groups of hunter-gatherers and agriculturalists in small autonomous settlements. The understanding of the prehistory of Amazonia is enriched by the day, and in the last decades, research has overturned the traditional images. Before, the idea was of a vast territory sparsely inhabited by simple groups of hunter-gatherers and horticulturalists prevented from growing into larger populations due to environmental constraints. Now, there has been a recognition of a proper prehistoric urbanism, with evidence of dense settlements connected with roads over vast territories and transformation of the landscape for agriculture, as in the Bolivian Llanos de Moxos region and the Brazilian Upper Xingú. These findings undermine the myth of Amazonia as an uninhabited and pristine jungle, an Eden untouched by humans, that has justified the interventionist drives of colonial powers and states across time.

The downfall of these Indigenous societies ensued after the collision between worlds that followed the Columbian exchange. Old World diseases reached the inland areas of the Amazon before the generations of European explorers that followed that of early discoverers and doradistas. When the later explorers arrived, a native population without immunity to the new microbes had already been decimated, and many surviving groups migrated to remote areas. Amazonia then became also a frontier of empires: the Portuguese, the Spanish, the British, the Dutch and the French all competed to establish claims on the resources of the New World. As colonial European powers receded, the emerging South American nations outlined their Amazonian frontiers. Border delimitation followed different timelines in the different corners of Amazonia. Brazil and Peru still struggled with Amazonian frontier disputes throughout the 19th century, and well into the 20th. 

The Portugal-Spain border, later dividing Brazil and Venezuela, had already been secured in the 18th century by the “Expedición de Límites al Orinoco” (1754-1761), which stopped Portuguese expansion northward. Along with sailors and military men, the botanist Pehr Loëfling, a disciple of Linnaeus, joined a number of Spanish “cosmographers”, to inaugurate the scientific exploration of the region. This trip resulted in the foundation of the enclave town of La Esmeralda, in a grassland by the Orinoco near the mighty Duida tepuy (table-top mountain). Its name was a holdover of the myth of El Dorado and based on mistaking the quartz outcrops that festooned the plains for emeralds.

Spanning nearly 1,000,000 square kilometers, the Orinoco basin is distributed among two countries, 70% in Venezuela and 30% in Colombia. From the northern riverbank, the basin reaches the Coastal and the Andes mountain ranges, and includes vast plains of the Venezuelan and Colombian Llanos. On the Southern margin of the river lies the Amazonian Guayana. This is the less developed area of the country, home to more than 25 different indigenous groups, vast rainforests and the most important water reserves of the country, and where the legendary tabletop mountains or Tepuis, sprout here and there in a fractured geography. In the late 20th century it became a highly protected region, through the creation of seven natural parks, five natural monuments and two UNESCO biosphere reserves, among the biggest of the world, now all seriously endangered. A part of the Upper Orinoco drains towards the Amazon basin, through the brazo –“arm” or river affluent—Casiquiare, which connects it with the Río Negro. This vast region holds an important place in the Venezuelan national imagination, as a landscape of pristine nature, ancestral indigeneity, rich biodiversity and unique and exuberant landscapes. It has been subject to intermittent cycles of human settlement, exploitation, protection and destruction which mirror those of any other corner of the vast Amazon region.

Orinoco River in the area of la Esmeralda, Duida-Marahuaca mountain massif in the background.



The multiple trappings of the enduring myth of El Dorado, reconstructed by researchers, depict it as a narrative born out of the equivocal dialogue between Europeans conquerors and the Amerindians. The myth begins with a king of the Colombian Andes said to bathe daily in gold dust.The king was dethroned by the Chibcha, the same people who would later direct the Spaniards to look for the runaway sovereign to the East, across the Andes. Infused with this powerful story that promised fabulous riches, the conquerors Francisco Pizarro and Gonzalo de Orellana crossed the mountain range on a journey that led them to a mighty river. Superimposing classical mythology upon the newly discovered lands and peoples, the colossal water course was eventually named for the mythical warrior women of archaic Greece, the Amazons. Following the river for eight months, Pizarro and Orellana reached the mouth of the river in the Atlantic, and through the pen of its chronicler, Friar Carvajal, we came to know that the banks of the lower Amazon were lined with populous indigenous cities.

Facts and myths traveled to the discovery enterprise of another conqueror, Antonio de Berrío. Starting from the island of Trinidad, he made three incursions through the Orinoco delta to find the kingdom of El Dorado—all unsuccessful. His disgraced journeys ended in poverty, and in his imprisonment by the British corsair Walter Raleigh. But they also served to map the “Isle of the Guianas,” the territories between the mouths of the Orinoco and the Amazon in the Atlantic. Allegedly, Raleigh was enchanted by the relations of Berrio’s expeditions. He failed to get these stories confirmed by his captive. In this tussle of secrets guarded and leaked, the images grew of the golden city of Manoa by the huge lake Parime, where the king El Dorado lived in unimaginable wealth. On top of the kingdom of gold, fantastic creatures were then seeded in the fertile imagination of late medieval and early renaissance Europeans: men with their head in the chest, Ewaipanomas, or with the face of a dog. The stories borne out of this encounter lead Raleigh to gain the favor of the Queen of England, to write his account of the formidable land of the Guianas and enter another imperial power in the quest for the riches of the New World.

But the search for El Dorado was not the only attempt at finding riches in the Amazon.  Later, rubber tapping yielded a landmark moment of imperial conquest and devastation of the Amazon by European powers, continued by the mercantile and political elites of the American republics with a share of Amazonian territory. To this day, powerful Indigenous memories of enslavement and forced labor from this dark period still reverberate. The technology to process and transform the sap of the hevea tree into a variety of utensils, and also to waterproof their canoes, was a native invention, adopted by the Portuguese and other Europeans. The production of tires and other rubber artifacts from this extractive industry helped propel the rapidly industrializing West in the late 19th century. Based as it was on the indentured labor of Indians, it became a major drive of destruction of their societies. The most infamous episode of this dark history was the forceful slave labour, torture, abductions and murders of thousands of Indians in the disputed border between Colombia and Peru, in the Putumayo basin. By these means, between 1905 and 1912 the self-made entrepreneur and then-millionaire Julio César Arana produced thousands of tons of rubber for the world markets. It is said that the indigenous population of the region went from 50,000 to 8,000 during those sinister years. Eventually, in 1912 trees planted in the colonies of Asia, from seeds of hevea smuggled 30 years earlier by British explorers, started to produce. They were easier to tend, and, almost overnight, the great rubber boom went bust, collapsing entire local economies.

Aratitiyopë mountain, Upper Casiquiare-Mavaca river area.


But the same exploitative penetration, decimating indigenous tribes, took place in other spots of the Amazon. The extractive industry—tapping on different latex-producing species: caucho, balatá, pendare—pushed the migration of indigenous peoples toward inaccessible headwater areas, fleeing the parties of recruiters for the industry. One masterpiece of Amazonian literature, La Vorágine, by Colombian author José Eustasio Rivera, portrays this gloomy period that cemented the wealth of elites and the establishment of national control in the Colombia-Venezuela-Brazil Amazonian frontier.

The exploitation of rubber in the Venezuelan Amazon did not produce a booming regional economy as was the case in Brazil and Peru. But its destructive impact in the social and cultural geography of the region was identical. In the words of Ramon Iribertegui, the violent establishment of an extractive market economy was the singular most decisive force in the subjugation and destruction of indigenous peoples of the region—unmatched by any other form of socio-cultural erosion. It created an everlasting legacy of racism, exploitation and subordination which still today defines the relation between Indian and criollo populations in the Venezuelan Amazon, despite advances in constitutional rights, legislation on paper and empowerment of indigenous movements.

The most notorious exploiter of indigenous labor wasTomás Funes, rubber entrepreneur-turned-political strong man in the 1920s. Funes forced a bloody regime on Indians, competing traders and political opponents, securing the control of the area in alliance with the country’s dictator, Juan Vicente Gómez. But Funes was just one among many power figures of a system that spanned across the turn of the centuries. Indians who could not escape subjugation by running to the headwater areas found other ways of resisting. They sold bits of rubber themselves on the side and they stuffed the rubber balls meant for market with sand and wood to make them heavier. We remain shocked when memories of these times of grief pour out of the voices of elderly locals in testimonies, as researchers have captured from the last 70 years. The legacy of this abusive culture can still be recognized nowadays when peoples of the forest engage with visitors, explorers, researchers and authorities or any powerful outsiders. It is seen in their very way of speaking, behaving and posing skepticism and demands.

Even as rubber exploitation died out, the myth of El Dorado continued. The continued devastation of tracts of forest by gold mining continued the quest for wealth. Even without the quest of the mythical sovereign in the middle of the jungle anointed in gold, the driving illusion of endless treasure to be sacked from the land prevailed. The many ups and downs of these different periods of destruction of the forest can be traced in the countries of the basin. One such landmark moment was the gold rush in Serra Pelada in the state of Pará in the 1980s, which used hundreds of thousands of miners and created the world’s largest open-air gold mine. This culminated in the garimpeiro invasion of Yanomami lands in Roraima between 1987 and 1989, and the 1993 Hashimú massacre, in Yanomami lands in Venezuela. From then on, and after a hiatus of protection of Indigenous and forest rights of around ten years, this socio-environmental tragedy has continued up to the present, on both sides of the Brazil-Venezuela border.

These ordeals of plunder left their imprint on the memories of people and landscape. And some stretched their legacy well into the present. To this day, on any riverside, forest trail, in an orchard, a garrison, a research station or a lost village, one can always find a reincarnation of a conqueror, a deluded El Dorado seeker sweating out his misery and that of the forest and its inhabitants, a shouting corporal or a slave boss, a butterfly catcher gliding over the undergrowth, a trail guide as silent as packed with stories. As if the world of the forest and river staged, in a shadow theater of the past, an extended play with just a few personages. But reincarnation of the cruel, the candid and the well-meaning cannot exhaust the grandeur of the world of the forest. Traces of the past and phantoms coexist with actual lives of novelty and joy, invention and achievements, with vital cultures modeling ways of interaction with nature, and with extraordinary people.

Helena Valero and Alejandro Reig in her house in San Benito, Ocamo River, 1997.



The eyes of the woman glide upon the massive body of water moving westward. Her eyesight is weak, but the morning brightness of the river is embracing her. I can only imagine the depths of her thoughts as she looks at the water pathway that gave her freedom, forty years before I first met her.

This woman was a child in the 1930s, living in Nazarete, close to Marabitanas, the daughter of Carlos Valero and Clemencia. At age 12 she was kidnapped by a group of Yanomami Indians in the northernmost frontier of the Brazilian Amazon, a random casualty in an extraordinarily violent period in the frontier clash between the Yanomami and the napë, (non-Yanomami people). She was carried across the border and grew up among the Indians, bearing four children from two different husbands, moving between different warring groups. A good part of this time she spent alone in the forest, where she often hid to avoid violence. She finally managed to escape with her children 24 years later, to reunite with her father, mother and siblings. She eventually settled down in the city of Manaus, where her children were schooled and she worked. But she never fully managed to fit back into this world and felt drawn to return to the Yanomami and the Orinoco. After her mother’s death, Luigi Cocco, a Catholic priest and ethnographer, asked her to work as a translator at a mission post among the Yanomami in Ocamo. That is where I first met her, when she was 77, and interviewed her in a series of visits between 1997 and 2000.

During our interviews, Helena looked at me as she lay in her dirty hammock, her nearly blind eyes blinking at the tape recorder and the notebook that I held upon my knees. I have asked her about the last stretch of her journey, the moment in which she managed to flee from the Pisha asi theri., a splinter group of the community of her first husband, that came to be at war with them. I have asked her about the last stretch of her journey, the moment in which she managed to flee from the Pisha asi theri. This was a splinter group of the community of her first husband, a leader that eventually came to be at war with them (and whom they killed). They were after Helena and her children, to avoid future retaliation. 

I have asked her just to go back to the moment of her first escape, because, as she says with a graceful jolt in the hammock: “Talking about it all would be too long!”

The enemies had come to the village, but she had left just beforehand with her children. As they ran in the forest, the children realized she was talking to someone. “Who are you talking to?” they asked. “I am praying,” she said. Eventually they reached the river. She found vines to make a bridge to cross the stream, tied them onto trees on one side, dove into the river and swam to the other side, where she tied the other end. Then she went back and took the children across. They walked through the liana bridge, with river dolphins splashing in and out of the water around them. A huge water snake slithered into the water near them. But they crossed to the other side successfully and Helena left her children and swam back, to untie the vines and throw the makeshift bridge into the water. The Yanomami don’t swim, and dumping the bridge would slow down their pursuit, as they would need to wade upriver or make a bark canoe to cross the water.

It strikes me that she resorted to a previous knowledge in her escape, using her swimming abilities learned as a caboclo girl in Brazil to her advantage, while her every day is one wholly of insertion into Yanomami customs. This adaptation comes out in her descriptions of the interactions between the communities, their movements across the region and the sequences of fission and fusion of the villages, and in her accounts about the people in the places she lived in. Well-inserted into the world of women, she found there much solidarity, but also jealousy and treacherousness. Helena’s effortless and connected knowledge, narrated from the inside but with the tinge of distance allowed by her previous caboclo socialization, is what made her testimony such a rich ethnographical source, to which researchers of Yanomami society return once and again.

Yanomami woman Carrying manioc harvested in the garden, Middle Mavaca River.


But together with participation in and observation of social life, the depth of her engagement appears in her connection with the beings and elements of the forest, and also in her storytelling. The sounds of toads, of a jaguar, of the dolphins, of an outboard motor, come out of her as if she had them inside when she narrates, vividly painting the soundscape of her story. What she does is more than an imitation. Just as Yanomami hunters do when they utter the sounds of the prey they are stalking in order to woo them close by, she embodies the animals’ voices, movements and senses, as if temporarily becoming one of them. This bodily knowledge she must have acquired while becoming a Yanomami forager in the company of other women. And her storytelling echoes the narrative ways of Yanomami stories, in which sequences of actions and sensory details bring the plot of the story into the present. But Helena’s mother was a Tucano Indian from the Vaupés, and she also spoke ñe-engatú. 

Considering this hybrid background, one could also attribute some of these capacities to her caboclo rionegrino culture. Spirits from contrasting worlds live in her experience. She is convinced that she was saved by Jesus, and invocations to the Virgin Mary come together with the identification of the jaguar that chases her with an evil spirit—both a Yanomami conviction and a Río Negro belief. This echoed a story I gathered from “El Gallo,” a handyman from Río Negro. When camping once overnight with his family outside the village, a Jaguar arrived and, dodging him and his wife lying around the fire, went directly to his ten-year-old son, pulled him out from his little hammock with his jaws by the head, and disappeared in the forest. Both parents chased them, unsuccessfully. He realized, he said, that the animal had been a demonic spirit. While Helena speaks to me, she sings both popular caboclo songs and Catholic chants, and these legacies cannot be disentangled. Perhaps this oscillation between the different resources in her background has been a key to her survival. And a resilient fortitude—common to different groups of forest people—kept her together. This woman has been battered, yes. But despite adopting occasionally as we speak the Yanomami attitude of no preai—showing oneself as a pitiful person—she quickly gets out of it, and instead of appearing as a victim, she comes forward as a sane and serene woman, notwithstanding her poverty.

The moment in which she finally found her passage out is a canvas of contained farewells and practical moves. With her children and her second husband, she arrived in Iyewei theri, in the mouth of the Ocamo, and the brother of the headman told her about a napë that went up river three days ago looking for cedar trees. Helena warned her husband that she would go with the children, whether he came with them or not. She waited a day to introduce herself to the logger Juan Eduardo Noguera and his wife while he was tying up the timber he brought from upriver, and then she surprised the wife speaking in Spanish as they prepared to leave. Noguera had of course heard of her, the long-ago kidnapped girl, as Helena’s father had been his neighbor in San Fernando de Atabapo. He agreed to take the family. As they left, a party of Witokaya theri arrived and started shooting arrows at them, and only stopped when Noguera shouted and threatened to shoot them. In the testimony in the book, Helena said: “And there I was, finally, going down the Orinoco, the river of my freedom.”

An outstanding passage in Helena’s story, involving her husband, was a moment in her journey toward Brazil to meet her father, in the town of San Fernando de Atabapo. As it was remembered by others, this Yanomami warrior, stricken with fear at the possibility of losing her, painted his body in black, brandished his bow and arrows and performed a war dance in the plaza outside the mission post where she was staying. The people of the village, terrified by the threatening dance, rushed to seclude themselves in their houses. The story as it was told to me by the explorer Edgardo González Niño exposed the bravery and gallant power of this wild heart, about to be separated from his woman. Helena’s account of this moment in our conversation coincides in that her husband painted himself in black as it is mandatory among the Yanomami before going to war, danced and hollered, going all the way to the end of the village and back. But nobody got scared. She went out and told him to come in and eat, and his rage disappeared.

The two versions of the story, as it is usual in the forest world, speak more about the storyteller than about the event. I see that Helena’s newly gained independence from the Yanomami and from the obligations toward her husband allowed her to establish the rules of her story. And with this she dissolves the romantic image of the heartbroken savage that comes forth in the explorer’s version. Breaking off from Yanomami society as she was, and on her way to meet her own, if her husband wanted to come along, it should be under her terms. This unleashing of female freedom is crucial. Helena’s life as an independent woman was made up again in her storytelling, taking to the center the margin in which she lived, through the development of a voice that many wanted to listen to, giving herself a purpose and connecting her with a wider world.

When this stretch of the interview is over, Helena stays in silence in her hammock, and we both disconnect from the reminiscing talk. Her fragile anatomy radiates a tranquilizing presence, and in the darkness of this hut, I get carried away to imagine that I join her in a reflection about her fate. Today, with another 25 years of distance, I can see that I was caught up in the empathic magic of Amazonian lives, where meaning is never just one thing, as it is always made up in the interaction between those who come together in a certain spot of the forest, at a certain time.

The epic journey of Helena started on the northernmost frontier of the Brazilian Amazon, and her captors took her North, across the watershed divide to Venezuela and towards the Siapa Basin, eventually to the land of the Shamatari Yanomami, among which later several anthropologists worked, and near the headwaters of the Orinoco. So her life story is one of traversing many frontiers: between the Amazonas and Orinoco basins, between Brazil and Venezuela—to and fro and back—between her family’s caboclo culture and yanomami culture—and between the moral demands of both worlds—between the catholic spiritual world of the school in Taracuá where she spent some time and the world of the hekura, Yanomami forest spirits; the frontier between warring Yanomami subgroups; that between girlhood and womanhood, between different Yanomami families, and on an intimate and desolate scale … a go-between expulsion and acceptance back in the bosom of Yanomami communities, which she fled cyclically to avoid a violence that pushed her to live in the forest, foraging and picking up fruits of gardens to survive. More than a set of circumstances, this points to a frontier condition of forest peoples’ existence, a core aspect of Amazonian lifeworlds.

Helena Valero in her house in San Benito, Ocamo River, 1997.



At a certain point Helena‘s Odyssey crossed the path of another one, different in scale and nature. Five years before her final successful escape, she came into contact in the Yanomami community of Platanal with two of the workers of the expedition that would discover the headwaters of the Orinoco. In her testimony for the book, she misses the expeditionaries just when their boat is leaving. In our interview she speaks of reaching out stealthily to them and being refused: “No, no, no, we can’t take you”, they told me! There were three of them, a driver, a cook … Venezuelans, in the port of Platanal…”

This 1951 expedition, in which the headwaters of the “Father River” were finally established, is known as the French-Venezuelan expedition to the sources of the Orinoco, and is considered the last major epics of geographical discovery of Venezuela. Helena’s epic journey is one of a solitary woman negotiating her survival and that of her children, adapting without melding into an alien culture. The headwaters expedition epic was written by militaries in political power, scientists and explorers, appropriating an unknown geography to incorporate it into the nation, without acknowledging those that made it possible. These were a group of mestizo and Indigenous laborers that carved, steered and pulled through the rapids the big dugout canoes, opened up the paths in the jungle, carried the cargo of the explorers and set up and dismantled the camps every day of the eight-month trip.

Around the time I started interviewing Helena, nearly fifty years after the expedition, I tracked down and interviewed fifteen of these neglected heroes of the discovery of the Venezuelan Amazon. The expedition in itself is charged with technical, political and scientific paradoxes, and I wanted to hear the version of the handymen. The atmosphere of quarrels and tensions portrayed in the accounts published by some of the explorers was not echoed by the laborers. Most of them spoke of harmony, or of not realizing the tensions, but they all recalled incidents. And some of them recalled the irritation of the scientists with the authoritarianism of the officer who led the expedition, Major Franz Rísquez.

One laborer, Manuel Antono García, “El Gallo,” had no memory of any bossiness. As the commander had the power to mobilize planes and choppers, they received parachuted boxes with food, beer and music instruments, and the evenings were spent singing, feasting and drinking. Antonio Ferreira, originally from Brazil, remembered that the major allowed them to use their uniforms for two weeks after the expedition ended, and opened up for them a line of credit in the shops of Puerto Ayacucho, the State capital. Silverio Level, from a family of rubber tappers and Amazonian traders, had become a herbalist and vendor of natural medicines when I found him. On the contrary, he affirmed that the trip was fraught with conflicts because of the commanders’ attempt to impose military discipline on the scientists and workers. Other workers do not remember this because, “You know that the world is full of servile men, as those who loved to run carrying Rísquez’s heavy machine gun and shoes.” Miguel Albino, who had become an evangelical pastor when I interviewed him, remembers a horizontal and collective command of the journey: “Rísquez did not command anything, he was there to accompany the expedition, we went all together. There was no captain, no chief, we were the chiefs over there: if we didn’t go ahead nobody did.” The Indigenous Ye’kuana members of the expedition, Dawashuma Manuel Velásquez, Isaías Rodríguez and Antonio Yaracuna, built the bongos—big canoes carved out from tree trunks—that transported the expeditionaries in the navigation phase of the trip upriver. They didn’t remember conflicts, but they recalled the cruelty of the corporal, Manuel Butrón, a veteran of the guerrillas against the Gomez dictatorship in the ’20s. He woke them up shouting before sunrise, and beat them with the side of a machete if they slowed down. 

Velásquez later undertook the last colonization of La Esmeralda, then uninhabited, migrating with his family from the Cucucunuma River, and he claimed Rísquez instructed him to do so. Other sources say this was commissioned by the evangelical missionaries of the New Tribes Missions. This was later responded to by the Salesian Catholic missionaries, who opened a mission post in the same place, a testament to the competition by religious orders in the territory. Velásquez came to be a major informant for Watunna, a Ye’kuana mythological account, gathered and published by Marc de Civrieux, an ethnographer who participated in the expedition. Isaías Rodríguez, nicknamed “El Yunque”—the anvil—because of his strength, later became an assistant to the director of the National Science Museum, Archaeologist J.M. Cruxent, a leading participant in the expedition. A gifted hunter, Isaías worked as a taxidermist both in the National Science Museum and in the Institute of Tropical Zoology of the Central University of Venezuela. After this sojourn in Caracas, Isaías went back to his community of Cacurí in the Ventuari River and became a major ally of Father Kortas, a Jesuit missionary who led a project to supply technology to the Ye’kuana, raising buffalos and expanding agriculture in this Amazonian Savannah. All the workers remembered that they were never paid the full wages offered, and that subsequent mayors and governors of the territory failed to deliver the promise of a retirement pension, finally granted to the few surviving ones in 2000 by the first indigenous governor of the state, Liborio Guarulla.

The voices of these workers speak of a context of inequality and deception that characterizes the advancement of national frontiers over the Amazonian hinterlands, in all the countries of the basin. There are white/criollo people coming with resources, instruments, money and missions, recruiting indispensable local peoples, indigenous and not, for their enterprises. Because of their knowledge of the place and its people, their abilities and strength, without these locals most of these efforts would fail. They become the prosthetic bodies of whites and criollos in the forest, an environment in which they could neither advance nor survive on their own. This workforce of Amazonian dwellers is what makes it possible for explorers to observe, to document, to extend their political powers by expanding frontiers, and to appropriate through knowledge and imagination the worlds of the forest.

But the picture gets flattened if we just see it as one of inequalities and struggling achievements. Manual laborers are never fully acknowledged, but in a close-range scale, forest people also make the best of these encounters and enterprises to expand on their life projects. They use them to get new food and materials, to earn money and to connect to resources for them and their families. They experience a wider world, advance their own positions in their communities and find new life paths—as Isaías and Velázquez show. In cases—such as the Orinoco headwaters expedition—they use them to be incorporated and recognized as citizens of a nation.

Night time in a Yanomami communal house, shapono, Middle Mavaca River.



In the Amazon region one is warned on arrival: “one plus one is never (just) two.” Similarly, the testimonies scattered across these pages speak of ambivalence and diversity, power and resistance, alliances and negotiations. They point to improving the prospects of disadvantaged people through the incorporation of the resources of powerful outsiders, and also about an engaged intimacy with the forest that makes Amazonia powerfully attractive for many who come in contact with it.

We get drawn into the rainforest and its people by different kinds of forces. One such force is the power of stories, made up by people who belong there and by people who come from elsewhere. Stories from different origins rub against each other, mix and bear new stories with different powers and purposes. Nothing is neat, but a messy piling-up of projects and experiences shaping or trying to shape life and land destinies.

The other force is about presence, about being there and establishing connection. Many travelers and explorers of Amazonian worlds have been initially enchanted by the powerful narratives, stories about and by Indigenous peoples, their ways of life and myths. And then they get caught up by something else: a quality of presence in distinctive human encounters. A contagious and distinctive take on rough and grounded lives, calm but resolute, that circulates in peoples’ connection and attunement with the rivers and the forest, speaking of flow and intimacy. These two dimensions coexist as do the map and the trail that is walked on. 

Cycles of violence and environmental destruction have come and gone in the history of the forest world. Encounters treasured and cherished over there are strong, emplaced and long-lasting. Hope lies in the magic of engagement with the people and places of the forest, opening up new cycles of common world-making.


Alejandro Reig

Alejandro Reig is a researcher, teacher and writer on socio environmental issues, with a focus on Amazonia. He has a PhD Anthropology from the University of Oxford and is widely published. His recent co-authored book, Migrantes, offers a global vision of human mobility.

Kike Arnal

Kike Arnal is a Venezuelan American documentary photographer. His work has been published by The New York Times and Mother Jones among others. Arnal is the author of four photography books: In the Shadow of Power, Bordered Lives, Revealing Selves and Voladores.

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