More Info: Amazonian Lost Paradises and Imagined Frontiers

"Berrio’s expeditions," "Voices of elderly locals" and "Orinoco headwaters expedition"

Linked from “Berrio’s expeditions”

“When Berrío met Raleigh in 1595, El Dorado was his only reason to overcome the deep loneliness in which his Maria left him. The illusion that could justify his long and painful rosary of failures. For Raleigh, it was the only alternative to restore the lost love of his Queen. The interest that fueled Berrio’s yearning to discover and conquer El Dorado was based on the fascinating attraction of a chimera, of a Spanish illusion that Walter Raleigh embraced with a lover’s delirium. Raleigh accepted, believed and repeated what Berrío and Vera e Ibargoyen had written in the seized chronicles, echoing his same ideas, victim of an astonishing mimetism. The obsessive explorations of Berrío and the hallucinations of Raleigh took the Doradist myth to its pinnacle and the mythical cartography to its utmost expression. The immense cartographic voids between the Orinoco and the Amazon became filled with the toponyms of imaginary rivers, mountains, lakes and kingdoms protected by acephalous lestrigons and a rich bestiary.”

Miguel Angel Perera, Sueños encontrados, Liber Factory, Madrid, 2016, pp 209-210 (translation A.R.)


Linked from “Voices of elderly locals”

I met Anita Bueno, a Baniva indigenous woman born in Maroa, in the mid-1990’s in San Fernando de Atabapo, a border town and former capital of the Venezuelan Amazon in the times of rubber. This village of three rivers—the Atabapo connecting to the Río Negro and Brazil, the Colombian Inírida and the Orinoco—has traditionally been a node of trade and exchanges between the three countries, and an epicentre of its violent periods. I found her following the lead of the book Amazonas, Diálogos de ayer, by Ramón Iribertegui, a key source to the history of the region. Combining fact with emotional memories in novelized fashion, in it Anita and her husband Don Laureano paint a fresco of political turmoil and of the alliance in the exploitation of the natives between politicians and extractive entrepreneurs, a time of enslavement of indigenous peoples to work in rubber extraction, before and after the reign of strongman Tomás Funes. By the time I spoke with her she was an elderly widow, still passionate in her account of a bloody past. Anita made history a thing of this moment. Thin and small and with an imposing energy, she extended her arm to the side as if to gather the past, to then throw it into the conversation in accusative statements. Her father had been a victim of Funes’ greed. “I always say to my children: never say you have a friend, it is very rare to have a loyal friend. José Miguel González was my father, killed by a friend of his in Santa Rosa de Amanadona. He had breakfast, lunch and dinner with my father, and then invited him to the port to chat… instead of telling him that he had been commissioned to kill him!! (so he could escape). When they killed him, my mother had been waiting for her period three days. It was me!!! In the book’s testimony, husband and wife talk of a culture of poisoning among competing extractive bosses, traders and politicians. This issue comes back, taking on a presidential  target: “Gómez, they also had to poison him! He didn’t want to hand power for any reason, so in the Congress they planned it: as he liked to read, they made up a poisoned book and they gave it to him, and he turned the pages…”.

With the distortion imposed by the project I was curating, a museum exhibition about the Orinoco, I failed to make this mixture of historical memories and imagination my focus. I pressed to find what the Orinoco meant to her: What did it seem to you when you first saw it? She deflected my abstract question with an answer that took me off my base: “To me, it looked like a little stream (un cañito).” In my Venezuelan experience, there was no bigger water course. Her testimony appeared on video in the exhibition, but it also opened up an overlooked issue, about scales of experience, by river people used to moving from one to another point of the basin. Anita had been born in Maroa, in the banks of the Upper Rio Negro—not too wide over there—but perhaps her point of reference for a big river was the Amazonas, the width of which humbles the Orinoco.


Linked from “Orinoco headwaters expedition”

Well before dawn on the morning after the day I quit my job, I was driving a camper van to take my rainforest ecologist friend Tarek to the Caura River, a tributary of the Orinoco and back then the spine of its most pristine watershed. Behind me extended four years of work at conceptualizing the Orinoco Exhibition, a major effort of the National Science Museum in Caracas, to produce an encompassing vision of the river and its territory. We were headed to Tarek’s fieldwork site, where he was to negotiate permission for the next stage of his doctoral research with the Ye’kuana indigenous association and the community that was hosting him. As the sun rose over the Orinoco on the shore of the village of Cabruta, waiting for the boat that would take the car across, we witnessed the high-contrast Egyptian profile of the black cormorants looming over the glistening skin of the river, and the gentle whoosh of the foreheads of pink dolphins. The leap into the void I was feeling because of quitting a steady job was comforted by the presence of the river, and my notebook recorded that I wasn’t losing anything: no narrative account of it could match the immensity of being there, in its flow.

That afternoon, and after a six-hour nap in the boat upriver that the exhausted driver falls into, we arrive in the community of Nichare, where we will be staying overnight to participate in a difficult negotiation. Some members of the indigenous association and the community have challenged the continuation of my friend’s research. Permits had to be presented, read aloud page by page and revised to the minute detail of the engraved letters in the circular stamps of the official seals, and a tense and tedious parley would ensue for many hours into the night.

But prior to that, as we disembark and get directed to the hut where we will hang our hammocks, I get introduced to the community by my friend. After hearing the introductions a woman, Aurora, comes forward and grabs me by an arm: “Is that you? You are the one that made that exhibition? How did you know about our story?” Aurora explains enthusiastically that she had been taken to the museum in Caracas with another group of Ye’kuana women and men, and that she was floating in astonishment when she saw the hall in which the bedrock of the river was represented, with the remnants of the objects that many explorers had lost overboard or in wreckages in their voyages on the river: Spanish swords, ropes, chains, canoes, books, bags, typewriters, measuring devices, boxes, traps and nets for collecting animals, magnifying glasses, guns…. That all this lies at the bottom of the river, she says, is only known to those initiated into certain passages of Ye’kuana mythology, so, who on earth told me that? I can’t reply. Aurora is referring to a small room in the 800 m² exhibition, in which I chronicled that a group of scuba divers had tried to go down the Maipures pit, the deepest section of the Orinoco, just after the rapids that impede its navigation. After a certain point, the divers had to stop and ascend back, because of the danger posed by the whirlwind dragging them into an increasingly fast circular motion, and the depth of the river at that place had to remain unmeasured. Starting from this real-life story gathered from a hydrologist, I imagined and asked: what would have they found if they had managed to reach the sandy and rocky bottom? And from this inspiration, we staged the exhibition of the forever-lost instruments, material testimonies of the failures in the discovery of the river, with apparels from many different historical times. This imagined scenario was replicated in an indigenous myth that no outsiders knew about. And the random and unexpected encounter between the two stories connected me with Aurora.


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.

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