Faithful readers of these pages may remember that not long ago, I managed to catch a fine-looking fish in the Tambopata River in Peru.
This one didn't get away!
In case you’re new, or perhaps it simply slipped your mind, here’s a little reminder…
It was a real hoot passing the digital camera around to the various guides and boat drivers connected with the lodge and park in Peru. Clearly, they thought the fish was something wonderful. And because most of them grew up in that area, and many of them live there year round, there was one question that came back more than any other: “What did you do with the fish?” To a man (yes, they were all men), the boatmen were shocked that I would return such a delicacy to the water. The guides, on the other hand, wanted to be certain that I didn’t try to eat the fish.
Scarlet Macaws, Green Mealy Parrots, Yellow-Crowned Parrots, Blue-Headed Parrots, and Chestnut-Fronted Macaws gather around the world's largest clay lick
A Dusky Titi Monkey enjoys the larvae living inside bamboo
It’s not because the Tiger Catfish/Barred Sorubim is so rare or endangered. No, there are plenty to be found in Amazonia, and they are said to be delicious. The problem is that at that point, the Tambopata River is full of mercury, a deadly toxin.
The Tambopata is an amazingly beautiful and rich ecosystem. It supports a wide variety of life, much of which we got to see, and a bit of which is pictured throughout this posting. There are mammals and birds and insects – an incredible array of flora and fauna. In fact, Peru is the nation with the second-greatest diversity of birds on the planet. Unfortunately for many of those animals, the river system is also rich in gold. Specifically, there are vast quantities of alluvial gold – “gold dust” – to be found in the sand and silt of the riverbeds.
The Tayra, a member of the weasel family, slinks furtively through the forest
Ariel and Dave climbing INSIDE a giant fig tree
In a previous posting I mentioned the color of the river – a chocolatey brown. Part of that is due to natural sedimentation that occurs as rainwater erodes the banks. Much of it, especially in the Malinoswki River, (which feeds into the Tambopata) comes from the one- or two-man mining operations that occur with alarming frequency. The miners anchor a small barge/raft over the river bottom and dredge up the silt from the bottom – clouding the water. Then, they pour the silt over a carpet-like filter, and the minerals in the silt adhere to the fibers of the carpet. At the end of the day, the carpet is washed in a 50 gallon drum containing mercury. The gold dust bonds with the mercury, and then is purified into 24 karat gold…while tons of mercury ends up in the river (more than 80,000 pounds of mercury are used in mining operations in the Peruvian state of Madre de Dios each year, with an untold amount ending up in the rivers). To learn more about the ways that alluvial gold is extracted from the rivers,click here.
One of many mining operations we saw on the Tambopata River
The people who live along these Peruvian rivers use the water for everything: they eat the fish from the rivers, they wash in the water, bathe in it, cook with it, and drink it…mercury and all. While not all of the locals are aware of the adverse effects of mercury in the water, awareness is growing (see this article from PBS that has more information about the dangers of mercury to the local populations). In fact, while staying at the Tambopata Research Center, we met a Stanford student who was working to develop educational materials for the local population.
In spite of the efforts of environmentalists and health professionals, the mining continues. Why? Because gold costs more than $1100 per ounce. A miner working the rivers (with mercury and carpet and a barge) can make hundreds of dollars in a day. The average household income in Peru is hard to determine, but most of what I could find indicated that it was about $5000/year. The rush for gold is killing the environment and endangering the humans…but we just can’t stop looking for it.
I’m not bashing Peruvians here – I have increasingly understood in recent years how tempting it is to choose the evil that wants to destroy us. Heck, at least in Peru, it makes some sort of (short-term) economic sense: if I mine the alluvial gold today, my family can eat. I don’t, then we starve… But so often we see people choosing the evil that destroys them and it doesn’t seem to make sense at all…we nurture our hatreds, even when they rob us of joy. We cultivate our lusts, even when we know that they damage our sense of reality. We continue to give in to our addictions, even though they will kill us.
As I wandered through South America, I had an ancient copy of The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. It’s one of those classics that I’ve been meaning to read. This seemed like a good time. As I neared the end of the trip and the end of the novel, I was struck by a conversation between young Lise and Alyosha. Lise describes a dream:
“I must tell you a funny dream that I had. I sometimes dream of devils. It’s night, I am in my room with a candle and suddenly there are devils all over the place, in all the corners, under the table. And they open the doors, there’s a crowd of them behind the doors and they want to come and grab me. And they are just coming, just grabbing me. But I suddenly cross myself and they all draw back, though they don’t go away altogether. They stand at the doors and in the corners, waiting. And suddenly I have a frightful longing to revile God aloud, and so I begin. And then they come crowding back to me, delighted, and grab me again and I cross myself again and they all draw back. It’s awful fun, it takes one’s breath away.”
(Book XI, chapter 3)
Dostoyevsky has captured the human condition: we are in love with the powers that will destroy us. It may be hunger for power, or for money, or for ease or satisfaction…but each day, each of us must choose how we will relate to those devils that would crush us. Later in the book, Alyosha will demonstrate time and time again that it is within our power to choose to embrace the Holy and reject the profane…but those choices are often neither instinctual nor easy.
I wear a small gold band on my finger. I wonder where the gold came from. I hope to God it wasn’t from a river in Peru. Regardless of where it came from, I will choose today to use it as a reminder to pray for those who face temptation from any source – and to remind myself that, in the words of Martin Luther,
And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed his truth to triumph through us.
The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure:
One little word shall fell him.