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The forest at the gate of Brazil

The forest at the gate of Brazil

Posted by on Mai 19, 2013 in all posts, Brazil, on the road | 0 comments

Entering Brazil through the state of Acre in northwest Amazonia gives a different perspective on the country. In one way it shows how, like the US, Canada and Australia, this country is also a country of settlers and frontiers-people imposing an economy, government, and set of cultures on a place that had already been inhabited for thousands of years. Coming from this direction into the country, away from the larger metropoles of Rio and São Paulo also reminds me of how much environmental devastation the settler nations have imposed on this vast and beautiful territory through destructive and unsustainable models of development. Though forest regions preserved as national parks or more recently extractive reserves are plentiful in this state of Acre, on the road from the Peruvian border all we see are endless fields of cattle farms with the occasional solitary giant tree standing like an archeological memory. This stretch of our journey also reminded me of the deadly struggles over the forest and people’s livelihood being waged both here, in this corner of Brazil, as well as in so many parts of the world.

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On the road to Rio Branco from the Peruvian border, photo by Udi




Acre is the home state of rubber tapper, union leader and environmental activist Chico Mendes who was murdered in 1988 by a landowner from this region. Chico Mendes was opposed to the large agribusiness encroachment into the forest and the decimation of both indigenous lands and cultures as well as the lands and livelihood of those, like rubber tappers, who had been using the resources of the forest in a more sustainable way for many generations. Mendes was very much ahead of his time, envisioning a different economic model for this region by a sustainable management of the forest through extractive reserves in such a way that hundreds of its products could be used and commercialised without destroying the forest or the ways of life of its people.

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Chico Mendes panel at the Biblioteca da Floresta, photo by Kelly




Commemorating 25 years since his death, economic and environmental policy in the state of Acre seems to have now caught up with this way of thinking and the Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve covers 970.570 of hectares of land in the state providing a sustainable livelihood for its forest population. Around twenty other reserves have also been across the country where logging, and large agribusiness are forbidden.

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Biodiversity management within the state of Acre – panel at the Biblioteca da Floresta, photo by Kelly

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Conservation panel, representing the Amazonian region, at the Biblioteca da Floresta, photo by Kelly

Though large landed agribusiness interests are still a powerful force in the state and in the country, and dozens continue to be killed by landowners each year, significant moves for the protection of the forest have been made in Acre, which boasts amongst the most preserved forest regions in the country. You only need to look at aerial views on google maps to see how just across the border in the state of Rondônia the unabated growth of agribusiness, especially through the cultivation of soy for cattle feed and the raising of cattle, has clawed away at the remaining forest. Yet, the powerful landed lobby in congress continues to stifle efforts to pass strong enough legislation for a comprehensive protection of the forest. At the same time a culture of violence and impunity in the frontiers areas surrounding the forest means that the murders of activists and the expulsion of people from their land continues.

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Agrobusiness panel at the Biblioteca da Floresta, photo by Kelly



We had tried to connect up with local groups active with indigenous communities developing interesting projects in the field of education in this region but unfortunately this was a case where fragmented email and phone communication did not open doors for us. As such we were sorry to have spent only a very short time in what is a very exciting and innovative region developing important initiatives in this field. We are hopeful to return at some point in the future.

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The Biblioteca da Floresta, photo from http://blog.brasilturista.com.br/o-acre-existe/




One place we were lucky to have gained access to at all was the Biblioteca da Floresta, the Forest Library. I say lucky because the one day we had to wander about the state capital of Rio Branco before our flight onwards to Rio de Janeiro, the museum was closed. Dropped off in front of the quiet and tastefully designed modern building by the generous owner of the hotel we were staying at, we were feeling disheartened that the one thing we could have seen here was closed. We made our way to the shut building and looked through the glass. A security guard behind the desk inside came out to meet us. Without hoping for much I explained our situation and much to our surprise the guard proceeded to not only invite us in, turn on the lights and say we were free to look around anywhere, but to give us a wonderful tour of the place.

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Inside The Biblioteca da Floresta, photo from http://ascoisasdabiblio.blogspot.com/2011/05/biblioteca-da-floresta-rio-brancoac.html




Our guard turned to be quite an angel. He is a former teacher, who had worked in prisons and had also known Chico Mendes personally, he shared with us a number of interesting stories from Acre state. He was very proud of this Library and the people associated with it, such as Marina da Silva another important environmental activist, Acre native and political figure who was for a time Environmental Minister under Brazil’s Labour government but who resigned for the lack of support for her ministry.

Marina da Silva also ran for president in the last election under the Green Party and came third. We will definitely be following her progress, the last initiative she has been involved with is launching another platform Rede Sustentabilidade, Sustainability Network, an open movement that is reaching out across sectors of Brazilian society but which also intends to contest the next election while moving away from the organisational format of a traditional political party.

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Inside The Biblioteca da Floresta, photo from http://ascoisasdabiblio.blogspot.com/2011/05/biblioteca-da-floresta-rio-brancoac.html




The Forest Library is a beautiful and well-resourced library, museum, gallery, study and auditorium space open to the public and built by the local government. We were told by our guide the Library was going to be named after Marina but that there was some glitch on naming public buildings after people who are still living.

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Studying Inside The Biblioteca da Floresta, photo from http://ascoisasdabiblio.blogspot.com/2011/05/biblioteca-da-floresta-rio-brancoac.html




The Library is well worth the visit if you are in this part of the world, as is the city of Rio Branco. Opened in 2007 the library stretches over three floors with several exhibition spaces. The Library’s goal is to promote sustainability and teach about the region, the forest and the knowledge held about it by local populations. An important focus of the library, and seen in the highly informative museum, is to teach about the history of this region.

The history starts with the rubber boom of the 1800s and the forced labour of indigenous peoples and African slaves to the collapse of the rubber industry in Brazil. This is followed by the rise of different forms of indentured labour in the large farms of this region. The museum provides a map of the various attempts at colonising the forest and extracting wealth from the land through often cruel means. The exhibition also shows various moments and movements of resistance including the union struggle which was led by Chico Mendes. Upstairs the exhibition is about the various indigenous peoples in Acre, telling some of their stories and histories.




Our guard-guide explained to us how this space is used by local high school and university students who make use of the books, computers and study spaces. The Library also runs various events where people directly go and learn over a few days with different populations in the forest, indigenous communities, rubber tappers and others living off the forest.

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The book shelves with seeds and leaves, Inside The Biblioteca da Floresta, photo by Kelly and the indigenous panels

An interesting temporary exhibition we saw here also showed how the regional government and local businesses were promoting sustainable products from Acre’s forest to an international markets. Showing products such as Brazil nuts, latex, different fruits and oils which could be farmed without damaging the forest and a number of which have been used for their medicinal properties.

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Part of a temporary exhibition on local products Inside The Biblioteca da Floresta, photo by Kelly




We left the museum after thanking our guide profusely. Before leaving Rio Branco we walked through the local market. In one of the stalls selling local plant medicines we saw hundreds of species of plants, fruits, seeds, roots being used untold purposes. How strange that an economic system that champions one or two species, say soy or cattle, can prevail and cause such destruction over such an intricately woven and diverse ecosystem.

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A local medicinal plant shop, photo by Udi

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A local medicinal plant shop, photo by Kelly

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Driving to Terrace with academia, oil and glaciers on my mind…

Driving to Terrace with academia, oil and glaciers on my mind…

Posted by on Nov 16, 2012 in all posts, Canada, Freda Diesing School of Northwest Art, on the road | 0 comments

We left Calgary early on the first Saturday of October bound for a small town called Terrace in Northern British Columbia, with the purpose of visiting the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Art.  The drive was estimated to be about 20 hours and we planned to divide the days of driving with an overnight stay in Jasper, in the midst of Jasper National Park.  To get there, you have to also drive through Banff National Park.   The views between Calgary and Jasper via Banff and Jasper National Parks are nothing short of extraordinary.  Words such as ‘beautiful’, ‘amazing’, ‘unbelievable’, ‘mind-blowing’ are used in over-abundance and do little to convey the magnitude of the natural display of wonder through which the road traverses.

Photo taken by Kelly along the Banff-Jasper Highway

The morning we left, I was jetlagged after returning the day before from a trip to the UK (the during which time I visited the University for the last time as an employee). The tremendous beauty that surrounded me in Banff and Jasper were a far cry from those intense days working as an academic.  Although there were precious gems of collegial friendships I had developed with many inspiring students and other like-minded academics, overall, the geography of the academic environment was harsh and unforgiving, hardly nourishing or conducive to deep creativity and passionate purpose.   During the four years I worked at the University I felt an intensifying hierarchy and lack of support.  This is not the same experience for all early academics, but it was for me.  I was often lost in a murky sea of politics, torn between commitments within two different departments, scurrying around like a headless chicken to keep up with an overload of teaching and often times losing my sense of purpose and self in the process.  The glacially sculpted peaks and valleys of the Rocky Mountains offered an immediate respite, reminding me of the slow process of time through which each of us are such small, but deeply connected components.  I also was reminded by how small my world had become in the mire of the University’s expectations and structure. Much bigger issues, such as climate change, that I could view firsthand in the receding glaciers at Banff and Jasper, are exponentially more important.  The world is much larger, vastly more interesting, than the small-mindedness of universities whose primary objectives are to make themselves as big as possible within the global economy, particularly at the expense of the happiness of many of its staff, faculty and students.  I also realized that the healing required from my experience working in academia – to unlearn ways of thinking that had been detrimental to my overall well-being – would be slow and erratic.  Feelings and experiences embed themselves deep in each of our bodies, affecting far more than our minds.  I felt an intense gratitude for these reminders surrounding me in the tremendous beauty of the sculpted Rocky Mountains, turquoise lakes, sublimely green ever-green trees and yellowing Autumnal leaves – and also the melancholic presence of melting glaciers amidst the beauty.

Photo taken by Kelly at Bow Lake in Banff National Park

Although we hastened our travel to Jasper that first day of driving, we managed a few stops that brought us to the forefront of climate change processes.  After marvelling at the turquoise waters of Lake Louise and Bow Lake, we stopped at Columbia Icefields to walk up the path to see the Athabasca glacier up close.  At the turn off to Columbia Icefields, on the drive to the parking lot, we noticed signs that read 19012, 1920, 1945, 1960, 1980, 1992, 2000 – each demonstrated the level from which the glacier had receded, the most recent being 2000, at least 50 metres from where the edge of the glacier currently lay melting with torrents of small rivers and streams running off toward the turquoise lake below.

Photo taken by Udi of Athabasca glacier at Columbia Icefields, Banff National Park

We also stopped at Parker Ridge, on the side of the highway and walked 2km up a steep ascent to eat a small picnic lunch.  The view hiking up the snaking avalanche path was as impressive as the drive and we felt alive as our lungs were working harder to grasp oxygen from the thinning crisp air.  The only downside of the view was a haze of smoke from controlled forest fires in British Columbia.  Along the path, stunted alpine evergreen trees and wildflowers thrive here in the desert-like landscape that brings constant blasts of wind.  Once we reached the crest of the ridge, the most extraordinary sight beheld us.  We were transfixed.    Through at least a mile or so of evergreen and Autumnal yellows of forest cascading below us lay an untouched valley with a rivulet of streams and rivers cutting their way through from a massive glacier on the right that we approximated to be at least 5 miles long.  The massive Saskatchewan glacier, which dwarfs the Athabasca glacier at Columbia Icefields, we later learnt, creates the North Saskatchewan river that flows over 700 miles to meet with the Saskatchewan River in Saskatchewan and eventually empty into Lake Winnipeg.

Photo taken by Kelly on top of Parkers Ridge, Banff National Park

Our overnight stay in Jasper was in an overpriced hotel that was more like a glamorised hostel, with a shared bathroom for the hallway, but a separate box-shaped bedroom with gold fixtures on the lamps, bed, dresser and windows.  We happily left Jasper bound for the furthest town we could reach before dark.  We remembered to fill up on petrol as the nearest petrol station was a 4 hour drive away.  We entered British Columbia a couple of hours after leaving Jasper.  That night, we made it as far as Burns Lake, a small town at least 200 miles from Terrace.

Photo taken by Kelly at the border of British Columbia

The drive to Burns Lake from Jasper was engrossing, a continuous flow of mountainous peaks and valleys amidst lakes and rivers, endless evergreen trees and the red, oranges and yellows of aspen, cottonwood, alder and other deciduous trees at their Autumnal peak.

Photo taken by Kelly just outside of Burns Lake, British Columbia


Photo taken by Kelly in British Columbia along the way to Terrace

Our only stop along the way was spontaneous, about 5 or so hours into the drive.  We noticed a sign that said ‘Ancient Forest’ which piqued our interest.  It turned out that this sign led us to a moderate 1 mile hike through an ancient cedar forest where the cedar trees were as old as 2,000 years.

Photo taken by Udi of an ancient cedar canopy in the ‘Ancient Forest’ in British Columbia

This forest is a temperate rainforest and very rare for being so far inland, especially for North America.  We learned that the golden moss growing on the majority of the trees only forms on trees more than 250 years old.  The intense oxygen and sweet aromas from the ancient cedar forest were more than enough to sustain us for another 5 hours of driving.

Photo taken by Udi of ‘golden moss’ on cedar trees in the ‘Ancient Forest’, British Columbia


Photo taken by Udi of me visiting ‘Treebeard’ a cedar tree estimated to be over 1,500 years old in the ‘Ancient Forest’, British Columbia

We also made a brief 5 minute stop to get a good photograph of a ‘No to Enridge Pipeline’ sign.

Photo taken by Kelly in British Columbia, along the way to Terrace

We had noticed several posters plastered onto signs along the way, but this particular one had been rigged up on a bridge over a fast-flowing river just off the highway.  The controversial Enridge Pipeline project is two parallel pipelines from the Tar Sands in Northern Alberta to Kitimat, each with a length of over 700 miles.  The primary reason for this proposal is to open Canada’s oil market to China and other Asian countries.  The proposal was first set forth about 7 years ago.  Although there has been a significant amount of financial incentive offered to at least 60 different First Nations communities, not one community has agreed to accept.  The reasoning behind this is not only because of the sacredness of the land historically to all First Nations peoples but also because of the incredible fragility and diversity of the plant and animal life which comprises the temperate rainforest land that the pipeline would pass through, affecting not only salmon runs, but habitat for all species.  National Geographic wrote a special article in August 2011 about the critical protection needed for the Great Bear Rainforest – ‘a wild stretch of western cedar, hemlock, and spruce forest that runs 250 miles down British Columbia’s coast.  Whales, wolves, bears and humans thrive in the rich marine channels and forests of the Great Bear’.  There have been and will continue to be numerous protests about Enridge in Canada and the US.

Photo taken by Udi along the way to Terrace, British Columbia

In addition to Enridge, there are other pipeline projects proposed such as Keystone (running from the Tar Sands in Northern Alberta all the way to the Gulf of Mexico in Texas) and the Trans-Mountain pipeline system from Edmonton to Puget Sound, in Washington state in the US.  Each of these proposed pipelines (Enridge, Keystone and Trans-Mountain) are intensely controversial – particularly for First Nations and Native American communities.  When we were in Victoria after our visit to Terrace, we learned that there was a blockade of activists protesting Keystone in Texas, many of whom were imprisoned.  Daryl Hannah, the actress was among the activists which brought greater media attention to the efforts committed to blocking the construction of Keystone.  These pipelines are highly contentious, but with the economic crisis being such a burden to so many people while the hunger for oil grows, the imagined need for Enridge, Keystone and Trans-Mountain is bound to strengthen.

That night, during our short stay in Burns Lake we were told by the motel owner that he had seen the Northern Lights just a few days before.  We could only hope to be so lucky, this was something that Udi and I both had long wanted to witness.

The next day we drove the 4 or so hours to Terrace, stopping along the way in Smithers, to see one of the Northwest College campuses after noticing a sign.  The Freda Diesing School of Indigenous Arts is also a part of the Northwest Community College satellite campuses and we were curious to visit the NWCC Smithers campus.  In Smithers, we learned, students can take a variety of courses not only in education and computer technology, but also preparatory skills for geological exploration and mining.

Photo taken by Udi of the Smithers campus – Northwest Community College, British Columbia

We arrived in Terrace with much excitement in the middle of the afternoon, finding a place to stay for the next 4 nights with much more difficulty than assumed due to the influx of oil and gas workers in the area at the time.  The symbol of Terrace is the ‘Spirit Bear’ – or the Kermode as it is officially known – a white Black bear, the subject of the National Geographic article mentioned above and an animal of extreme spiritual significance for many First Nations peoples.  The Spirit Bear is notoriously elusive but can occasionally be spotted in this area.  As the Spirit Bear is the symbol of Terrace, there are several life-size sculptures around town, each painted with ovoids and animals symbolic to First Nations communities.

We decided to quickly drop our stuff off and drive straight down to Kitimaat Village, where the majority of the Haisla First Nations people live, to see a view of the Douglas Channel harbor that leads out to the Pacific Ocean, before dark.  We were also hungry and noticed that there was a recommended restaurant in Kitimaat Village called ‘Sea Masters’.  The drive to Kitimaat is about 50 kilometers south of Terrace.  We were hoping to see the Northern Lights that night…

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