Polyphony in Tumbira, Amazon

This is an audio recording made during a supposed bird-sighting tour along a small igarapé (small, many seasonal, capillary tributary) in the Brazilian Amazon.

Right before the dawn of an early morning of August 2011, my wife and I left the village of Tumbira in a canoe for a tour of sunrise watching and bird-sighting. Tumbira is a small village of twenty one families, less than one kilometer up the Lago Tumbira (literally Lake Tumbira, but more like a bay) from the south bank of Rio Negro (black River, a major tributary of the Amazon River), almost two thousand kilometers from the Atlantic coast up the Amazon River.  After watching the magnificent sunrise on the wide water of Rio Negro, we went back from to Lago Tumbira and entered a small igarapé passing by the village. As we moved up along the igarapé, it became narrower and narrower, and the first sunrays shining increasingly outside were rather dimmed in here by the trees over our heads, as if the sun was hiding back rather than rising up. We had expected to sight some crepuscular animals, especially birds, of the Amazon jungle in this twilight. But we did not, except a couple of birds on treetops and two dolphins when back in the Lago Tumbira.

Nonetheless, we enjoyed this canoe tour a lot. We enjoyed so much just listening to the bird singing—although we could not see them—in the early morning quietness in this remote jungle. I believe even the best theater could not achieve such quietness for its concerts, while this symphony of bird singings was certainly better than any symphony I had ever heard. The only other sound was from the water wound up slowly by the paddle of our canoe and that running smoothly against the bottom of the canoe. It is so not a noise though; it was a rather agreeable reminder of my being in this environment and how blessed I was to be enjoying this serenity. I grew up in southeastern rural China and left my village when I was seventeen. Since then, I have been living in many cities and traveling to more over the world. Everywhere I have been, I hear noises 24 hours—even at midnight there are always traffic running outside my window or a fire truck or ambulance alarming from afar. If I miss the sound of birds singing and water running from the village life of my childhood; I guess I miss even more the undisturbed quietness as away from urban or modern life. I was so deeply enchanted with this igarapé symphony that our canoe turned back only when the igarapé was not navigable anymore.

When we returned to the village of Tumbira, it was about the breakfast time and the whole village was agitated again. As our canoe approached the village, people on the deck of a tourist boat at the village dock greeted us excitedly. I did not hear clearly what they were saying exactly until our canoe docked, because the diesel engine of their boat was quite loud. The boat belongs to a tourist company headquartered in Manaus, the largest city in Northern Brazil and in the whole Amazon region, less than one hundred kilometers down the Rio Negro. It was a quite big and luxurious boat, about 30 meters long with nice guest bedrooms and well-equipped kitchen. The boat engine ran twenty-four hours to generate electricity for the air conditioners and refrigerators on board.

People on the boat had known us because we had our meals together over these days in the same, and only, restaurant in the village. The restaurant is part of the only inn in the village, the Pousada do Tio Zé, named after the owner, a nice old gentleman who was a boat builder renowned in this region. This family inn was started recently and run by his son Roberto, also the president of this village.

My wife and I did not stay in this inn though; we stayed in a spare dormitory room of the middle school in the village. The school was built by the Amazonas Sustainable Foundation (FAS, Fundação Amazonas Sustentável) in collaboration with the state government. It is part of the FAS compound in the village, which includes also a Health Post (Posto de Saúde) and a field office of FAS. FAS has been conducting projects of environmental conservation and sustainable development in this area delimited as the Rio Negro forest reserve. The facilities in the FAS compound receive students and patients from other villages of the forest reserve as well.

As electricity has become more and more an indispensable part of village life, so are diesel engine generators. The village inn and the FAS compound both have their own diesel engine generators. These two run usually from breakfast time to around ten at night every day. But the generator that made the first enlightening roar is the one provided by the municipal government for the village over ten years ago and shared by the whole community. It runs usually for only two hours in the evening when the most popular soap opera is on TV. These generators are all installed at the village fringe near or already inside the forest to reduce their high volume in the village. So when you are in one’s home or in the school, the generators are not disturbingly noisy, although their roaring is constantly in the background of the sound landscape of the village.

The noise of the generators is not really annoying, but it is not ignorable to me either. For one thing, my visit to this village was part of my ethnographic fieldwork. As a non-native speaker of Portuguese, I was always anxious about any background noise that may baffle my understanding of the conversation or compromise the quality of my interview recording. For another, intended or not, this trip was a personal expeditionary tour as well. I have been always fond of traveling afar since childhood. When the symphony of bird singing and water running was being played in the igarapé, it also raised questions to me. What was I here for? While I appeared to be pursuing my PhD in anthropology by doing research here, I think that I was also solving some childhood obsession with the Amazon jungle on the textbook of my geography class.  What kind of Amazon jungle had I expected? While I came to study FAS’s projects in the village of Tumbira and other forest reserves, I also found out in my heart the impulse of looking for a classical anthropological utopia of savage land untouched by the outside modern world.

The projects carried out in Tumbira by FAS are under a state program of forest conservation and sustainable development. This program is an early experiment with the United Nations mechanism of REDD (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation). According to this mechanism, a REDD program pays forest resident not to destroy forests  (for slash and burn farming for example) and sells the carbon credits granted by this conservation effort (considered as “reduced emission of CO2) to the global carbon markets. FAS has been experimenting with this mechanism in Tumbira and other forest reserves, and at the same time advocating for it worldwide. The payment in Tumbira actually includes only a token amount of cash to the village families, but involves large amount of investments in improving local infrastructure, such as school and Health Post, and in technical services to promote local sustainable development, such as sustainable harvest of brazil nuts and ecotourism.

Ecotourism emerged recently as a promising alternative to conventional local economic activities, mainly slash-and-burn farming and fishing, in Tumbira and other villages in this forest reserve. Slash-and-burn farming has been centuries long and largely still is the major economic production in many regions of the Amazon, but now considered as destructive activities to forests and contributor to global carbon emissions in the emerging international discourses of climate change. Commercial fishing used to be lucrative despite its heavy investment in fishing boat and machinery, but recently it has become less and less profitable because of the shrinking fish resource and increasing punishment on illegal fishing in reserved waters. Besides his father’s life long career as manufacturer of all kinds of boats, Roberto’s family used to be involved a lot in commercial fishing. While some of his family members are still struggling with fishing, he made the big move recently to ecotourism. The relative short distance from Tumbira to Manaus is a blessing for both the once prosperous fishery and the now emerging ecotourism. FAS’s projects, especially with its reserve-wide compound installed in Tumbira, has contributed to the inflow of outside visitors during the first two years of Roberto’s family inn, for example, the Google field team’s stay in the village during my visit.

In August 2011, the American IT company Google was carrying out its Google Earth Outreach project in Tumbira and nearby villages. A dozen of Google staff, mostly from Google-Brazil based in São Paulo and two from Google headquarter in California, plus a few domestic and international journalists, were stationed in Tumbira for this project. Roberto’s family inn was not capable to host all of them, thus the tourist boat at the village dock was rented to board a half. Nevertheless, what is more thrilling to people in the village including me was probably not this big troop of Paulistanos (Brazilian word for people from São Paulo) and gringos (Latin American word for foreigners especially for Americans), but their very exotic-looking tricycle-camera. It was a finely crafted tricycle with a Google’s logo and a thematic Google Map of urban streets on both sides of its small carriage (presumably with battery and other electric parts in it). A big 360 panorama camera was mounted on the tricycle to take full-angle “street” views of Tumbira. This tricycle-camera, wrapped as a whole in a huge wooden box, was air delivered from San Francisco directly to Manaus and then shipped on water from Manaus to Tumbira.

Google’s tricycle-camera has been the magic communicator that delivers panoramic street views worldwide to any computer screen connected to Internet. It captures the reality of other corners of the world and allows a new kind of global traveling for those who cannot afford the conventional kind or for those who simply enjoy the new experience. As Karin, the project supervisor from San Francisco, said, the project in Tumbira would take you into the middle of the Amazon and see this intact nature. As a collaborative project with FAS, it was also aimed to deliver the message that the Amazon forests are being kept intact by local people’s conservational efforts and the implied message that such conservational efforts are in need of outsiders’ support in the form of ecotourism or purchase of their carbon credits.

It really took some efforts to deliver such loaded messages, because the “streets” in Tumbira are so different from their counterparts in São Paulo or San Francisco that the tricycle had to run either on muddy trails or in the water of igarapés and tributaries. The frequent heavy showers in the Amazon make all the unpaved village roads muddy and full of dents, and then the heating tropical sun dries them into very rugged hard surface right away. No single person could actually ride a tricycle on these trails, so some extra young men were always needed to push the tricycle all day long. To make this tricycle moving, the tricycle “riders” sweat so much under the tropical sun that they had to stop frequently to drink bottles after bottles of iced water which were carried in a big ice box by additional staff. The tricycle “ran” much more smoothly in water, not on its wheels but on the roof of a boat. With nothing offensive or negative, I have to say this unique boat-tricycle-camera was one of the most exotic things that I saw throughout my fieldwork in Brazil. But it worked really well just as many other creative improvisations that Brazilians are often proud of.

The only regret was that it did not deliver the sound, as Karin lamented. I agree. This powerful camera could not record the birds singing in the jungle or the water running in the igarapés and tributaries which would vivify the lush Amazon jungle so much more than just pictures. But I am not sure if the global travelers of Google Earth would as appreciate the sounds of other things in Tumbira: the motor of the boat that carried the tricycle-camera, the generator of the FAS compound that supports FAS’s project operation, and the generators of the tourist boat and the village inn that played out the movement of ecotourism, the expected future of the village.

I sought for a solo of the nature, but I heard polyphony. Everyone—the forest, the villagers, FAS, Google and I—was there to play his/her own music, but all became players in a polyphonic mise-en-scène.

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1 Response to Polyphony in Tumbira, Amazon

  1. Pingback: The Sound Ethnography Project

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