I. Iara, a Legend

The placid banks of the Ipiranga heard
the resounding cry of heroic people
and brilliant beams from the sun of liberty
shone in our homeland's skies at that very moment.
– Brazilian National Anthem

    People idealize Amazonia as a maze of forests and rivers.  And they do picture it well, because Amazonia is a wonderland of forests and rivers.  The life of an Amazonian is intimately tied to the jungle which harbors a real menagerie of rivers, creeks, lakes, as well as both clear-water and brackish swamps.  These provide abundant food, and serve as the primary avenues for transportation.  This tie to the waterways produces a great respect for the rivers and for the forest,  expressied in innumerable legends and superstitions which inform one as to what one should do, how one should do it, and when.

    The enchanting Iara, the goddess of the waters, is one of the principal figures in Amazonian legend.  With light skin, long hair and blue eyes, Iara uses her sensual beauty and seductive voice to lure young rebeirinhos (dwellers along the rivers) to the depths of the rivers, with a promise of eternal happiness in her crystal palace covered with gold and other precious stones.

    At the end of the evening, in the bars along the wharfs, fishermen tell fantastic tales of  apparitions of Iara – generally not witnessed by themselves, but by people that they know very well, or who swear to the authenticity of their stories.  They tell them that they once saw her delicate face, an experience that they could never forget.  One could resist the first encounter but it is more or less certain that sooner or later, one would lose himself on the river, in a fruitless search for her.

    Naturally these stories are incomplete, told only by those who resisted the dozens of charms of the goddess – half woman, half siren.    Those who give in and partake in the delights she offers, don’t come back.

    All the fishermen firmly believe in the evil powers of the beautiful and cruel Iara, and continue to avoid passing closely to the places where it has been said that she’s been seen, especially at dusk, when night is approaching.

    Very good, but not all fishermen believe these tales.  Israel is a fisherman who does not believe in Iara.  He believes that all these legends are all just legends, that the story of the porpoise that makes young girls pregnant was invented to calm betrayed husbands and tricked parents; that it was not the serpent Norato who impregnated that ameri-indian woman in the legend of the Boiúna; that the vitória régia (an Amazonian lotus plant or water-lily) is not the trapped form of an ameri-indian woman who fell in love with the moon; that curupiras (male supernatural beings of Tupi native-brazilian mythology do not exist); and that the Amazons – a supposed tribe of Ameri-indian warrior women named after their mythological Greek counterparts, who cut off their right breasts in order to shoot better with a bow – don’t exist either.  Israel is a realist.  If something hasn’t been proven, he does not accept it, and no one has ever been able to prove any of these things to him.

    What Israel is, is a good fisherman.  He is proud of being able to go fishing and come back in two days with 600 kilos of fish, when other fishermen are known to stay camped out on the river for ten days without being able to bring in half of that.  It’s not as if this always happens, but he also knows when it won’t happen.  “It’s a feeling I get,” he says, standing on a fisherman’s wharf.  “I come to a place and feel it when there are fish there.  All that’s needed is to throw out the net and wait.”

    It’s also not so good, to only throw out the net and wait.  He throws out the net at the end of the day and collects at it dawn.  But during the night, he needs to take a look every so often, because the piranhas may appear and eat the fish that are caught in the nets.

    Israel is an honest fisherman.  He loves the river and respects the IBAMA (the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources).  Or he respects the IBAMA because he loves the river.  He only uses size 8 nets, which do not trap smaller fish.  On the 15th of November begins the piracema, the annual spawning season, and he has to stop fishing until March.  More precisely, he may not sell fish at the market during that time, but he may continue to fish for his family.

    In general, Israel is happy as a fisherman.  He finds himself unhappy only when he sees the large gelieros (ships equipped with refrigeration units) with 20-30 men who work with nets 500 meters long and 300 meters wide and of an illegal guage.  They come, cast their nets and leave on the same day with 20 tons of fish.  They gather up everything, snakes, turtles ... they throw the smaller fish back into the river, but they usually don’t survive.

    Israel, the good fisherman, always brings along his father, now retired, after working 18 years for IBAMA.  In the cheias (tributary channels) of the river, fishing is more difficult and the catch is smaller.  Now in the dry season, when the river goes down and lagoons and pools of water form in the midst the jungle trapping fish within them, fishing can even be done by hand!  That’s part of the job.

    At times, when evening comes, Israel likes to park the boat and climb the riverbank by himself to enjoy the view, the trees, catching a glimpse of an animal here or over there, catching the scent of the jungle at the end of the day (which is different from its scent at dawn), hearing the deafening cries of birds gathering together.

    Going on one of these walks, one evening, Israel offhandedly began to hear a beautiful song, unlike any that he had heard before.  It began at a distance and then began to come nearer, the tune became more distinct, and at the same time appeared more and more unreal.

    Then he saw her.  Unassumingly seated at the edge of the river, reclining by a flowering jacareúba (an exotic brazilian tree), covered only by her long hair which reached to her waist, with a complexion white as milk, as pretty as a picture.  The moça (young girl) sang sweetly and enticed Israel with her large dreamy blue eyes.

    Israel felt himself floating on air.  It all seemed crazy, what was a young girl -- so pretty and completely naked -- doing, singing alone at the edge of the river?  Israel found himself mesmorized by her.  He took his boat toward the shore, his heart aching.

    She stopped singing, smiled with desire at Israel, went to the river and dove toward him.

But Israel swam away.


Predatory Fishing

    The rivers of Amazonia suffer the same type of use and abuse faced by the forest.  There are those who have strong ties with the place where they live, and have an instinctive respect for the trees, for the waters, for the birds, animals and fish.  And there is the predatory user, who does not appreciate the cycle of life.  He may be an amazonian native, but generally he is not.  He sees the life-filled river as an opportunity to round-up great quantities of fish, and does this in as much as he can.  It does not bother him that he reduces the value of a particular place or a particular river as he decimates the fish population.  He simply finds another spot, and continues onward, leaving behind a trail of destruction.

This is not an exaggeration, it’s the standard practice of the majority of the dreaded galieros, that fish with dragnets of a fine gauge.  The IBAMA has shown a clear reduction in both the population and the size of fish resulting from the fishing practices taking place in the states of Amazonas and Para – resulting in IBAMA reducing the fishing season each year on the rivers.  Can’t one prohibit such fishing practices?  They are prohibited.  The IBAMA has established precise regulations regarding the length of the fishing season and gauge of the nets used, and this is the only thing that it can do.  The freedom of navigation along Brazil’s rivers by boats owned by Brazilians is absolutely protected and the tax authorities are unable to truly tax all the fish that are caught.

    The ribeirinhos (river dwellers) worry not only because the fish are their livelihoods, but also because they are proud of the life-giving abundance that the Amazonian rivers have been known for all around the world – and see this abundance threatened.  As a result, since the 1970s, many communities of ribeirinhos – principally those called varjeiros, inhabitants of the várzeas (or wetlands) – have organized themselves to fight predatory fishing.  For example, the communities of the Parintins in the center of the state of Amazonas blocked for more than two years the entrance to the Lake Comprido, taking turns standing at the canal gate to prevent the entry of commercial fishing vessels.  “People worked during the day and spent the night without sleep,” says one of the participants. 

These true aquatic empates (“showdowns”) resulted in the creation, by IBAMA, of “Voluntary Environmental Agents.”  Candidates take a course to prepare them to serve as environmental educators, teaching others how to preserve their local natural resources.  At the end of their training, they receive a boat and a motor.

    The 110,000 registered fisherman, Amazonians “of the waters,” do not stop there.  They study the exportation of ornamental fish collected in a controlled way from the swamps during the dry seasons, which can become an important kind of non-predatory harvesting of fish.   And they know that Amazonia has all the resources available to become a great producer of fish grown in fish farms.  They are seriously involved in this.  Since 2006, the Special Secretariat for Agriculture and Fishing is working on three projects for the cultivation of pirarucu (a large edible fish from the Amazon resembling a tuna or grouper), ornamental fish and aligators, products with definite markets abroad.

This example moves us toward a solution: the development of an awareness of the need to preserve in order to have, an awareness that Brazil belongs to all of us and “to the government” – because we are the government.  We can continue to wait, hoping that Providence will take care of everything, or we can roll up our sleeves and do our parts now.

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