It’s already been a week since our arrival at the Equatorial Forest Training Center landing (CEFE) in Regina and it is time to look back and make an initial assessment of our expedition. Initial because there will of course be a more detailed report than this blog, and many elements will need to be further analyzed in the lab and researched. But it is still important to recall and sort through everything in order to understand the events that impacted this intense month in the forest.
AN IMPENETRABLE FOREST - NOT SO
Along the same lines as numerous current research, the goal of our expedition was to question the human presence, past and present, in inner Guiana, emphasizing the fact that often the forest is seen as inaccessible and wild when it really has been (and in many ways is still) an area that is easy to travel (including over great distances) and inhabited by social groups that have disappeared because of European conquest or whose marginality renders them invisible today.
Results on this point of view are rather probing. We were able to identify several sites of ancient native villages (including one that could be of Lucien’s ancestors), as well as several refineries, showing the ubiquity of this existence in inner Guiana that today has disappeared. Thanks to palm leaves collected by Guillaume, we hope to further research which will help us understand the interaction between this land use and the forest composition, confirming once more what is becoming more and more evident: the Amazon Forest has never been a “pristine forest”, but rather an inhabited environment, transformed by man for thousands of years. Easily finding pottery fragments in almost all the sites we spotted amply shows us the intensity and the length of past occupation.
The myth of an uninhabited forest is also dashed by the presence of illegal goldminers. It is not minor or concentrated around the main ore fields. The garimpeiros are constantly prospecting the forest in search of new lodes and they create new routes to transport their supply chain, opening up quad trails on dozens of miles and modifying their itineraries according to the progress of the work sites. Part of this network is known and mapped out by the security forces in their struggle against this phenomena, but a portion still remains unknown: at the head of Approuague, we crossed no less than 3 bridges which corresponds to the same number of routes, none of which appeared on the Guiana military maps.
THE GOLDMINER DEVASTATION
Camps, old placers and roads are a constant proof of the intense presence within the forest. In their quest for gold, today’s Brazilian miners partially replicate an organization similar to the creole goldminers of the first half of the 20th century, specifically the presence of landing spots near the river rapids in order to help the merchandise pass through.
If past occupation has contributed to modifying the make-up of the forest (up to the creole goldminers who left mango and cacao trees planted in their gardens) without destroying it, the current presence of the garimpeiros is marked by significantly larger ecological consequences. With the help of powerful motors, they change the creeks’ ecology by releasing large amounts of sediment, while leaving mercury, a pollutant with a potentially devastating long-term impact. Under pressure, their work methods are even more damaging, ripping the gold out as fast as possible in order to avoid detection. Still, we must admit that the forest does manage to regenerate when the work sites are abandoned, if they aren’t too spread out. Disruption is part of life in the forest so, as long as the ecosystem remains in place over a large expanse, it can “heal” these violations. But only if limited in time and amplitude.
A DIALOGUE WITH PAST EXPEDITIONS
Another goal of our expedition was to establish a dialogue with past expeditions, specifically those of Father Grillet and Béchamel, by confronting some of the difficulties they surmounted. First the distance, which is not at all handled the same way when using motors or one’s own arms to move forward. Then there’s the supplies because, when choosing to be autonomous over the long haul, there are a few deprivations. The equipment, when a canoe sinks this can signify defeat. And finally, the forest and its hundreds of small difficulties that must be resolved as one moves along: the medium and bottom stream and river rapids, the fallen trees at the head of the creeks, insects that are not always kind, the constant humidity (especially when spending hours in the creek with water up to the waist in order to cut down vegetation…), etc.
From this point of view, the experience was a success and we have greater respect for the explorers of the past. We had modern medicine at our disposal and the benefit of being rescued if there’d been a big problem, which was not an option for them. And yet we did suffer a bit and got close to our limits. They only had their faith (in God or science, depending on the era) and yet they too made it. For them, like for us, solidarity with the forest played an important role. In their case, the native villages and the fortuitous guides enabled them to get to their destination by providing food and knowledge of the region. In our case, Lucien and Patricia were a huge help in our success and we all remember the numerous times when watching them handle their canoe gave us a real lesson in the art of rowing efficiently – notwithstanding the game and fish they caught. But we must also point out the generosity of the garimpeiros who always invited us to share their meals, while knowing that our “peaceful” presence would only be a short reprieve from the raids meant to dislodge them, their presence being illegal.
FEW ERRORS, BUT COSTLY EACH TIME
On the face of it, the outcome looks very positive. We must now dig deeper by looking over all the notes and analyzing everything that was gathered in the field. Can we say it was flawless? Of course not. There was loss of equipment which we would have liked to avoid. In the end, few errors for a month-long expedition, but each time costly. There were also difficulties that were not unexpected but took longer than hoped for to overcome. They resulted in loss of time which stopped us from exploring the upper Approuague as much as we would have liked. In fact, after observing closely the current goldminers’ operating procedures and closely re-reading the past explorers’ writings, it turns out that for both, we should avoid the creek headwaters where the water flow becomes extremely slow in favor of connecting land passages that are longer in distance but wind up less complicated (in our case, however, giving us a rather tricky portage problem).
However, we rose to the challenge. In one month, we rowed from Camopi to Regina in total autonomy, gathering numerous scientific data. It is with great pleasure and pride that I’ve been able to undertake this itinerary with an incredible team that banded together Natives from Camopi, a CNRS colleague, a journalist and the military from the 3rd Régiment Etranger d’Infanterie (REI). The diversity of this team gave it richness and strength, and I hope that on top of the scientific knowledge we will be gaining later, each of us has learned from the other members of the expedition and other people we met on our trip. A characteristic of expeditions is giving us both scientific and life experiences.