In Leticia, I bought a hammock, and boarded a three day cargo boat upriver to Iquitos. I was hesitant, because i’d heard mixed reviews. Indeed, the experience was a mixed bag. It was a good way to see a large stretch of the world’s biggest river, and provided an interesting peak into dozens of remote villages. It was also nice to have a couple days with nothing to do but read a book, draw, and write. But the view of the forest was monotonous and distant, the roar of the diesel engine relentless, and the environmental impact shocking. I watch in disgust as passengers, often standing half a yard from a trash can, tossed their styrofoam plates overboard. On the last night, I realized why they’d been so brazenly apathetic – an employee dumped the contents of every trash can directly into the river.
The problem is epidemic. Riverside shanty towns throughout the Amazon are seemingly buried in trash. At one point I asked someone why it was is common to see the people that depend on the river treat it with the most disdain. The answer was, at least, interesting; “there was a culture clash with the modern world,” she said, “these people used to drink from coconuts, and eat fresh fish wrapped in palm fronds. Anything left over belonged in the jungle. Trash is a foreign idea, and old habits die hard.”
Iquitos is perhaps the easiest place to see the best and the worst of the Amazon. It’s a hub of so-called indigenous activity, a launch point for tours deep into the jungle, and flush with tourism. It’s a surprisingly lively place, with a cosmopolitain population, an attractive waterfront, and little, if any, violent crime. The neighborhood of Belén is home to one of the biggest markets in the jungle, where vendors come from dozens of villages to sell every variety of exotic - often endangered - fruit, fish, meat and fur. Generally speaking, there isn’t much interest in the preservation of the fragile ecosystem that surrounds the city.
On the flip side, there is much less consumption - and by accident or not, they buy local. Everywhere you look, there is something being put to good use that would, in other parts of the world, be in a landfill. Old plastic bottles float fishing lines. Styrofoam coolers are taped together and reused. Old canoes are repaired, or constantly bailed, but never retired. They use cell phones that were popular when I was in high school. They also probably average twice as many passengers per scooter as Americans do per car. Overall, their per capita impact is probably less than our’s - despite the cavalier attitude towards garbage - they just haven’t figured out how to hide it in someone else’s backyard.