Amazon species extinction due to overexploitation and cruise from Peru to Cuba

Schiffsreise Amazonas Forest RIver
Brazil: Amazonas Forest RIver Expedition with MS Bremen and scientists on Board.


The author, Gerd Michael Müller, born in Zürich in 1962, traveled as a photo-journalist to more than 50 nations and lived in seven countries, including in the underground in South Africa during apartheid. In the 80 years he was a political activist at the youth riots in Zürich. Then he was involved in pioneering Wildlife & eco projects in Southern Africa and humanitarian projects elsewhere in the world. As early as 1993, Müller reported on the global climate change and in 1999 he founded the «Tourism & Environment Forum Switzerland». Through his humanitarian missions he got to know Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama and other figures of light. His book is an exciting mixture of political thriller, crazy social stories and travel reports – the highlights of his adventurous, wild nomadic life for reportage photography .

(please note that translation corrections are still in progress and images will follow soon)

Its name is a legend and sounds as exotic as the myth that surrounds it: The Rio Amazonas. It is the second longest and most water-rich river on earth, the one with the most tributaries, the strongest water discharge, the largest catchment area and the most enormous delta. In thousands and thousands of meanders, it flows majestically through the most diverse and opulent rainforest on earth, nourishing, watering and sustaining an immense diversity of fauna and flora, and is the lifeline of millions of people. The Spanish conquistador Francisco de Orellana was its first ambassador when he told the Western world about the largest river system after his advance into „the green hell“ around 1542; the German explorer Alexander von Humboldt was its most exciting reporter and cineastes surely remember the fantastic impressions of the movie „Fitzcarraldo“ with Klaus Kinsky in the leading role of the crazy and pissed-off opera fan.

The Amazon is called „Maranhão“ by the Indians, „which only God can unravel“ and consists of a bizarre network of over 1100 rivers, 20 of which are longer than the Rhine. But it is only after the encuentro dos aguas, the confluence of the Rio Negro and Rio Branco near Manaus, that the river is called Rio Amazonas. With its catchment area of more than seven million km2 and its daily deposit of three million tons of sediment in the delta, the Amazon outranks all other rivers. One fifth of the fresh water in the world’s oceans is fed by the king of rivers. More than 30,000 species of plants, which thrive on three levels above each other, and more than 2,000 species of fish and birds live in its catchment area.

An expedition to the Amazon jungle is both a journey into an exotic world full of overwhelming flora and an encounter with a diverse fauna – full of giant snakes, such as the anaconda, anteaters, sloths, howler monkeys, piranhas, shy river dolphins, colorful parrots (macaws) or magnificent tucans as well as nimble hummingbirds. The list could, it seems, be continued almost indefinitely. But the opposite is the case. The number of species threatened with extinction is increasing dramatically.

According to experts, the rainforest is irretrievably destroyed when 40 percent of its area has been destroyed. In the last 50 years, a quarter of the rainforest has been cut down and burned – with catastrophic consequences for the climate, the environment, people and animals. The indigenous people in the rainforests had barely destroyed one percent of the rainforest over the period of the last 15,000 years. A single generation is now enough to throw the entire ecosystem of planet Earth out of balance and humanity as such into danger. In Brazil today there are still about one million square kilometers of Amazon rainforest, which is not protected and not zoned, nor does it belong to indigenous tribes (who first have to prove their centuries-old legitimacy in lengthy processes) and is thus the target of investor rapacity.

The principle goes as follows. The areas are illegally seized and burned and/or cleared and thus exploited and destroyed. In the years that follow, attempts are then made to legalize land grabbing in that area through lucrative cattle ranching, which, at the latest since President Bolsonaro, is a no-brainer. Land speculation is fueled by international investors. In the region, some 30 billion U.S. dollars will be spent in the next few years on road construction, electricity, and infrastructure to develop and exploit the primary forest. 92 dams are planned in the Amazon region.

To make matters worse, Jair Bolsonaro’s government is planning to build a railroad almost 1,000 kilometers across the jungle and many indigenous protected areas. The agricultural lobby is delighted, as the Ferrogrão infrastructure project promises lower transport costs to the Atlantic in the future and thus higher profits. This fuels further clearing of virgin forest with disastrous consequences: A study by economists Juliano Assunçao, Rafael Araújo and Arthur Bragança found that this would result in additional clearing of an area of 2050 square kilometers, equivalent to about 300,000 soccer fields. Not only would cutting down this virgin forest produce about 75 million tons of carbon, but the increasing loss of the green lung will soon lead to the collapse of the entire climate and irrigation system in the entire Amazon basin.

Where there is forest now, there is a threat of cattle ranching, soy plantations, and then desert. The less contiguous rainforest there is, the less the cycle of moisture absorbed in the Amazon basin and rainfall on the slopes of the Andes will work, says renowned Amazon ecologist Lovejoy of George Mason University. He also believes that the „tipping point“, the point at which collapse is imminent, is dangerously close. The renowned Nature magazine concludes that the rainforest is already so damaged that it emits more CO2 than it absorbs. This will have a catastrophic effect on fauna and flora in all Amazon regions. The next ten years will determine whether we destroy the Amazon refuge and lose it forever. However, the prospect of reversing deforestation and exploitation and changing our thinking seems minimal. A sad story.

One of the most comfortable and at the same time exciting ways to explore this opulent natural wonder and sophisticated ecosystem is a cruise, as you can do for example with the „MS Bremen“ – the expedition ship of „Hapag-Lloyd“ Cruises or the Hanseatic, another cruise ship of the Hamburg shipping company. There the otherwise rather laborious, sweat-driving and dangerous Amazon expedition becomes the light-hearted high pleasure. But as a result of a scheduling error, the „MS Bremen“ had left the Peruvian Amazon metropolis of Iquitos – a provincial town of 400,000 souls that is very poor, but has countless casinos with slot machines and gaming tables – hours ago without me.

Now I stood there and tried for three days to charter a boat to follow the luxury liner. It finally took a whole week until I finally arrived with small speed boats in Manaus, Brazil, and finally caught up with the „MS-Bremen“ after 1000 km of wild boating through the jungle. On the adventurous boat trip a backpack was stolen from me and the border crossing from Peru to Brazil was not without its problems either. We arrived at the border in the darkest of nights. On the spot there was no hut to sleep. On the other side in Brazil there was. Two fellow travelers and I found an old man who drove us across the border river in the pitch dark and picked us up again in Brazil the next morning and brought us back to Peru, since we had to make a proper border crossing to avoid arriving illegally in Brazil. After the operation proper border crossing had succeeded so far and I was thus six days later than planned, burned as well as at the end of my forces on board the „MS Bremen“, I relaxed first of all on the luxury steamer and was fed truly deliciously and exotically. Not only culinary but also with valuable information and super lectures about the respective region, garnished with fantastic buffets and high-level entertainment.

The MS Bremen offers everything an explorer’s heart desires: a 100-strong, perfectly coordinated crew that always strives to fulfill passengers‘ every wish and make them happy with small attentions. Also the cruise ship offers a large selection of possibilities for the varied organization of the days on board with most diverse individual activities. Excursions with the high-horsepower inflatable boats allow access to otherwise inaccessible regions and, therefore, a very intense perception of all the mysterious and beautiful exotic places and encounters with fauna that can be experienced from an impressive proximity. And thanks to the scientific speakers on board, you will learn more about the ecological and economic relationships between exploitation and exploitation. Caimans, pink river dolphins and water buffalo populate the mighty river and can be observed most comfortably from the deck of the luxury cruise ship. The ship makes its way unflinchingly through the jungle. Past nimble monkeys and leisurely sloths, the journey continues from Peru, through Colombia and Brazil to the delta at the Atalantic. Since the upper reaches of the Amazon River are still very shallow, only smaller river cruises and expedition ships are used.

Thus the ship journey runs over a good 1700 kilometers via Pevas to Leticia in the border triangle of Brazil, Peru and Colombia and into the realm of the drug barons and smugglers down. In the upper Amazon region on the Rio Negro and Rio Tabajos, the expedition guests are guided comfortably and safely by the Zodiac’s of the mother ship into the surrounding water veins of the largest river basin in the world. Scientists accompany the excursions and explain the lush wilderness and the species-rich fauna and flora to the cruisers. Piece by piece, a complex puzzle of biological, geological and meteorological influences is pieced together to create a multi-faceted picture of this fantastic ecosystem. Lectures by renowned scientists, Amazon researchers and environmentalists provide guests on board the MS Bremen with in-depth background information on the biodiversity of the rainforest. In the daily „Recap’s“ the speakers summarize the impressions and reveal further secrets of the jungle. Thus the time on board the „MS Bremen“ passes very quickly and after five fantastic river cruise days the opera of Manaus is already in sight.

The Amazon rainforest consumes more carbon dioxide for photosynthesis than any other area in the world. By binding moisture, tropical rainforests form the largest freshwater reserve in the world. When they no longer exist, evaporation effects increase and precipitation goes directly into the open ocean, causing drought and dryness. The reduction of forest cover increases the carbon dioxide content in the earth’s atmosphere, which in turn also fuels the greenhouse effect. Rainforests should also not be underestimated as oxygen producers. After the phytoplankton in the sea, they produce the most oxygen. On the other hand, they bind large amounts of CO2 through photosynthesis. Due to the burning of fossil fuels and slash-and-burn agriculture, the problem is getting worse. According to scientists, 24% of the Amazon rainforest has already been lost through clearing. And there is no end in sight to this overexploitation. Yet one hectare of forest here contains 60 to 200 different tree species. In our latitudes, there are only about ten on average. The number of plant species is estimated at over 30,000, including over 4,000 tree species and nearly 1,500 bromeliad species.

The famous „Theatro do Amazonas“ with its glittering dome is the crowning cultural heritage of the local rubber boom, which transformed the jungle nest overnight into the richest city in Brazil and the world in the mid-19th century. The magnificent building in the jungle bears witness to the immense wealth of the rubber barons, who at that time had the highest consumption of diamonds and precious stones, sent their shirts to Lisbon to be starched, and commissioned the fin-de-siècle market hall from Gustave Eiffel. The gold rush of the vain and powerful rubber barons lasted for 50 years, until an Englishman smuggled the valuable rubber seeds out of the country to England in a stuffed crocodile. A dozen seeds of hevea brasiliensis were then cultivated in London and soon planted en masse in Malaysia. By 1912, British plantations in Asia had ousted Manaus from the world market. Two million rubber tappers were soon out of work in the Amazon. Today, in the market halls of Manaus, in addition to pieces of meat and fish, all kinds of Indian fetishes dangle between stands of fruit and vegetables. A spicy smorgasbord of powders and ointments, pastes and roots also spreads out. One of the concoctions is called Viagra regional and is selling like hot cakes. Condoms, on the other hand, are frowned upon by more than half the population. The number of children is correspondingly high.

Just after Manaus, the two large jungle rivers Rio Negro and Rio Solimoes join. From the air it looks like two giant anacondas entwining. Only after the union of the two rivers, the encouentro das aguas, the atlas allows the official name Rio Amazonas. The two river meanders entwine like two giant anacondas before winding together for well over a thousand kilometers through Brazil’s green lungs. To the left and right of the main artery, they leave behind numerous side arms, pools and biotopes. In these refuges, clouds of colorful parrots soar, kingfishers dart nimbly across the water, and howler monkeys compete in the branches of the tennis-court-sized treetops. For the jungle giants such as the para rubber, wool, Brazil nut or kapok trees grow 40 to 60 meters high and claim most of the sunlight for themselves and for the photosynthesis that breathes their breath into the world. In the shaded floors below, palms, myrtles, laurel, cedar and the coveted mahogany trees thrive. These in turn provide habitats for other plants, especially all kinds of epiphytes that vegetate without roots in the ground as parasites in the barks of their fellow species.

The next stop of the „MS Bremen“ is in Paritins. For three days at the end of June, the city on the river island is transformed into a bubbling witch’s cauldron. This is when the largest Amazon party begins – a spectacle similar to the carnival. Fantastic costume creations almost as tall as a house parade through the streets: Dolphins the size of ships, giant wild boars, snakes, feathered creatures and mythical creatures can be admired during the dance and musical spectacle. In addition, feather-clad prima ballerinas and scantily clad river nymphs twist and turn in the glow of the colorful lights. Also the singers, musicians and the audience let their strong, half-naked bodies twitch ecstatically to the drum rolls and sounds of the Sertaneja music. Of course, the caipirinha (sugar cane liquor) also flows in streams and clouds of marijuana are in the air. Up to 250,000 visitors from all parts of the Amazon region flock to Paritins on dugout canoes, yachts and Amazon ships through the numerous river courses. The climax takes place in the Bumbodromo, the amphitheater set up on the riverbank especially for the show. Up to 35,000 people then rub up against each other, sweating to the point of orgiastic delirium.

After this in-depth insight into the Brazilian cultural scene, the cruise continued via Santarem to the Brazilian seaside resort of Alter do Chao on the Rio Tapajos, which offers guests a wonderful bathing excursion on the headland between the two arms of the river. As the MS Bremen departs from here at sunset, the last part of the Amazon River cruise also begins overnight, as the delta has been reached and the sea is in sight. Now the ship sets sail for the high seas with the destination of French Guiana, where Europe spills into the green hell of the Amazon and the most exotic Europeans live. The crossing was calm, the sea smooth as glass and the horizon endless. For the first time I arrived in Havana on a cruise ship and passed the skyline of the Malecon and the is already a completely different, sublime sight and a new form of greeting on the sugar and tobacco island. Much better than the view of the bay from the fortress opposite. Now we leave Latin America and head for Asia. Let’s see what exciting things there are to experience.

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