Posted by: David Offutt | May 22, 2009

Earth Day 2009: Memories of a Jungle Tour

planet earthSaving our environment was truly a grass roots movement that pressured Congress into action. Senator Gaylord Nelson (Dem., Wis.) founded Earth Day as an environmental “teach-in.” Our people’s representatives passed the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts; the Environmental Protection Agency was created. We were off to a great start in the early seventies, but things have slowed since.

Incredibly, in spite of all the evidence – then and now – many treat the issue of global warming as though it were a religion: they think it’s something you believe-in or not. The Industrial Revolution began in the 1780s and 1790s, eventually leading to smokestacks churning out all sorts of crud into the atmosphere. Then, the arrival of the automobile in the early 1900s led to additional carbon dioxide polluting our air. Is it likely, is it logical, and is it even conceivable that these would have no effect on our climate?

In 1976 I was teaching at the American School of Quito, Ecuador, in South America. For the Christmas holidays I decided to spend five days in the Amazon basin, rain forest, and jungle.  I booked a tour on the Flotel Francisco de Orellano, a floating hotel named after the European discoverer of the Amazon River. We flew from Quito to a small airfield in the rain forest, took a rugged bus to a flooded river, crossed the river using motorized dugout canoes, and then took another bus to the Napo River (a tributary of the Amazon). There, we boarded the Flotel, traveled several hours deeper into the Amazon basin, and docked at a hacienda that had a generator which provided us with electric power while we were on board.5-3-2009_002

Each day, from the Flotel, we would take motorized dugouts to various points and then hike into the rain forest. Normally, it rains in the rain forest. As the guides said, it could rain so hard you couldn’t see your hand in front of you. But something curious happened: it never rained – not in the five days we were there. The cables connecting the Flotel to the hacienda’s river bank had to be loosened continuously so that we weren’t angling against the shore.

David Offutt: On the deck of the “Francisco de Orellano” on the Rio Napo

When it came time to leave, we had to abandon the Flotel at the hacienda. The river was too low for us to take it back upriver to our bus. We had to return via motorized dugouts. At the time it seemed a fluke, a unique adventure. However, unknown to us, it may have been a warning. Some scientists were already noticing the rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere which would lead to rising global temperatures, prolonged rains and droughts.

The area that my fellow tourists and I visited was hoped to become an Ecuadorian national park. Our guides had suggested that the vicinity we visited was much like it was 25,000 years ago, and they wanted to preserve it. It was not to be. When I returned to Ecuador to teach in 1992 and 1993, the chain saws had decimated that region, and the Flotel had been moved to a different Amazon tributary many miles eastward. As you know, carbon dioxide is inhaled by trees and exhaled as oxygen. So, it should be expected that as we increase the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and decrease the number of trees that consume it, the atmosphere will be impacted in a negative way.

This April 22 we will be celebrating another Earth Day, and it will be the first one in eight years that we will be doing so without having a president who is actively hostile to anything “environmental.” The “Lost Eight Years” of George W. Bush will be hard to explain to future generations. The Bush-Cheney administration didn’t neglect and attempt to abuse the environment out of stupidity or ignorance. It did it out of apathy and greed.

In stark contrast, President Barack Obama’s administration seems to care a lot. Under new EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, the EPA has finally begun to take a leadership role in dealing with climate change. On Friday, April 17, the EPA admitted that carbon dioxide and five other greenhouse gases actually do contribute to global warming. It also conceded that the Clean Air Act can be used to regulate polluting emissions from cars, power plants, and factories. However, Obama and Jackson are hoping the Congress will take the additional legislative action that is necessary so that it won’t be done solely through executive action. Things are beginning to look up.

A minga in December 1993 in the Ecuadorian town of Misahualli: The whole town turn out to clean up the town square.

A minga in December 1993 in the Ecuadorian town of Misahualli: The whole town turned out to clean up the town square.

By the way, just after Christmas in 1993, I wanted to go to the Ecuadorian village of Misahualli. It is on the Napo River at the end of a bus route and a favorite spot for tourists to take jungle tours. However, by then, day trips couldn’t get you away from the sound of the chain saws. A fellow teacher wanted to go with me. I assured him that it was a great place to just hang out. When we got there, a lot of activity was taking place. A huge speaker system was booming music across the town square. Everybody was sweeping and cleaning up trash. My friend asked, “What’s going on?” I was excited. I hadn’t seen it since the mid-seventies. “It’s a minga!” A minga is an Inca tradition in which everyone pitches in to help his neighbor. Sometimes it’s to build a fence or an irrigation ditch. The beneficiary provides food and drink for everybody who pitches in. Often, like that time, it’s a clean-up/fix-up day for an entire city or community even here in the U.S. of A.  Please do what you can.

by David Offutt
A version of this essay was published April 22, 2009,
in the El Dorado News-Times as a letter to the editor.

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