Jaguar at Pilpintuwasi, near Iquitos in the Peruvian Amazon. Photo: worldsurfr via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND).
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The Shaman's cure: a Gaian awakening
2nd March 2016
An encounter with a Colombian shaman led Peter Bunyard on a spiritual journey into and beyond the living, breathing, transpiring Amazon rainforest, providing key insights into the essential role of the great tropical forests in the workings of Gaia. He emerged re-energised from his visions - and inspired to redouble his efforts to save our wondrous planet.
I saw clearly that when we had wiped out the last vestiges of indigenous culture and knowledge in the Amazon we would be tolling the death knell of our own western civilization.
The shaman's incantations were rising and falling; I felt my body, as if floating at sea, rising gently over the swell. Waves of sound rippled through me, helped on by the heavy pulsing of feet and the pentatonic blowing of mouth organs.
Shafts of colour, more brilliant than I had ever before seen, vibrated through my mind's eye, turning me into a media player with its swirling fractals, as images of pagodas, of filigree trestles and chairs dissolved and reformed, at times taking on the squirming form of brightly coloured serpents.
For a moment I was being transported to Colombia's Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, back in time some 20 years, on a visit to the land of the Kogis and Arhuacos, those extraordinary indigenous peoples, who in resisting the childish behaviour of their 'young brothers' - no less than the rest of humanity - declare themselves the Guardians of Mother Earth.
The deadly snake that saved my life
I was on my way back to the town, to Santa Marta and the 'civilized' world, so renounced by the Kogi, and in descending I had found a steep, eroded mule track, its walls as high as my chest.
I was cutting corners, taking the quick way down instead of the more ambling route that the rest of our small party was following, and I had forgotten what I had learned from the indigenous peoples of the Colombian Amazon: that short cuts spell danger, they are the bifurcations in our lives when discretion may well prove the better part of valour.
In my exhilaration, I was jumping down from one side to the other of the track, like a bob-sleigh gathering speed as it hurtles down from one icy corner to the next. Suddenly a flash of vivid colours and I was leaping instinctively upwards and upwards, barely realizing what had impelled me to jump. At that moment, like an arrow from a bow, a coral snake launched itself at me, but in my leap I was already above it and it passed harmlessly beneath.
"Culebra, culebra!" I shouted, warning the ten year old boy, the son of a coffee grower, whom I had met on the road, and who was a willing accomplice in our ruse to get down the mountain first and fast. He ground to a halt and dispatched the unfortunate creature with a stick that he found lying there on the ground.
I am sure of it: that snake had saved my life. Ten minutes later I was in a village, when a drunken man, his eyes bloodshot and his hands gripping a shot gun, told me with unadulterated menace that I was a CIA agent for which he would kill me. He was obviously a recent colonist who, with many others, had invaded the lands that had once belonged to the Kogi.
I imagined that he was involved in the production of marijuana, which the Colombian government, with the connivance of the USA, was eliminating through spraying. Yet, I kept my cool: that snake had given me a good dose of adrenalin and I was riding high.
I thrust the gun away from my stomach and told the man in no uncertain terms that I had nothing to do with the CIA. Meanwhile, rushing up to where I was standing, the boy pleaded with the man not to shoot.
The mystery of the Amazon rainforest
But now I was not in the Sierra Nevada, I was in the upper Putumayo, close to Colombia's border with Ecuador, with the Kamsá people, who had invited me down from Bogotá, to talk about the trees of the Amazon, and why, without the rainforest stretching for thousands of miles to the distant tropical Atlantic, Colombia might well suffer a serious decline in rainfall, resulting in droughts and higher temperatures.
I was with more than 50 indigenous women, all working communally to plant native species in areas shorn of their trees by colonizers who saw fit to convert once luxuriant forests into poor cattle pasture. That morning, walking in the mountains with the Kamsá I had seen a lone cow emerging forlornly from the mist.
What a contrast with some of the richest, most biodiverse forests in the world, that had bridged the gap between the lowland Amazon and the high Andes of the Putumayo, with its extraordinary upland páramos, those regions unique to Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela, where the slender, bizarre, friar-like 'frailejones' grow among the water-holding sphagnum mosses.
It's a world of mists and mystery, a world from where spring some of the great rivers, like the Putumayo, the Caquetá, the Magdalena, the Orinoco, the latter winding its way across the Colombian Plains to Venezuela and into the tropical Atlantic.
I had been describing how the Amazon rainforests recycle the rains that arrive from the tropical Atlantic, between Africa and Brazil; how the massive thunderstorms draw in the Trade Winds, with their rich burden of millions upon millions of tons of water vapour; how without the trees to relay the water via their roots and leaves, Colombia and the Putumayo would lose their precious watering.
All that made absolute sense to a people who, from time immemorial, had guarded the source of the grand Putumayo River, revering the forests and the páramos of that incomparably beautiful region of Colombia.
Visions of the past, present and future
My visions were no longer of swirling, ever-transmuting patterns of colour. I was flying over the surface of the Earth. The Taita was again chanting, the cadence of his voice causing me to tremble as I swooped over forests, rivers, lakes and then, as a rude awakening, over an Earth ripped clean of its trees.
Deserts loomed as the Taita lamented at the sacrilegious disregard of mankind for his home, just one Earth. As his voice swelled I felt my throat grow dry and I was gripped in a burning thirst. "I need water," I cried, "I need water."
"The Taitá is saying how the Earth is suffering from all that we are doing to it; it's getting hotter and you are in the desert." And with that I was given a few drops of water, sufficient it seemed, to have largely quenched my thirst.
My mind, now free to roam, took me to my first ever visit to Colombia in November 1985, my arrival coinciding with two terrible events, the attack and destruction of the Palace of Justice and then, days later, the awful mud slide from Nevado del Ruiz which wiped out Armero with the loss of more than 20,000 of the city's inhabitants.
But now I was literally flying in a small plane to the Paramillo National Park where the Colombian government had granted the Atlantic Electricity Company permission to build a dam on the Sinú River, once the home of the Zenúes peoples who, as a civilization, had long disappeared.
Margarita Marino de Botero, director of INDERENA, then Colombia's environment agency, had sent me with a television crew to denounce the dam as a catastrophe for the environment, for the unique ecology and for the Embera Katio peoples who lived on the land which was to be flooded. A powerful documentary and words were not enough; the dam, Urra 1, went ahead, causing all the predicted damage and spoiling a beautiful part of Colombia.
Ironically, not long before my flight, archeologists, looking at aerial photographs of the region from Sinú towards the coast, had encountered evidence of an extraordinary system of canals and mud banks. What they had unearthed showed that the Zenúes peoples were masters of hydrology and that they had combined horticulture and aquaculture in a way which enhanced biodiversity and the local ecology while giving them an excellent source of nutritious food.
The archeologists reckoned that the Zenúes were able to support one hundred times more people than can be supported today from that same area, now that the land has been drained and turned over to cattle raising.
Bacteria - the small organisms which rule the planet
Suddenly, I had a revelation, a moment of exquisite truth. For years I had been pushing Lovelock's Gaia theory, referring to learned scientific papers as to how bacteria ruled the world, regulating the gases in the atmosphere, to make it just right for lumbering mammals like ourselves, who simultaneously need a lot of oxygen to give us access to energy to think, walk talk and run, while having the chances of raging fires damped down by the weight and density of nitrogen.
And, no less, the miracle of the nitrogen fixers, tucked away in the roots of legumes, which bring the gas down to the surface and convert it into the substrates vital for making practically every important component of our cells, from proteins, amino acids and even DNA.
Bacteria have been around for an awful long time, more than 3,500 million years. They are almost as old as the Earth itself. And if it hadn't been for the early photosynthesizers, the cyanobacteria, now embedded in the leaves of all plant life, we wouldn't have had an oxygen-rich atmosphere, let alone the stratosphere where dangerous ultraviolet gets transformed into heat after interacting with oxygen and ozone.
Some even believe that without bacteria generating oxygen our extraordinary planet might have lost the greater part of its water because of hydrogen escaping into space for lack of something to react with. The wonders of our planet never end. Life has surely made this Earth a place very different from our flanking planets, Venus and Mars.
How apt that we have just about the right concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to notch up the temperature over the planetary surface from a bitter minus 18C to a comfortable 15C.
On the other hand, if life hadn't taken a hand in absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, if life didn't exist on Earth, then today the surface temperature might be an extremely uncomfortable 240C. That would certainly bake the life out of us.
The impact of human activity on the Earth
For years now, I have been plugging the idea that we won't understand climate change and the impacts of global warming, if we don't understand that climate is an emergent property of life's interaction with its environment, both through life reacting to the environment and simultaneously transforming it.
Just consider that all the gases in the atmosphere, even the noble gas argon generated from the interaction of cosmic rays with nitrogen, are the products of life's metabolism. How possibly can climate be nothing more than a response of the Earth to conditions on the Sun?
To my mind, those who rattle on about the Sun being responsible for global warming and that no way could humans have an impact on climate through what they are doing to the Earth, need their heads examining.
But even those who just put climate change down to the greenhouse emissions from our cars, factories, homes and agriculture are missing the point that the great ecosystems of the world, like the rainforests of the Amazon Basin, are absolutely crucial in giving us a climate we can live with.
We chop the rainforests down at our peril, and we are getting perilously close to the time when the forests will start falling apart, even if we don't bulldoze down one more tree.
Water and its gift to Life
I was now flying over the Amazon, skimming close to the tops of the trees and the interlocking branches and leaves of the canopy. Water vapour was spewing out of the trees and swirling upwards towards the heavens. I was in the midst of what could only be described as a mighty river of water vapour with the forest beneath me acting like a pressure hose.
I realized how right those two Russians, Victor Gorshkov and Anastassia Makarieva, were with their insight into the relationship between the forest and the clouds formed above. Classical physics tells us that when water vapour condenses into cloud-forming droplets of water there has to be a thousand-fold shrinking in the volume of water vapour as compared to liquid water.
The sudden change in volume sucks air up from the forest which, with the Sun shining above, refuels the process with the water, in the form of its vapour, pumped out from the leaves. The vertical flow of air from the ground to where clouds form, two or more kilometres up, draws air in from the oceans and so gives impetus to the mighty air mass circulation which goes from the Equator to the high latitude reaches of the Tropics.
The wind in the sails of ships past benefitted from the Trade Winds (vientos alisios) which carried them from the western reaches of Europe to South America and the mouth of the Amazon River.
And those winds, as Anastassia and Victor have shown us, are the result of an intimate relationship between the watering of the forest and the forming of clouds from the water stored in the Amazon soils beneath the trees which, by means of evapotranspiration, pump the stored water out through billions of tiny pores in the leaf surface.
Without the forest and the clouds, the water-bearing Trade Winds would no longer be sucked across the mighty expanse of the tropical Atlantic Ocean and on, over the Amazon Basin, all the way to the Andean foothills and up to the Páramos and Bogotá.
According to the Biotic Pump Theory, an Amazon Basin devoid of forests would result in a 99% reduction in rainfall in those western reaches and lead to the formation of deserts as arid as the Negev Desert in Israel with little more than 20 millimetres of rain a year. A deforested Amazon would spell utter catastrophe for Colombia and the rest of South America, let alone the rest of the world.
Makarieva's and Gorshkov's Biotic Pump Theory made so much sense and yet it caused an uproar amongst climatologists; for they had neglected to include the possibility in their climate models that forests played such a massive role in the regulated movement of winds, such as the Trade Winds.
Those skeptics denied that the forests and cloud forming could generate sufficient power to draw in the winds from across the ocean. "Where's the proof?" they demanded.
Gaia - the world is a living entity
It was then that I saw how to get the proof. I had to build a structure in which I could cool one small portion of the air and at the same time measure if that cooling and the condensation of the water vapour would result in a measurable flow of air.
I did build the structure in which air was enclosed in a 5 metre-tall structure comprised of two columns connected at the top and bottom to each other. And, after more than one hundred experiments the correspondence between the condensation and the flowing of air was irrefutable and it proved that the physics underpinning the Biotic Pump Theory was absolutely correct. That proof tells us that forests are vitally important as climate regulators.
Now that I was coasting from horizon to horizon, I saw clearly that our Earth, our one Earth, was truly and absolutely alive and not just a scientific idea of counterbalancing systems, with their positive and negative feedbacks. It was as if the landscape was rushing towards me, in all its variety of forms and colours, showing me what it was made of and what we had done to it.
I felt the love of the Earth for all its creatures and that we humans, we modern humans with our need for technologies and gadgets, had wrenched us away from nature and into an unreal world that was increasingly looking as if it had no future.
That revelation, despite the intense sadness which it provoked, was at the same time, a glorious feeling of knowing, of knowing that the Earth was far more than inanimate rocks and H2O, with soil and plants and animals. It was a vibrating, pulsing super-organism that hung together in transient, ever-changing harmony, always striving to 'be' against the physical forces of space, stars and the universe.
The destruction of rainforests and the life within it
I remembered why I had spent years fighting for the Amazon's rainforests and for the indigenous peoples who had lived sustainably in the world's richest ecosystems without destroying them. In Brazil alone, sweeping indigenous peoples aside, we had cleared an area bigger than France in a few decades.
Worldwide we were clearing the equivalent of several football pitches worth of tropical rainforests every minute. And now we were engaged in annihilating rainforests to plant energy crops, such as African Palm, that would take centuries, if ever, to replace the carbon lost to the atmosphere by such a destructive and inane practice.
Forty five years ago, in 1969, the investigative journalist Norman Lewis wrote an article for the Sunday Times that sent shock waves around the world. FUNAI, the Brazilian agency for protecting indigenous peoples in Brazil and especially in the Amazon, had been engaged in a ruthless campaign of ethnocide.
Part of which was by scattering measles-infected blankets among 'Indians' who had no resistance and who therefore died like flies. That article was responsible for spawning organizations such as Survival International and it certainly had something to do with the publishing of The Ecologist a couple of years later.
For me that article was apocalyptic. I saw clearly that when we had wiped out the last vestiges of indigenous culture and knowledge in the Amazon we would be tolling the death knell of our own western civilization. That vision, even after so much time, was now bursting yet again into my consciousness and I was made aware of its pressing message.
The tipping point will come soon
We must stop destroying the great tropical rainforests of the world, if we ourselves are to survive. We must come to understand the extraordinary role that the rainforests, in particular those of the Amazon Basin, play in determining global climate through their energy distributing power, quite aside from harbouring thousands upon thousands of species.
We just about have time to stop what we call 'development' in the Amazon Basin, but which is proving to be the greatest anti-evolutionary force since the Permian, some 251 million years ago, when runaway warming caused as many as three quarters of all living species to vanish.
Then, that was a natural, inevitable event, whereas now the decision to avoid such a disaster lies in our hands. We have to act promptly, before we have disrupted for good the recycling of rain that keeps the forest healthy and which feeds the mighty river systems of Colombia. How close are we to the tipping point when the system of forest, rain and river breaks down?
The Taita was now curing me, sucking out the fragmented demons and casting them to the black of the night. I saw a tiger, teeth bared coming at me, while I was floating a few feet above the Earth. I felt the brush of palms and inhaled the swirling incense.
I heard the chanting and the rhythm of feet. Suddenly the tiger evaporated in front of my eyes, suddenly the landscape was tranquil, inviting, and I felt a sweeping relief that ran through my body and my mind. I opened my eyes and saw the light of day. My new journey into reality had begun.
Peter Bunyard is a founding editor of The Ecologist and has since continued to write for it and more recently for Resurgence & Ecologist. He has written books on Nuclear Power and on Climate Change. One such, 'Climate Chaos' was published in Spanish in Colombia in 2011. Recently, the University of Sergio Arboleda in Bogotá, Colombia, where he is currently carrying out research for the Institute of Environmental Studies and Services, has published in English his treatise on the Biotic Pump. He lives in Cornwall with his wife, Jimena, daughter and step-daughter.
Also by Peter Bunyard: 'Without its rainforest, the Amazon will turn to desert'.
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