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"The heart of the planet" is what the Green Pope calls the Amazon Basin, and he's undoubtedly right. Also known as Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual leader of the world's 250 million Orthodox Christians, he recently presided over a conference in the Amazon that tried to bring together world leaders from religion, science and environmental groups to help save the area from further devastation. He and other speakers stressed that as governments drag their feet, individuals can begin to help in small ways, even by joining in trips to the region that promote responsible tourism and aid conservation and assistance to indigenous groups living there.

Held under the auspices of the Patriarch and Secretary General Kofi Annan of the United Nations, the conference took place on a flotilla of 11 ships on the Amazon, the Rio Negro and in the Jau National Park (said to be the largest protected tropical forest in the world), and several other locations during the July week it lasted. Messages were read from Pope Benedict XVI, who decried environmental deteriorationÂ?s "deep and heavy impact on the population", and other leaders, mostly from Brazil and Europe. (The Orthodox Patriarch is called the Green Pope because he has convened six international conferences in the last 12 years to study the fate of the world's main bodies of water, which cover 70 percent of the earth's surface, with previous symposia on the Aegean, the Black Sea, the Danube, the Adriatic and the Baltic.)

The Heart of the Planet

Statistics alone tell much of the story of what is taking place in the Amazon Basin today:

The Amazon rainforest (60 percent belonging to Brazil) holds 10 percent of all the plant and animal species on earth and 20 percent of the world's freshwater resources, with an area of 6.5 million square kilometers (about 2.5 million square miles, nearly two-thirds the size of the USA). The Amazon River itself is the world's second-longest (after the Nile), covering a distance of 6,440 km (3,999 miles).

The forest is home to about 2.5 million species of insects, 1.5 million types of catalogued plants, some 2,000 species of birds and mammals and around 3,000 species of fish (my favorite is the electric eel, which stuns fruit trees with its voltage, knocking the fruit into the water to be eaten, locals told me). But daily destruction continues to put many species under threat, including the spotted jaguar, the keel-billed toucan and the Amazon River Dolphin, altogether 24 species of fauna now being on the brink of extinction, according to the Rainforest Alliance.

Brazil is losing 12,000 acres of tropical forest each day (that's a football field every two seconds, says Greenpeace), from mostly (80 to 90 percent) illegal cutting to get timber or palm oil, or to clear land for soybean crops and cattle grazing. Since deforestation means burning the trees cut down, Brazil releases 400 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere each year (18 percent of all global emissions), making Brazil the 5th largest carbon emitter.

The Indigenous Peoples

The indigenous peoples of the Amazon, estimated to number from as few as 50,000 to 400,000 or higher, depending on your definition and who's counting, are threatened by continuing development projects, often exploited, even swindled into slave labor agreements. Brazil's Ministry of Environment says 5,300 people were liberated from these conditions last year alone. Divided into as many as 210 small groups (73 percent of them in cohorts less than 1,000 persons), they speak 170 different languages and dialects and are cut off from safe drinking water, electricity and other mainstays of modern life. Yet to be contacted are 35 ethnic groups, the government says. But even the building of roads (which often fall into quick disrepair) threatens local communities, as youngsters are recruited into new industries and away from village life.

Just existing in the villages is hard. One community of about 50 persons I visited on the Negro River had moved here ten years ago, they said, from 500 miles away in an effort to be near a city, near medical help, near modernity with all its pros and cons. The village chief said they had tried living in Manaus, but gave up, as they were not allowed to run their own affairs, so moved to this spot about 50 miles north of town. They still had no potable water, no electricity, and relied on outhouses for toilets. Their medical clinic was rudimentary, with few supplies, mostly medicines for coughs and lung congestion. Since scandals in the 1980s and 1990s revealed mistreatment of indigenous people on a grand scale, the Brazilian government has been trying to make reforms, including giving the land to this village to own for itself. On the Solimoes River, west of Manaus, a few houses each had a single solar panel, enough, I was told, to power a light bulb or two. To operate a refrigerator (which a good clinic needs) would require four solar panels, too expensive for indigenous people to buy.

Helping Out

A few commercial organizations are trying to help. The Iberostar Grand Amazon, the river's largest and most luxurious cruise ship, created at least 100 new direct jobs locally and another 200 indirectly, they say, and they purchase supplies from the region whenever possible. One of the ship's arrangements with an indigenous village calls for the inhabitants to welcome the ships' passengers with the understanding that they can set up a marketplace to display their handcrafted items for sale at the end of each visit. The ship's management also advised the locals about how to adapt their products to passenger needs, suggesting that the traditional three-foot blowpipes be cut by half so they could fit into suitcases for the trip home, for instance. Many of the items for sale include necklaces, bracelets, earrings and toys, all made from local wood, shells or other native materials. A popular price for several items was R$10, about US$5.

Whenever a motorboat from the ship passes a local home or village, it slows down, as it does passing local traffic on the water. When we visited a typical but more comfortable than average riverside home to see how manioc flour was made, we gave the family's 16-year-old daughter (in a "Honda" T shirt, spandex shorts and Adidas shoes) a lift to where she catches the boat to school, another small example of how the ship tries to be a good neighbor. While at her home, we also sampled Brazil nuts directly from the tree. For more information on the Iberostar Grand Amazon, go to www.iberostar.com.

Other Cruises, Ecologically Centered or Commercial

Through the World Wildlife Federation (www.worldwildlife.org/travel), you can take riverboats on the Amazon this November, the ten-day journeys costing from $3,838, including airfare from Miami, along the upper reaches of the river in Peru. The trips are on the ships La Arnatista and La Turmalina, and depart on November 3 and 10, respectively, returning on the 12th and 19th. Proceeds go to further the work of the federation.

A lot of commercial boat trips are listed on the website of Amazon River Cruises (www.amazonrivercruises.com), but many let you see the Amazon for only two or three days as part of a longer voyage including the Caribbean, round South America, etc. One example, the Veendam of the Holland-America Line, departs Seattle and Los Angeles in late September for three Mexican ports, Costa Rica, Aruba and Grenada, before hitting Brazil and going up the Amazon to Manaus and Parintins, then out to sea and on to Barbados and the Dominican Republic and back to Tampa, taking a month from LA to accomplish all this, with prices as low as $3,004 from Los Angeles, 51 percent off the regular price, they say. A few cruises actually start in Manaus, but spend only the three days needed to reach the sea before leaving the river.

Volunteer Work

Several international organizations have programs for anyone wanting to volunteer abroad, but none currently are in the Amazon. The Rainforest Alliance (http://ra.org) has programs it is helping in Costa Rica, for example, and The Flying Doctors (www.flyingdocs.org) offer opportunities in Mexico. Your best bet may be Global Volunteers (www.globalvolunteers.org), Volunteer Abroad (www.volunteerabroad.com) or Brazil Volunteers (www.volunteerbrazil.com), though the former's program in Brazil is only in the seaside town of Salvador. Cross Cultural Solutions (www.crossculturalsolutions.org) has programs in ten nations, just one in Brazil, again at Salvador, not in the Amazon Basin.

Missions

On a recent trip to the Amazon, I encountered two missionary groups from the U.S., one from Texas. The leader of one group said they were "purely evangelical," but a cheerful participant in the second said her fellow travelers had administered medical and dental help to indigenous people on their week-long stay, their dentist members treating 70 persons in four villages, the doctors 209. The mission which provided medical and dental assistance was staffed by the Clawson Assembly of God in Texas, and was organized through the Amazon Life Mission, based in Manaus and Orlando.

This group is run by the Presbyterian Church of Manaus through Dr. Jonathas Moreira in conjunction with Global Hope Network International, and says that of the estimated 10,000 villages on the banks of the Amazon, only 3,000 have so far been visited by mission groups. They say they have two hospital boats leaving Manaus weekly on trips to such villages and solicit volunteers to join them. They like groups of 15 to 20 volunteers of any age, ideally to include a pediatrician, a gynecologist or general practitioner, an ophthalmologist, some nurses, one or two dentists, etc. The Amazon Life Mission website is www.amazon-mission.org, and you can email Dr. Moreira at jmoreira@amazon-mission.org. The group's itineraries are planned by Universal Cruises & Travel of Orlando (tel. 800/766-2735).

Big Brother is Watching, Too

According to the Federation of American Scientists (www.fas.org), ROTHR (Relocatable Over-the-Horizon Radar) is watching over all this. Based in Puerto Rico, the Amazon Surveillance System's satellites are looking out not only for deforestation in progress, but for evidence of drug production and traffic, illegal mining of gold and silver, and other goings-on. As late as 2004, 80,000 hectares (about 207,564 acres) of coca was being cultivated in the Amazon rainforest in Colombia, which supplies 70 to 80 percent of the global cocaine market, the website www.envirosecurity.org says.

Finally, the nations of the Amazon Basin are getting together to at least talk about doing something to stop the damage. The eight nations that include the basin have formed the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization (ACTO) (www.acto.info) recently, but environmentalists aren't holding their breaths.

For more information on that symposium of religious, scientific and environmental groups to help the Amazon, go to the website of the American organization Counterpart, which is www.counterpart.org.

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