Wading in muck up to the rims of his black rubber boots, Manoel dos Santos proudly showed off his tall palms of acai (pronounced ah-sie-ee), the deliciously bitter Amazonian berry that American health food stores tout as a miracle fruit. “Ten years ago, we didn’t even have enough acai for ourselves to eat,” dos Santos told the first tour group to ever visit his community.
Only recently have the people of Gurupa (an Amazon riverfront municipality of 25,000, about 2,200 miles northwest of Rio de Janeiro) begun to practice sustainable logging. Gurupa is a rare success story in the threatened Amazon rainforest. The town is buried so deep in the jungle that the most intrepid traveler would be hard pressed to find it. For the past five years, Brazilian non-governmental organization Projeto Bagagem (Project Baggage) has been taking people to such places. They callwhat they do “community-based tourism.”
Here’s how it works: Project Baggage partners with a community that has a thriving social movement in place. The organization is a pioneer in a region plagued by vastly unequal access to land, poverty and an annual deforestation rate that’s sometimes as big as the state of New Jersey.
Project Baggage brings people from all over the world to learn about the community’s triumphs and struggles. Guided by local activists, the trip is part ecology class, part social history lesson, part adventure movie. And it’s also thoroughly uplifting.
A Success Story
Sitting in wooden houses built on stilts in the Amazon River floodplain, a place where the ground is so muddy that houses are connected by elevated boardwalks, the residents of Gurupa told us their story. In the 1980s, they fought off the rubber barons, and, soon after, they unwittingly deforested their lands because timber was the only source of cash. Shocked at what happened, people formed village associations and spent years drawing up resource extraction “use plans.” But imagine, they said, if one person breaks the rules and sells wood or acai at a cheaper price? More often, though, the threat comes from logging companies that set up shop without permission.