A Story on Poverty and Cultural Blindness

A story of Cultural Blindness and Poverty - Amazon Story

A few years ago, I had an awesome adventure. For my research on Ecotourism in the Amazon, I got to spend 4 months on the beautiful Brazilian Amazon Atlantic Coast in the municipality of Curuçá (Pará State). I would like to share my experiences whilst there. Here is my first #AmazonStory on Poverty and Cultural Blindness.

This story starts with an interview I had with fisherman Seu D. (not his real name) – an elderly, paralysed fisherman – who had no food on the table for lunch. This might sound simple, but I didn’t even realise its significance until my friend explained the injustice. Bear with me, it’s going to be a somewhat longer read, but I believe it’s worth the words.

Ilha da Romana, Curuçá – Brazil

During my time in Curuçá, I had the privilege of staying at Ilha da Romana, a beautiful semi inhabited island, to interview the fishermen working there. To get to the island, you have to charter a boat or make good friends with a fisherman (which I of course did). The journey is beautiful and will take you through the different furros, igarapés and ríos to the island in about 3 hours. If you are ever in that neighborhood, it takes some time to get there, but the experience is worth it.

Traditional Fishing in Curuçá

The traditional fishermen I met out there are very proud of what they do. Most have been fishing all their lives. I loved seeing how they’ve developed methods for catching different fish. To get a little bit technical, sometimes they used long netted fences *uhum. Obviously, I’m a fishing expert*, other times with a throwing net, or in other parts of Curuçá with a curral (a corral which allows fish to swim in, but not out).

Traditional fisherman in Curuçá, Brazil

Before this experience, I knew nothing of artisanal fishing, or sports fishing, or any kind of fishing, except getting them at the supermarket.

Now I’m proud to say that I’ve at least gained a lot of respect for this hard way of life, including the abundance of traditional knowledge and the fact that it’s a disappearing way of life.

Grand Stories of the olden days

After the experience, I couldn’t stop asking them questions. What was it like to fish on the island? How were their lives? What did they do for fun? (and some more ethnographically oriented questions).

The fishermen in return were full of grand stories of the old days when they’d be out catching huge rays and catfish, which probably grow bigger every time they tell the story.

Unfortunately, due to overfishing by large industrial vessels, pollution and other factors that threaten the coastline of Curuçá, its mangroves, the traditional fishing lifestyle is under threat, which is a subject close to my heart and I’ll write about this another time.

Although I believe all of the fishermen I met during those 4 months deserve their own story – if only for their colourful names – the story that impacted me most was the story of Seu D. (Mr D.).

The story of Seu D. the fisherman

Seu D., together with his cronies, proudly fished the coast of Curuçá for over 60 years. It would have been great to have seen him in his prime.

Unfortunately, when I met the man, there was little of him left. Because of all the salty fish he had consumed over the years to survive while being on multiple day fishing trips, Seu D. suffered a stroke some twenty years ago, which left him partly paralysed.

Unable to fish for his family, without the support of his extended family, who had abandoned Curuçá to live in the big city (Belém do Pará), the household fell into great poverty. So when I met him, he, his also ailing wife, and his disabled grandchild were living in a little crumbling clay house – with holes everywhere.

When my Brazilian research partner, Jacy, and I arrived, Seu D., a half-naked man with his private parts only covered by a sock, invited us in from his hammock. His mouth was drooping with saliva. Every few minutes during the interview, he had to spit in a bucket to be able to continue our conversation. He could do little, talking was difficult for him, but his memory was pure. Sadly, the reality of his health and that of his wife left little to focus on but the precarious situation they were living in.

His stories of the old days, however, fascinated me. The man himself intrigued me. What would it have been like to have lived that way? To work in nature day after day? It must have been a hard life, but a proud one. So that’s what I saw, a proud fisherman beaten down by disease and old age, but that was only half of the story.

Perception, Poverty and Injustice

My fieldwork partner, Jacy, had to cry after the interview. I didn’t really understand, so I asked her why. Of course, it was sad that his health was failing him, but I was still naïve about the real tragedy. She explained to me that she was crying because the family had absolutely no help. No help from their family. Absolutely, no support from the government. None.

The clay house they were living in, on which they had spent all their savings and had gone into debt for, was crumbling apart around them. The monthly payments were taken from his meagre pension. Unfortunately, the wife did not receive a pension, because they’d only recently created her documents (ID, birth certificates, etc.) and now it was too late to register. The remaining amount per month was too little to provide food for three people, all with a complicated medical situation, and survive.

Jacy cried. “The house is falling apart around them. Where will they live? There just is no money left. And what about the granddaughter, who will take care of her when Seu D. and his wife just can’t anymore? They are completely forgotten because they are old. They also don’t have any food on, at eleven, for lunch!”

That last sentence was what made it all hit home for me. No food. With my culturally tinted Western glasses, I didn’t even think twice about the lack of food on the stove. I never start cooking at 11am,  but Feijão takes time. We’re so privileged that we don’t even have to think where our food is coming from, or even when. It’s just there. We go to the supermarket, cook it and voilá we’ve got food.

Social Injustice

Jacy and I left with a feeling of injustice. And ever since that day, I’ve wanted to write about that meeting. This experience was a life lesson for me. As a middle-class Dutch girl of 24 years old, still wearing her rose coloured, Adventuress glasses, I had only read about poverty in books about development. I heard the buzz word during my anthropology classes, but I had never seen the reality. My fieldwork wouldn’t have been the same without meeting Seu D. and his family, and I am so lucky I had a Brazilian friend with me who could put it into perspective.

She helped me to Open My Eyes.

After we left Seu D.’s house, Jacy immediately contacted the Protected Area authorities so they could assist the family in their precarious situation. Unfortunately, neither of us have heard what happened after that. But I’m naïve enough to hope that good deeds do exist and that Seu D. lived the remainder of his life in a little bit more comfort than that day we met him.

I hope I’ll meet many more inspiring people like him and like Jacy in future, who will continue my fieldwork lessons and open my eyes.

Share your lesson

I’m very curious about the lessons you learned during your travels, to help us all open our eyes. Please share them with us in the comments or on social media using #theecotourist #fieldworklesson

Note: For obvious reasons, I don’t have a picture of Seu D. The featured image is of one of his cronies, a crafty fisherman whom I hope still fishes Ilha da Romana to this day.

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