The savior of the rainforest

  • TEXT ADRIAN GEIGES

Brazilian-born Paulo Adario and a handful of experienced bush pilots regularly risk their lives as they scour the land below for evidence of criminal logging and gold diggers in their efforts to save the rainforest

We’re only 200 meters above the ground but we’re already touching the clouds. An automated voice repeatedly sounds the alert: “Caution, Terrain!” and“Warning, Terrain!,” but Fernando Bezerra, our pilot, takes no notice. If we flew just a little higher, we wouldn’t be able to see anything anymore, and visibility is what this flight is all about. The Greenpeace airplane Amazon Edge, a Cessna 208 Caravan, is not in the air to take passengers from A to B, but to carefully observe the rainforest from above. The environmental activists’ so-called flying eye is searching for signs of criminal loggers. The crew records illegal clear-cutting in a bid to stop the gangs’ activities – and save the rainforest.

Spread out beneath us lies Altamira in the Brazilian state of Parà, which is four times the size of Switzerland but home to a community of roughly 105 000 people. What looks like a sea of forest-clad islands from up here is in fact the Rio Xingú, a massive tributary of the Amazon.

The first thing that strikes you up here is the unique beauty of it all

Paulo Adario, Bush Pilot

We fly away from the water and on over the rainforest. A single hectare of land here supports 200 different species of tree – compared with only 40 species in all of Northwest Europe. Brazil-nut trees tower 50 meters tall alongside rosewood trees with their characteristic seed pods. The “earth’s green lung”; this is where our planet breathes. “The first thing that strikes you up here is the unique beauty of it all,” says environmental activitist Paulo Adario, himself a pilot and the person in charge of coordinating his team of brave bush pilots. “There are many places that have never been trodden by human feet.” The 64-year-old Brazilian has made saving the rainforest his life’s work. He started making regular flights over Pará 15 years ago. For a long time, he led the Greenpeace Amazon campaign, today he is responsible for the organization’s worldwide forest strategy. He is active in Africa and Asia, too, and always travels by airplane, of course. “I feel like a bird when I’m searching the forest from the air,” Adario says enthusiastically. Flying has never lost its fascination for him. In this small plane, the forces of nature are ever-present, the updrafts and downdrafts, the turbulence, the rain.

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Video interview: Paulo Adario talks about the pleasure of flying and the beauty of this endangered paradise

 The green beauty of the rainforest is in jeopardy; you can see that from up here: brown earth, bare patches, fields that cover areas where trees should be growing. “There’s a track down there that’s been illegally cleared through the forest,” says a voice in my headphones. It’s so loud in the cockpit that each of us has a microphone to speak into. “Let’s follow it!” Pilot Bezerra hauls the airplane sharply round to pick up the trail. After all, he and his team are up there to investigate and record every possible indication of illegal logging. In the fight against criminal loggers, gold diggers and stockbreeders, Greenpeace works hand in hand with the Brazilian govenment. Although the latter provides satellite data of the area, cloud cover often obscures the ground, and if environmental desecrators are to be caught, evidence and hard facts are needed. Hence the missions of the Amazon Edge, a kind of Rainbow Warrior of the sky. From picking up the first clue to gathering admissible evidence, it can take weeks. The small, single-engined airplane is indispensable here because the vast areas involved can only be monitored from above.

A while later, we are circling above an earth-colored area in which we can make out trucks and shacks. This is the construction site for the Belo Monte dam, which will turn the Xingú river into two artifical lakes covering a total area of 668 square kilometers – far larger than Lake Constance in Europe. The Brazilian government cites the country’s energy needs as justification for  the project, but Adario, the Greenpeace activist, remains skeptical: “I have nothing against hydroelectric power stations as such, but several small ones would be much better for the environment and the local population.”

The loggers have put a price on Adario’s head

A while later, we are circling above an earth-colored area in which we can make out trucks and shacks. This is the construction site for the Belo Monte dam, which will turn the Xingú river into two artifical lakes covering a total area of 668 square kilometers – far larger than Lake Constance in Europe. The Brazilian government cites the country’s energy needs as justification for  the project, but Adario, the Greenpeace activist, remains skeptical: “I have nothing against hydroelectric power stations as such, but several small ones would be much better for the environment and the local population.”

As we come in to land, all we can see is a gray soup; the airfield is swathed in dense fog. Captian Bezerra switches off the passenger microphones. He only wants to communicate with his copilot and the air traffic controler on the ground. “Sometimes it’s disturbing when everyone is speaking at once,” he explains to us later. It takes us two approaches to make the landing, but then it’s a soft one. To left and right of the runway there’s nothing but green forest. Bezerra, 52, is one of the best pilots in Amazonia. “I picked him because he used to fly for gold diggers and survived,” says Adario, “they have to fly even lower and if you can do that, you can do anything.” Bezerra even used to chauffeur one of the bosses of the very criminal loggers he is fighting today. “Flying is my life,” he says, “but now I’m flying for a good cause.”

Even more dangerous than flying low are the criminal elements in the Amazon region. Before changing sides, Bezerra was warned in no uncertain terms by his ex-boss, and his wife received threatening phone calls. His present boss, Adario, sometimes wears a wig and often a bulletproof jacket. He works in the Amazon office of Greenpeace in Manaus, the city of two million at the heart of the rainforest. To enter the building, you have to pass through a sally port, where the second door only opens once the first is closed.

The Jeeps in the garage have bulletproof windows. Video cameras monitor the rooms, and in another building, security staff work round the clock, observing every movement. The loggers have put a price on Adario’s head. He doesn’t want to tell us the amount, “but it’s high enough….” For a couple of years, Adario only left his home accompanied by two bodyguards.

His life has become a little easier now, since the big bosses who once fought him now meet him for dinner. “Many have realized that sustainable operations are good for their image and more profitable in the long run,” Adario explains. Two years ago, the Brazilian environment minister announced that logging had fallen to its lowest level since satellite imaging began in 1988.

In 2006, the government had placed a protection order on 16.4 million hectares of forest, an area four times that of the Netherlands. The country’s soybean traders also stopped selling crops grown in Amazonia – if only for a limited time. Still, the concession was likely down to Adario’s missions with the Amazon Edge. In 2012, the United Nations honored Adario’s efforts, bestowing on him the official title “Forest Hero.” But the rainforest, one of the world’s most important habitats, is not safe yet. Despite the positive announcement in 2012, by the following July a further 28 percent of the rainforest was destroyed. For Paulo Adario, there’s still work to be done.