Bogotá (Colombia) - Manaus (Brazil)
Tourists who go to Manaus as the gateway to the "wilderness" of Amazonia, as the contestants on The Amazing Race 32 did this week, may expect to find a small provincial town. But with two and half million people in a metropolitan area growing even faster than the rest of Brazil, Manaus is the most populous and cosmopolitan city for more than a thousand miles in any direction, It's the regional center for transport, infrastructure, services, and industry. Located in the center of South America, Manaus is not only one of the world's greatest inland ports but also a major air cargo hub and general aviation technical (refueling) stop between the Northern Hemisphere (North America, Europe and Asia) and the larger population and industrial centers of the Southern Cone.
However, despite some direct international flights including to Miami, and extensive domestic Brazilian air services, Manaus has had relatively few direct international passenger airline connections.
It's harder to obtain historical airline schedules than current ones, and many services, especially international ones, have been discontinued because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The contestants on The Amazing Race 32 were all on the same flights(s) from Bogotá to Manaus. They might have been on a nonstop flight on the venerable Colombian airline Avianca (operating in bankruptcy since the pandemic, like many other airlines, but no longer flying that route). Or the racers might have flown via Panama City on COPA. The TV show included an establishing shot of a COPA plane, but that doesn't resolve the question: The Amazing Race has often included pictures of planes taking off and landing that aren't the ones the racers were on.
This isn't irrelevant to our plans or fantasies for future travel A.C. ("after coronavirus"), if there is such a time and if we live to see it. Even if the volume of travel rebounds, and even for those airlines that don't go out of business (as many probably will), airlines have already made clear that they do not expect the traffic patterns of air travel -- especially internationally -- to be the same as they used to be B.C. Some airline route maps, again especially internationally, may and probably will be redrawn from scratch. It's impossible to predict which routes will have direct flights, or with what frequency, a year or two from now.
After a shopping challenge at market in central Manaus, the racers took tour boats to a Desana village on the outskirts of the city. The village is a standard stop on the most common one-day boat tours of the Manaus region. Tours to the village typically feature a "cultural show" and chances to take pictures of people in "native" costumes and buy handicrafts,
The Desanos are indigenous to Amazonia, but not to Manaus. Like many Native Americans who reside today on reservations far from their ancestors' traditional territories, the Desanos were originally from areas several hundred miles up the Rio Negro from Manaus to the northwest. Between the 1970s and 1990s, several waves of squatters and migrants, displaced to the city from their traditional lands, established a cluster of informal settlements just outside the built-up area of Manaus. Later, the area was designated as the Tupé Sustainable Development Reserve, and a process is underway to "regularize" title to the land in the settlements. Tourism plays an important role in the government's plans for economic "development" of the reserve.
"Ten percent of the indigenous tribes living along the Amazon River have never had contact with the outside world," host Phil Keoghan says to introduce the racers' visit to the Desana village. Whether or not that number is correct, it reflects a significant part of the allure, and the contradiction, of village visits and indigenous tourism: Tourists want to observe and interact with those people and communities that have had the least contact with other outsiders -- including other tourists.
The Desanos, who mingle every day with boatloads of tourists from throughout Brazil (most tourism to Manaus is domestic, from places like São Paulo) and around the world, are hardly removed from awareness of "civilization", much less uncontacted. But even on the outskirts of the city, this sort of tourism poses many ethical issues for the travel industry and for travellers.
The closer travellers get to truly uncontacted tribes, the more serious the problems become. We've been accustomed to thinking that the risks we take when we travel are risks to ourselves, that we can choose. During the current novel coronavirus pandemic, we've had to get used to the idea that how we travel can create risks for others as well as, or in some cases more than, to ourselves. That's always been an issue for contact -- including tourism -- with isolated peoples.
For uncontacted tribes that haven't been sufficiently exposed to the diseases of civilization to develop immunity, the common cold is a novel virus. First contact is often fatal to entire communities, or decimates their populations.
Last month it made headlines when an official of Brazil's ministry of Indian affairs was killed by an arrow shot by a member of one of the indigenous tribes in the area he administered. There are no comparable headlines each time an Amazonian tribe is wiped out by disease or displaced by wildcat gold miners, loggers, settlers, or ranchers clearing the jungle -- with or without land titles -- for cattle pastures, orange groves, and other plantation agriculture, or when something similar happens to a tribe in Borneo or New Guinea.
The threats to indigenous Brazilians have escalated under the government of President Trump's Brazilian counterpart Jair Bolsonaro, and include expansion of favelas (shantytowns) further and further into former jungle surrounding Manaus itself. Brazil, like Indonesia, sees lightly populated jungle regions of the country as a "safety valve" for internal migration to relieve pressure (and possible political blowback) from overcrowded urban slums -- and to provide a supply of cheap labor for owners of factories and farms in and around places like Manaus.
It's not a pretty picture, and it's not unique to Brazil or the Third World. Many of the same issues confront tourists in the Navajo Nation in the USA.
There's no clear answer for travellers who want to "do the right thing". But it's important to consider the impact of our travel on others, especially on those more vulnerable than ourselves. Tourism Concern has a more detailed survey of issues to consider, but here are a few key questions to ask yourself and your hosts about visits to indigenous peoples, territories. and communities:
- How much of the money you spend on tourist services or other products stays in indigenous hands? What impact does your visit -- and those of other people like you, repeated day after day -- have on the people and communities you visit?
- Who decides what is being performed for visitors? Whose stories you are being told, and who is telling them?
- Does tourism drive the creation of infrastructure and the availability of services that improve the lives of indigenous people, that exacerbate the threat to their autonomy and cultural survival -- or both?