Curtain Raiser

The Plastic Oh, No, Band, Colltalers

‘I just want to say one word to you. Just one word… Are you listening? Plastics.’ That was the career advice offered to Benjamin Braddock, in the 1967 movie The Graduate. If the word was just a joke then, almost 50 years later, it now defines our way of life and may point to our demise.
Its presence permeates almost everything considered essential to our living in this planet, plastic may also choke to death its lifeline, the oceans. Everyday, millions of discarded pieces of it reach the world’s waterways and join what’s an already incalculable amount of floating garbage.
In fact, in this past half century, we’ve seen how insidious plastic clogging the world oceans has become: it has been found everywhere, from vast extensions, forming giant invisible islands of flotsam, to deep under the Arctic seas, and out of dead seabirds’ bursted open stomachs full of it.
As part of our daily life, it’s also all over: in the computer where this post is being composed to cellphones, medicine bottles, to product packaging, food containers, to throwaway utensils. It’s almost discouraging to realize how hard it’d be for us do dig ourselves out of this lifestyle hole.
But perhaps not all is lost. Two of the more ominous of its uses may represent both a way out and a method to wean ourselves from such pervasive product: plastic bags and bottles. They both encapsulate extremes of our societal behavior and offer interesting metaphors to our way of living.
Take bags, for instance, banned this past week in California, which may be one of the most important steps taken against plastic pollution since recycling rules have been instituted in the U.S. A positive sign, indeed, that should ignite a chain reaction and lead to a nationwide ban.
Created solely out of convenience, these bags are utterly replaceable, and yet, have a level of adherence in all walks of life that would baffle social scientists searching for common habits shared by all classes. It’s, however, one of the most environment-damaging habits we could possibly partake.
So a ban, as it’s being pursued in New York and other states, and following some European countries, would represent a big step towards controlling ocean pollution, where they inevitably wind up, after decades in landfills. Would a ban also instill a reflexion on our shopping obsessions? Nah.
The other ominous use of polymers is even more ridden with the contradictions of our very own highfalutin approach to a natural lifestyle: bottles. Drinking bottled water became one the most terrible by-products of the ‘living healthy’ movement, one that added millions of tons of plastic to our already Continue reading

The Whirled Cup

Five Bullet Points On Brazil

& a Split-Decision to Strike

World Cup 2014 LogoYou may not know this but to most past World Cup hosts, the occasion was for national joy and jubilation, if not much for settling social scores. Brazil, though, is not buying into that placid template: in case you haven’t got the memo, Brazilians are actually angry.
They may have a point. But apart from all disturbing news about the (poor) preparations for the world’s biggest sports event that starts next week in São Paulo, here are five curiosities that go from the promising to the ‘peculiar’ to the far out.
We’ll get to them. But about that anger and the unsettling news: yes, it’s all true. The most expensive World Cup in history may turn out to be, arguably, the turnaround for Brazil’s dreams of being perceived as a global power, capable of handling its moment in the spotlight with composure.
A quick review of the staggering numbers shows that Brazilians are paying between $13 to $18 billion for the right to stage the games, but most of it has been invested either in riches that will quickly evaporate from the country, coming August, or will rot in some stadia built in the middle of nowhere.
Over 200 thousand people have been displaced to accommodate infrastructure projects for the cup and for the 2016 Olympic Games, also to take place in Brazil, according to a Mother Jones infographic, but many of such projects may not be finished for the opening kickoff, or may remain incomplete forever.
Discontent with the way funds have been diverted from needed and more permanent works, and public perception that President Dilma Rousseff hasn’t been fully cognizant to how Brazilians feel left out of the big party, have taken the country by storm and may only get louder during the cup.
In fact, she does seem less concerned about them than how the massive street rallies critical to what was supposed to be a celebration of Brazilians’ passion for the game, will impact the estimated one billion worldwide, expected to follow the month long competition.
But even as those problems have been called out over and over, and may be inseparable from the games this time around, it doesn’t mean we’re not working hard to provide you with some interesting alternatives to experience it all, insights that may be unique to this particular edition. And here they are:
1. THE WALKING STEAD
Talking about the opening kickoff, few know that, technically, it won’t be given by a human foot. Or it’ll but not exactly how one’d expect it. If all goes well, on June 12, a paralyzed person will walk on the field wearing an exoskeleton created by Brazilian neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis.
The technology behind the mind-controlled full-body suit has the potential to revolutionize mobility for millions of people. It’s not the first time that robotics is applied this way, but it still scores a kick in the arse of common indignities associated with being handicapped.
No word yet on who’ll be walking towards the middle of the Arena Corinthians and, with a thought or two, command the suit to help the foot kick the Brazuca. But you can bet your soccer shoes that, for many around the world, it’ll be as historical as the tournament’s winning goal.

2. WELCOME TO FAVELA INN
Some six million soccer fans are expected for the games, the last of them probably on their way in as we speak. But so is a severe hotel room shortage, with prices upwards of $380 a night to boot. So what choices a late comer has to rest their tired bones and avoid crashing in some godforsaken public square?
What about a shantytown? For a bargain $30, one can find a place to stay in one of the thousands of tiny houses, cramped together like jigsaw pieces, in one of Brazil’s hundreds of favelas, conveniently located in most state capitals and often with a much better ocean view than many a pricy hotel.
After all, this is a country where the so-called informal economy Continue reading

Losing the Past

Brazil’s Threatened Archeological
Sites Include the Little Horny Man

In the 1970s Brazilians heard often that theirs was ‘the country of the future.’ The cliche was a weapon in the psychological warfare military rulers waged against those it could not control. And it met its match, in the form of a perfect comeback: ‘We just need to survive till then.’
Brazil may not be waiting any longer for that future, but its past may be gone even before it reaches it: recently discovered sites of ancient human occupation are already under threat. Mining and World Cup projects, and lack of regulation may doom efforts to preserve them.
Archeologists are racing to document and study more countless sites in several states where human artifacts and markings have been dated to some 8,000 years ago, before miners start digging for minerals, and construction crews rushed to finish long-delayed infrastructure projects. There’s little question about where the odds stack in this race.
It doesn’t help the situation the fact that the archeologists’ cause is far from being as popular as the Amazon Rainforest, or the indigenous peoples living in there. Although still facing the prospect of a quick demise, the cause for preservation of the forest has plenty of support and even glamour enough to remain relevant.
Archeological digs, on the other hand, are notoriously devoid of much appeal. The process of finding signs of early humans is daunting and time consuming, and often ignites more questions than answers about our origins. In other words, not sexy enough to justify annual, star-studded concerts at Carnegie Hall.
On top of that, or rather underneath it all, is the fact that Continue reading

New Critters on the Block

Another Blue Tarantula &
a Spider That Builds a Decoy

It’s good that we have no plans of spending time at the tabletop mountains of Brazil anytime soon. Although we hear nice things about the place, there’s one particular local beauty we wouldn’t like crossing paths with over there: the newly-discovered Sazima’s tarantula.
It’s also a great asset to be of a certain stature (physical, not exactly moral); we tend to tower over spiders. But if you were the size of, say, a fly, caution would be in order: an also newly-found arachnid builds a much bigger ‘spider’, to lure and scare the bejesus out of small critters.
They’re both residents of South America’s Amazon and are truly fascinating for the way they look or go about their business of, well, eating small bugs and stuff. Think about that the next time someone talks about hiking in the jungle, and as if spring has sprung, lightly teases you about joining them.
Be strong and resist, always. In case you’re wondering too, that’s how we spend most of our Saturdays: finding new ways to terrorize our senses. In the process, as it’s pathologically common with fear, we learn a great deal about entomology, the Rainforest, wonders of travel and the natural world.
In reality, as many an enologist don’t actually drink, knowledge not always require one to touch the stuff. We’ve had quite a few fascinating conversations about bugs with people who can’t stand having one around. In some cases, clinical detachment in no way prevents anyone from getting intimate with a subject.
Before going any further, though, let’s be clear that we would hardly Continue reading

Forest Stumps

An Activist’s Bulletproof Vest May
Save Neither Her Nor the Amazon

‘They’re going to kill me.’ Nilcilene Miguel de Lima, who heads a group of small producers deep in Brazil’s Amazonas State, sounds pragmatic when speaking about how she expects her life to end. Given Brazil’s sad record protecting the lives of activists in the region, her words have a sobering, prophetic ring to them. She also sounds undaunted, despite the already many attempts on her life.
Wearing a bullefproof vest 24/7 and having a personal security detail, Nilce’s determined to defend the people of her village, Lábrea. She’ll need lots of luck, better than many like Chico Mendes, the legendary rubber-tapper leader born in Acre State like her and assassinated in 1988, and environmentalists João Cláudio Ribeiro da Silva and wife Maria do Espírito Santo, ambushed and killed a year ago next May.
Those who contracted their killers remain for the most part at large. Along with the world’s greatest flora and fauna diversity and its largest rainforest, the Amazon is littered with the bodies of many who stood up to illegal loggers, land grabbers, big landowners and drug traffickers. So the odds are not particularly stacked on her favor.
Neither they are on the side of preservationists and those who advocate for the estimated 20 million people who make the jungle their homes, Continue reading

Green Myopia

A Hard Time Seeing
Forest for the Trees

Five months after the brutal assassination of yet another defender of the Amazon forest, Brazil still struggles to control its destruction.
Last week, the country’s Environmental Ministry actually revised upwards the area lost to illegal burning and logging: 2,703 square miles were destroyed between August 2009 and July 2010.
In yet another piece of bad news, researchers of the Prodes Project, Continue reading

Hello, Goodbye

Amazon Tribes: Still Uncontacted
and Already Facing Mortal Danger

The latest wave of heavily armed criminal groups operating in the Amazon may eliminate your chance to get to know some of the tribes that dwell in the region.
In 2008, aerial photographs showed a group of a previously unknown indigenous community pointing arrows and bows at the aircraft. Now, disturbing reports about the sight of armed gangs nearby their dwellings may represent the biggest threat yet to the survival of some of those recluse native Brazilians.
For the record, the threat affects all indians living in the area, not just those who were photographed for the first time Continue reading