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The man with a plan to save the planet: Part 3

By Alanna Mitchell

Mittermeier's trip would not be complete without a flight deep into the interior to Asidonhopo, a village populated by Suriname's "Bush Negroes" -- the descendants of slaves who fled the Dutch to live in the jungle.

The place looks like something straight out of Africa -- the short, black and relentlessly muscular people along with their art forms, bright clothing and even the ritual scarification of a woman.

Mittermeier has been here so often he knows some of the children by name -- but the women scare him. One, he says, walked up to him once and said: "You do me." His wife, he explained, would not like that. "She's not here," came the reply.

Mittermeier has come to touch base with Songo Aboikonie, the Granman, or paramount chief of the Saramaccans tribe. The chief's name translates as "the boy is clever" and he is renowned for his tactical skill in representing his 20,000 people spread over 61 villages.

Rather than speak directly, the chief delivers his message through a bassia,or deputy, and it is harsh. Have the Saramaccans not always been Mittermeier's friends? Why don't they see a penny of the $15-million support for the new nature reserve just beyond their traditional land? Their buildings are crumbling, their young men go next door to French Guiana to work and Suriname's government does not help them enough. What will Mittermeier do for his friends?

The CI contingent shifts uneasily. They were not expecting this question and so do not have a ready answer. But in the morning, it becomes clear how the Granman got his name. He has a plan of his own. Before breakfast, he has an elegant handwritten letter delivered to Mittermeier. It is a formal expression of interest in seeing the headwaters of the Suriname River -- traditional Bush Negro land -- protected forever. It is a unexpected coup -- potentially a huge area near the Central Suriname Nature Reserve.

Mittermeier is flabbergasted. "That's pretty cool," he says.

But an irritated Granman is no threat compared with the piranhas that infest Amazonian rivers. Throughout the trip, Mittermeier has been merrily taking swims, saying they are unlikely to attack unless you are bleeding. Though, he adds, they will bang up against you to test you out. "Ping, ping, ping," he says, imitating the feel of fish on skin.

Mittermeier is not foolhardy -- he is as savvy about personal danger as he is about the dangers to Earth. But he will not let either slow him down.

When we leave Asidonhopo and reach the stunning Raleigh Falls in the Central Suriname Nature Reserve, he tackles the fear of the fish. He is sitting on the deck of a cabin above a sandy stretch of the river's shore and tosses a piece of cooked chicken into the shallows. It takes a minute, but the first piranha -- finger-sized, with a V-shaped neon-red tail -- finds the treasure. Others follow. Mittermeier provides the soundtrack: "Bam. Bam. Bam."

By the time the water clears, the chicken has vanished. His entourage is shell-shocked. Mittermeier chuckles and walks away. "Cute," he says. And, of course, these are the tiny piranhas. Later, some large ones are hauled out of the water; they have teeth as big as a dog's.

Finally, I realize that the piranhas have become a metaphor. Fear of them -- just like the fear of challenging the forces that injure the planet -- is strongest when imagined and never faced. Plainly, this is not the time for timidity. We descend to the river for a swim. And for supper, we eat the frisbee-sized piranhas. They are full of bones and sweet meat.

Mittermeier loves the area around Raleigh Falls more than any other. His research station from the 1970s is just down the river.

Smack in the middle of his research area is the Voltzberg, a piece of sheer, primeval Guyana shield poking up hundreds of metres through the jungle floor at a 45-degree angle on its gentlest face.

  • Russell Mittermeier
  • Conservation International
  • Foundation for Nature Conservation in Suriname
  • Places
  • Virtual tour of Suriname's Rainforest
  • Map of Suriname
  • English version of Die Ware Tijd, Surinamese newspaper
  • Science
  • Rainforest Information Centre
  • Early Amazon cultures
  • Suriname before Columbus
  • Mittermeier once climbed it in 11 minutes ("some macho thing"), but usually takes about 20 minutes. This is only the second time since the reserve was created that he has been up. It's brutally hot. Wild pineapple and vanilla cling to the bare rock. Bush Negro guides climb in bare feet.

    Mittermeier slows down to help one of the group who has an injured foot, letting others reach the summit first -- a huge sacrifice. Still, he notes, looking at the stopwatch, he made it in 19 minutes, which is not bad.

    Looking around, he can see to Brazil, Guyana and French Guiana. Right to the horizon in all directions, it is one of the rarest sights on the planet: pristine forest devoid of human habitation. But for his intervention three years ago, a large part of it would have been logged.

    Macaws fly overhead. Deep below the forest canopy, a red-faced howler monkey's roar reverberates through the forest the way it must have thousands of years ago.

    Mittermeier could bask. But he doesn't. "It's already history," he says of the creation of this reserve. "It's one part of an enormous global puzzle and there are dozens of other pieces to fall into place."

    But if he does not bask, he also does not despair, even though he has seen almost all the worst destruction humans have wrought on the planet. He has seen the devastation of the Azraq Oasis in Jordan. He has read the dire predictions of the climate scientists.

    He has watched as his beloved primates become scarcer. Today, 150 of the 600 species are in terrible trouble. Fifty-five of those are right on the edge of extinction.

    But faith is built into his DNA. Homo sapiens, he maintains, is not a suicidal species. It's just that we are half a step away from living in caves, and we have to learn that Earth's resources will not go on forever.

    Standing up here, with one of the world's great optimists, surveying one of the last pieces of unbroken tropical wilderness the planet has to offer, it's tempting to have hope. After all, humanity has advanced and shed other self-destructive practices -- think of slavery and cannibalism. Unlike the legendary Akijo, humanity is capable of using advanced knowledge for good.

    Plus, the planet can be astonishingly forgiving. It has mysterious powers to heal -- if given the chance it needs.

    At last, Mittermeier sits down. The sun has begun to wane. We are all in need of a rest before we go back down the mountain. But then one of his colleagues calls: "Russ, there's a king vulture!"

    In an instant, Mittermeier jumps up, squinting into the sky. Binoculars at the ready. "You see a king?"

    He runs over. His eager face is full of light.

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