The Yanomami Tribe

Christian Caron
Yanomami girl, 1997, Brazil.
Yanomami girl, 1997, Brazil

Location
The Yanomami tribe consists of approximately 26,000-35,000 indigenous people living in 200-300 villages within the Amazon rainforest. Their territory is located around the border of Brazil and Venezuela, between the Mavaca and Orinoco rivers. Sustained contact between the Yanomami people and the rest of the world began in the 1950’s due to the arrival of religious missionaries.

Map showing general territory occupied by the Yanomami peoples - By Javierfv1212 (Own work Muturzikin.com Servindi.org) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Map showing general territory occupied by the Yanomami peoples

It is believed that the Yanomami would have migrated across the Bering Straits (between Asia and America) approximately 15,000 years ago, before making their way down to South America.

Bering Strait
Bering Strait

The Yanomami territory in Brazil spreads over 9.6 million hectares. In Venezuela, they live in the 8.3 million hectare Alto Orinoco-Casiquiare Biosphere Reserve.

Yanomami Land
Yanomami Land

Society and Culture
The Yanomami have four major dialects: Yanam, Sanumá, Yanomámi and Yanomamö. Local variations and dialects also exist. The origins of the Yanomami language are obscure and as such, it is considered to be unrelated to any other South American indigenous languages; a language isolate.

Yanomami Languages in Venezuela
Yanomami Languages in Venezuela

A tuxawa (headman) acts as the leader of each village, but there is no single leader for the entire Yanomami tribe, as they do not identify themselves as being one entire group. Headmen gain their position through demonstrating being skilled peacekeepers and brave warriors. As women are not considered to possess the force and violence to enact these skills in Yanomami culture, they are never considered as headmen. Decisions are made by consensus following debates within the community.

Brazilian Yanomami Indian
Brazilian Yanomami Indian

Each village tends to consist of extended family groups of 50-400 people. The villages are largely communal and live under a roof known as a shabono, which is divided into individual houses and spaces by support posts. Shabonos are made of rainforest plant and tree materials and receive damage through heavy rains, winds and insect infestation and are therefore rebuilt every 4-6 years. There is open ground in the centre measuring approximately 91 metres. Each family unit has its own section with a hearth, where they prepare and cook food. At night the fire is stoked so that whilst sleeping in their hammocks they can stay warm.

Yanomomi Shabono
Yanomomi Shabono

It takes the Yanomami approximately four hours or less to hunt and gather all the food they need, leaving an abundance of time for leisure and socialising. The Yanomami use slash-and-burn horticulture, grow crops such as bananas, sugarcane, mangoes and papaya and hunt animals and fish. They grow plantains and cassava as their main crops; they also cut down palms to facilitate the growth of grubs for consumption. The crops that are grown in their gardens account for approximately 80% of their food source. Yanomami move frequently when resources such as soil nutrients have declined too greatly; this is known as shifting cultivation. As their diet is very low in salt, their blood pressure is extremely low. The men go out to hunt for peccary, monkey and tapir amongst others. When a hunter is successful he does not eat the meat himself, instead it is shared amongst his family and friends who in return will thank him with their own catch. Often a plant extract known as curare is used as a poison for their prey.

Christian Caron
Yanomami Hunter

A bark of a woody vine called timbó contains a poison which is used for fishing by both men and women alike. The vines are floated out into the river and the poison stuns the fish, which then rise to the surface where they can easily be scooped up into baskets.

Yanomami Fishing Method
Yanomami Fishing Method

The unions in Yanomami society can be either true polygamous or monogamous. The majority of child-rearing is done by the women.

Yanomami woman and her child at Homoxi, Brazil, June 1997
Yanomami woman and her child at Homoxi, Brazil, June 1997

The Yanomami have many rituals, such as celebrating a good harvest with nearby villages, where bodies are decorated with feathers and flowers. The Yanomami eat a lot during the feast and the woman sing and dance as festivities continue late into the night. The spirit world plays a huge part in Yanomami life. They believe that everything; rock, tree, mountain or creature, has its own spirit, good or bad. They believe that bad spirits can attack people and cause sickness.

By No machine readable author provided. Ambar~commonswiki assumed (based on copyright claims). [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Yanomami, Venezuela

Shamans conduct healing rituals for the sick using hallucinogenic drugs, also known as yakoana or ebene.  These drugs allow the consumer to communicate with spirits known as hekura, who are believed to be in charge of many aspects of this world.  This practice is known as shapuri and women do not take part, nor can they be shaman.    Through the inhalation of yakoana, the Yanomami men are able to meet spirits known as xapiripë.  They are very small, bright and decorated; wearing parrot feathers and painted with urucum (red), some also have earrings and wear black dye.  Their dance is very beautiful and their song is unique.

Yanomami male
Yanomami male

When a member of the community dies, their body is wrapped in foliage and placed away from the shabono.  Once all the soft tissue has been consumed in a little over a month by a variety of living organisms in the forest, the Yanomami cremate the bones, mix the ashes with bananas into a soup and consume them.  This occurs annually on the ‘day of remembrance’ by the entire community until the ashes run out, and is known as endocannibalism.  The ‘day of remembrance’ is the only time each year where the community openly talks about the dead.  They recall their loved ones in order to keep the spirit of the deceased alive and to strengthen the community.

Jon Rawlinson
The forest consumes the soft tissue.

 Domestic chores, gardening, foraging and harvesting are carried out by the women, hunting is carried out by the men.  Early in the morning the men will leave to hunt, and the women and young children will search for termite nests, frogs, land crabs, nuts, shellfish and insect larvae for roasting.  They also search for vines to weave into baskets and go fishing.    The women take responsibility for the children, until age 8 when the boys become the responsibility of the male members, but mothers continue to rely on assistance from their daughters.

Cmacauley [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Yanomami woman weaves a basket at the maloca de Eduardo in Brazil, 1999.

Menstruation announces the beginning of womanhood for girls, usually aged between 10 and 12, so they are married off.  It is believed that menstrual blood is dangerous and poisonous; therefore the girls are hidden in a small tented structure screened with foliage.  They squat over a deep hole within and wait for the blood to pass.  Female members of the community then replace the girl’s old cotton garments with new ones to symbolise her womanhood and availability for marriage.  During this first menstrual period, the girl is fed with a stick and may not touch the food directly.  She may only whisper, and only then through contact with close family members.  Until menstruation girls are treated as children, afterwards they are expected to take on adulthood and all of the responsibilities of an adult Yanomami female.  Puberty is not considered a significant time for male Yanomami children, only female.

Christian Caron
Yanomami Women

Sexuality is not repressed with the Yanomami, but it is discreet and limited.  It is forbidden for women to have sexual relations with another woman, but men may interact sexually with other men.  If a woman is found to be breaking this rule, then she may be severely injured, or even killed.  Incest between close family is not acceptable in Yanomami society, and anyone found to be participating in such will be shunned and not cremated at death.  However, inter-cousin marriages are common.

Christian Caron
Yanomami

The older a women, the more respect she garners in Yanomami culture, particularly once they have married and had children.  Elderly women are highly respected, and tend to be immune to violence during raids and warfare.  As such, they are able to safely travel between villages, and therefore tend to be the ones who recover any bodies of the dead after a raid.  In Yanomami culture women have an incredibly tough time towards the start, if they make it to old age then respect as well as power in politics and decision-making awaits them.

Sam Valadi
Yanomami Mother and Baby

Invasion, Violence and Death

The Yanomami culture has a history of violence, both with other tribes and within their own.  Although it is difficult to determine exactly how violent the tribe is historically, perhaps the most reliable source of information comes from the anthropologist Jacques Lizot who, having lived among the Yanomami for over twenty years, in 1985 wrote that

“The Yanomami are warriors; they can be brutal and cruel, but they can also be delicate, sensitive, and loving.  Violence is only sporadic; it never dominates social life for any length of time, and long peaceful moments can separate two explosions.”

Amazon, Brazil
Amazon, Brazil

Various anthropologists such as Chagnon and Marvin Harris have insisted there is a culture of violence amongst the Yanomami due to competition for resources.  However, in 1995 R. Brian Ferguson argued that the violence that was present in Yanomami culture was “The product of specific historical situations: The Yanomami make war not because Western culture is absent, but because it is present, and present in certain specific forms.”  He states that Yanomami are in “An extensive area beyond state administrative control, inhabited by nonstate people who must react to the far flung effects of the state presence.”

"Campo12Foto 2" by Jorge.kike.medina - Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Campo12Foto_2.JPG#/media/File:Campo12Foto_2.JPG

Despite these assertions, up to half of all deaths of Yanomami males are caused by violence, almost always due to conflicts between other communities over resources.  Women are often victims of these violent clashes.  If a raid occurs in a village, the women are usually raped and beaten, before being kidnapped and integrated into the rapist’s community.  Inter-village warfare does not tend to affect women in the same way, although women are frequently beaten, with both sharp and blunt objects, as it is viewed that this is the best way to make them faithful and agreeable.  Males tend to brand their wives in order to symbolise dominance over her. However, if a Yanomami woman finds the violence of her husband becomes too much to bear, she can leave and live with her brothers.

Christian Caron
Yanomami Woman

Sustained contact between the Yanomami and the outside world began in the 1940’s, when the Brazilian government entered their land in order to define the borders of Brazil with Venezuela.  The Government’s Indian Protection Service, as well as many religious missionaries quickly followed, leading to mass Yanomami death due to the introduction of new diseases such as the measles and flu, to which they had no immunity.  From this point onwards there have been many deaths of the Yanomami, due to murder and conflict as a result of the continued invasion of people from the outside world for rainforest resources.

In the 1970’s miners would settle and kill Yanomami members over land conflicts.  Initial efforts to allocate reservations for Yanomami were badly done, and were based solely on the location of mineral deposits, with no consideration for current Yanomami trading routes and trails.  From 1987 to 1990, the Yanomami population declined severely due to malaria, mercury poisoning, malnourishment and violence.  Many of these factors were as a result of the increasing numbers of miners and mining practises in the area.  In 1992 these reservations were revised to take into account the Yanomami lifestyle, and with the aid of anthropologists and Survival International, they were able to assign more suitable reservations.  However, outsiders continue to enter Yanomami land and in 1993 the infamous Haximu massacre occurred, resulting in the deaths of many Yanomami, and subsequently several gold miners.

"SlashandburninBrazil" by United States Forest Service - http://www.nasa.gov/vision/earth/environment/From_Forest_to_Field.htmlTransferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by User:Quadell using CommonsHelper.. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:SlashandburninBrazil.jpg#/media/File:SlashandburninBrazil.jpg
Slash and Burn Forest Removal

Threats

One of the main threats to the Yanomami people is gold mining.  There are more than 1000 people illegally mining on Yanomami land.  As well as the obvious, negative environmental impacts such as pollutions of forests and rivers with mercury, the presence of the miners allows the transmission of deadly diseases such as malaria throughout the tribe, due to them not having developed resistance to diseases that are common for the outside world.  Urgent medical care is very difficult for the Yanomami people to obtain, and as health increasingly suffers due to intruders, this becomes an increasingly dangerous situation for the Yanomami.

Pollution in the Amazon
Pollution in the Amazon

Cattle ranching is also causing devastation to the forests on the Eastern edge of Yanomami land.  The Brazilian army have now placed barracks in Yanomami land, thereby increasing tensions greatly.  The soldiers have used Yanomami women as prostitutes, infecting some of the women with STI’s.

See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Cattle Ranching in Brazil

The Brazilian congress is also debating a bill to approve large-scale mining in Yanomami territories.  The Yanomami rarely have their voice heard and it is difficult for them to gain access to knowledge about the ways in which mining will affect them.  Brazilian authorities have not removed illegal gold miners from Yanomami land, nor contributed to any solution for the Yanomami health crisis, despite many requests for help from the Yanomami people themselves.  The situation is the same in Venezuela.  The Yanomami in Brazil do not have true legal ownership over their land, as the government refuses to recognise it, despite signing ILO Convention 169 which guaranteed the recognition of their ownership.

By Created by User:Maziotis. Transferred to Commons by User:Danmichaelo 2012-02-04 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
Countries that have signed and ratified the ILO convention 169.

Yanomami Supporters

Various institutions such as ‘Survival’ and ‘Pro Yanomami Commission’ (CCPY) have worked for decades with the Yanomami in order to support their claim on their land.  Due to this combined effort, in 1992 a protected area known as ‘Yanomami Park’ was marked out and miners were removed from the area.

Ron Mader
Survival International Logo

The Yanomami and CCPY have also set up a Yanomami education project.  The aim of this project is to educate the Yanomami on their rights, as well as to teach reading, writing and maths.

Christian Caron
Yanomami

Initially, the healthcare NGO Urihi was training Yanomami people to become health agents.  However, in 2004 the National Health Foundation of the Brazilian government (FUNASA) took over Yanomami healthcare.   Since then it has been denounced by the Yanomami as a chaotic mess, with corruption ever-present, contributing to the serious problem of vital healthcare and equipment not reaching the Yanomami in time, resulting in many deaths.

Senado Federal
Yanomami attending a meeting.

Yanomami from eleven different regions in Brazil formed their own organisation in 2004 known as Hutukara, which means ‘the part of the sky from which the earth was born’.  The purpose of this organisation is to defend their rights and create projects that can be run by the Yanomami themselves.  In 2011, Yanomami in Venezuela also formed a similar organisation, known as Horonami.

"Yanomami en el Estado Amazonas (21)". Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Yanomami_en_el_Estado_Amazonas_(21).jpg#/media/File:Yanomami_en_el_Estado_Amazonas_(21).jpg

How You Can Help the Yanomami

The Yanomami need support in order to hold on to their culture and land for the foreseeable future.  You can offer this support in a number of ways:

Other Sources of Information

Davi Kopenawa
Davi Kopenawa

“It is not that the Yanomami do not want progress, do not want many things that non-indigenous people have.  They want to be able to choose, and not have change thrust upon them, whether they want it or not.  We want progress without destruction.” – Davi Kopenawa, a Yanomami Shaman.

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Into the Amazon – Part 1

Hello All!  So it turns out that internet signal in the jungle is really really poor!  (who would’ve thought?  Everybody else I suppose..) As a result I have been unable to update my blog!  Oh no!  However, I have now returned and there is much to write about, hooray!

This post is detailing my journey into the Amazon rainforest, which was an adventure in itself…

DSC_0709

The Flight

My flight was horrendous.  I had a migraine for the whole 47 hours.  My flight from Madrid was delayed by 17 hours due to our plane being broken, the 4* hotel was nice but the old ladies elbowing their way in front of me were not.  What I learnt that day was that Spaniards do not appreciate a nice, decent queue when they see one.

Climbing onto our new plane the next day, I found a stubborn old man who spoke no English in my seat, he refused to move.  In my exhausted, migraine-induced state all I wanted to do was thump him on the head with my cheekily overweight hand luggage and scream at the top of my lungs till he got so scared that he moved.  However, whatever little sense was left in me managed to communicate with the stewardesses, who then gave me a much nicer seat with plenty of leg room next to a lady who spent the flight watching twilight, and occasionally having to deal with my half conscious lump of a body flopping into her personal space every now and then.

I caught up with another lady, Debs, when we finally made it to Lima who was also going to CREES (Conservation, Research and Education towards Environmental Sustainability) as a volunteer for 5 weeks.  It later transpired that it was thanks to her that I woke up in time to catch the plane to Lima.  She phoned my room number from the hotel desk in an attempt for us to meet, I woke up in painful confusion, heard someone talking in Spanish down the phone, immediately gave up trying to understand anything and hung up, looked at the time, realised I hadn’t set my alarm and sprinted down the stairs with my stuff just in time to get the coach back to the airport.  Thankyou Debs.

Day One – Arrival in Cusco

After a mildly comfortable 7 hour wait in Lima airport, we finally got a plane to Cusco, where we were greeted by sun, heat, music and plenty of taxi drivers.  More importantly however, we were greeted by OUR taxi driver.  We piled into the car, and now that my migraine had worn off thanks to painkillers supplied by Debs hours before (thank you Debs)  I was free to enjoy the sights and sounds of this amazing new world that would become my own for the next  few months.

In Cusco
In Cusco

Having only lived within the Commonwealth, and only holidayed in European countries, I knew I would have no idea what to expect when I landed in South America.  And I was right!  It was like nothing I had ever seen before, the people of Cusco (and I hope all of Peru) certainly love their colour!  The women with their dark, thick hair and colourful clothing, the dogs wandering around looking lost, the brightly decorated stalls selling kola and the ladies on the ground selling everything from fruit to necklaces all looked so strange and new to me.  The colourful buildings with the bright logos, the quaint balconies, the random Alpaca’s..  It was so bizarre, so exciting, that when a CREES staff member asked us whether we wanted to go exploring in Cusco today, despite our deliriously tired, jet lagged and altitude sickened states we both immediately answered with a definite yes.

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Meeting the Team

We were taken to the CREES Cusco office, where we met with others who would be joining us on our epic journey into the Amazon.  There was Jose, our guide who would be escorting us, a real inspiration whose passion for nature always showed through in his words and his talent for seeing things that we couldn’t pick out.  I also met Leanne and Rob, the former an avid cross stitcher and nanny who adores wildlife, and the latter a middle-aged Welshman who loves adventure and is the ultimate source of all dad jokes.  Debs, who ended up working in the water purification industry, had chosen to come to the Amazon in order to pursue her deeper passions which lie in nature and geology.  There was also Dan, a 19 year old who, having saved his money working in the Kitchens of an Italian restaurant, had arrived here to pursue his passion for wildlife before venturing into the big wide world of university, studying Wildlife conservation and ecology.  Freia was the only non-British non-Peruvian person in the room, an art graduate from Sydney, she began to question her path into the art world and is here to explore her feelings towards another love; ecology.   Olivia is a History graduate who has visited South America before, so decided to return to Peru now that she has finished her studies.  Another addition to the team was Marcus, in his 20’s he is a talented wildlife cameraman working with CREES to document working life in the Amazon.  Finally, there is me, and I am here because since I can remeber I have decided that the only career path for me is the research and conservation of the Amazon rainforest.  I am here to help me decide for certain whether to go down a practical route of conservation and charity. Or go back into studying and get an environment-related degree, commiting to 3-4 years of being a broke student.

From left to right round the table: Rob, Dan, Myself, Marcus, Debs, Meng (volunteer already at the MLC), Freia, Olivia and Leanne.  Photo taken a month later on an expedition!
From left to right round the table: Rob, Dan, Myself, Marcus, Debs, Meng (volunteer already at the MLC), Freia, Olivia and Leanne. Photo taken a month later on an expedition!

Tour of Cusco

After a brief introduction to each other and CREES (through which I struggled to stay awake for-honestly I fell asleep for some of it, a great first impression!) we went for a wander round Cusco in search of Lunch.  I could not have looked like more of a tourist if I’d tried, it was almost painful.  I had become everything I had once hated: Linen-clad, Rayban wearing, camera touting tourist.  It was so worth it though, I am so excited by cultures outside of my own, and my camera needed to frantically document this strange and wonderful place, with average results (that you are now viewing).  It honestly felt like I had landed on another planet, in a very awesome way.  A quote from my journal describes how ‘I felt as though I had dived straight through a picture in National Geographic Magazine’, and I remember I did overwhelmingly feel that way, I kept imagining the stills I’d seen of Peru and finding it so bizarre to see the exact same sights just in real time!  I was also pleasantly surprised to see the large number of people in traditional dress, both old and young.  I had presumed for a while that it was mainly for show put on for the tourists, but no!  This is just their life.

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We walked through the streets of Cusco, and arrived at the Plaza de Armas.  The square was beautiful; trees, benches and young women and men selling their home made art.

Church of la Compañía de Jesus
Church of la Compañía de Jesus

Lunch in Cusco

We arrived at Jose’s chosen restaurant for a nice set menu lunch, I was ravenous and would’ve gladly eaten any old crap put in front of me, even plane food!  The fact that the food tasted amazing was a huge added bonus.  We began with an empanada; a half moon of pastry filled with cheese, which was delicious.  The next course was a kind of Minestrone soup.  I have always been suspicious of soup, I don’t understand the textures, it’s a drink but a food too it doesn’t. Make. Sense.  But this soup was extremely tasty, and as a result I am now very open-minded about trying other soups.  Thanks Peru!  The final course was fried, flat chicken, oily chips and vegetables.  Jose told us to expect this type of dish a lot whilst in Peru, he was not wrong. He also told us to expect big meals for lunch as well as dinner, which I am thrilled to let you know has also turned out to be very true.  It felt good to have such a fabulous meal, as disappointingly my first meal EVER in South America, let alone Peru, was a fast-food sad-looking chicken sandwich in Lima airport, courtesy of my airline apologising for the delay.  It was very nearly a Big Mac.

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I was feeling a lot better and more alert now that I had food in my belly, and it was off to the market to see what treats awaited us there…

Lots of them!

The Market

The market was bustling with life, there were ceramics being sold of pots, elephants and happy little people statues. There was an aisle for meat, an aisle for vegetables, an aisle for bread… it was literally the most organised place I’ve ever been to in Peru.  The huge amount and variety of colour in the market was incredible.  The ladies dressed so brightly they almost camouflaged with their handmade hats, bags and jewellery.  There was a whole aisle of the market dedicated to potatoes (or Papa in Spanish.  I’m learning!) which I thought was pretty great.  We walked down the meat aisle which was a lot of fun for the squeamish, with meat carcasses strung up in lines and blankets wrapping up various parts of animals including pigs trotters, it was an interestingly authentic experience.  There was plenty of interesting and exotic fruit available, a lot of which I’d never seen before.  It always amazes me when I go abroad the amount of fruit I miss out on in England.  Tesco’s need to pull themselves together because we are missing out for sure!  There were also aisles full of blenders for freshly made fruit juices, the aromas here were tantalising, especially as the ladies were wafting the beautifully juicy smells towards us with their laminated menus, it was tempting but we couldn’t stop there was far too much to see and do!  There were towers of uncovered fish eggs for sale next to fizzy drinks, a beautiful nod towards the old style shops and their mashup of products that I would soon come to know and love.

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As it was coming up to Easter, there were also HUGE meringues and cakes for sale which we were told by Jose were only sold at this time of year.  There was an abundance of colourful flowers, well suited to such colourful people!  So suited in fact that I almost trod on one elderly lady who was hunched up amongst them asleep on the floor!  That could’ve been awful.  There were vegetables and seeds, dried herbs and leaves it was hectic and beautiful and alive!  I’d never been to a market like this one and I can’t wait to experience it again.  In my journal I wrote ‘Coming out of there again was like going from the raging river to the ocean’ and however romanticised (and by romanticised I mean lame) that sounds, I remember it being exactly how it felt!

San Pedro Market - Taken by Karl Norling
San Pedro Market – Taken by Karl Norling

After the market it was time for me and Debs to evacuate the vicinity and go to sleep.  I later found out that the others went to a CHOCOLATE FACTORY, and unless they are lying in order to bully me, I am very, very jealous.

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Off To The Amazon!

Hello Everyone!

I have some extremely fun news, I am lucky enough to be leaving for Peru tomorrow, to begin a 6 month conservation internship in the Amazon rainforest.

I AM SO EXCITED.

Luckily there is solar powered internet, though I don’t know how reliable this is I should still be able to blog a bit while I am there.  Because I will be having such an amazing experience in the Amazon, the majority of my blog posts will take on a different format to my previous posts.  Instead, they will become kind of a travel/research journal.  Obviously the posts will still be primarily about the forest and its inhabitants, but it will mainly centre around my personal an

Where I will be!!
Where I will be!!

d current experiences.  There may be the odd unique post depending on what’s going on in the news etc who knows!

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