Thursday, April 23, 2009

La beauté au Madagascar

Cristina's Madagascar images are featured in a photo essay on Conservation International's website. Check it out!

Monday, April 20, 2009

Can Photography Save the Earth? Free live chat on April 22nd at 8pm EST

When: Wednesday, April 22, 2009
8:00pm - 9:00pm EST
Where: Click here!

People say a picture is worth a thousand words but it that really true when it comes to saving the environment? Join Cristina to talk about her twin passions for photography and conservation, and see how they work together to help the Earth. The discussion is free, all you will need to do is sign in!

Friday, April 17, 2009

A glimpse into the Suriname rainforest

Five and a half miles does not seem like a long trek, unless you are walking in the rainforest. The undergrowth is barely contained by the edges of the trail, and in the least traveled portions, the vegetation slowly creeps over the trail, making walking difficult. Add to that the oppressing heat and humidity, the uneven terrain, the many depressions that tend to fill with water every time it rains, and you have the perfect recipe for slow going. The good thing is we are in very good company. Jenny and I are traveling with my husband, Russ Mittermeier, who is an expert in tropical biodiversity and who spent his youth (and indeed much of his life) running around in these forests chasing monkeys for his scientific studies. We are also with my 12 year-old daughter, Juliana, who is in 7th grade and has already visited over 30 countries and all 7 continents but has never been to Suriname before! Traveling with us is also an enthusiastic and dynamic group of people from Seattle and British Columbia. They are all friends of Renee Harbers, a young and energetic photographer whose husband was instrumental in saving this millenarian forest.

The going is tough because we stop every few minutes to marvel at the details of the forest: a brightly colored heliconia or bird of paradise, a shy mushroom, the call of a bird from high in the canopy, or a troop of squirrel monkeys crossing overhead. Our destination is a cave system that was only discovered 5 years ago. The explorer who found it is a Trio Indian that goes by the name of Kamanha. He is legendary in this area and known throughout the Amazon for his hunting skills. Kamanha, and his good friend Koita were field hands during Russ’ field studies in Suriname almost 30 years ago! Over the past few years they have become field guides to our oldest son, John, who has been doing bird surveys for Yale University and Conservation International in Suriname; the circle continues to go around and today we are guided by Raisa, Kamanha’s oldest son, yet another superb guide. They are all amazing hunters and trackers and they are highly respected in every Indian community from here to Venezuela and Brazil.

In 2004 Kamanha was hunting in this area when his favorite dog went ahead to chase some prey and then didn’t come back. Kamanha chased the animal to a cave where he found ancient petroglyphs carved unto the rocks. The figures depict people and animals and they are crudely carved on the walls of the cave. Few people outside of the Indians, a handful of archaeologists and a few tourists have ever been here and it is a thrill to stand in the cool cave imagining the Indian civilizations who lived here and adorned these rocks with scenes from a long forgotten time.

To wrap up the hike, we go looking for the “cock of the rock”, a bright orange bird with a helmet-like head that lives among these rocky outcrops. We get a glimpse of the bird but cannot get close enough for photograph. We will have another chance in a couple of days, when we visit Raleighvallen in another part of the country.

After we come back to Iwana Samu, we are treated by a visit from Kwamalasamutu. Jonathan, the self-appointed guardian of the Trio culture brings a group of dancers from the village. They are dressed in full Trio costume and they perform a handful of dances. We make sure they know how important this is for us and how much we appreciate it. We all commit funds to a project to help Jonathan revive Trio culture, which has slowly been eroded thanks to the careless teachings of missionaries in this part of the world.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Waiting for TRIO

Waiting for the TRIO Indians to arrive...

I am only up because I promised Jenny I would write a blog tonight.

It is out first night in the interior of Suriname and I am exhausted but promises must be kept and so here I offer a few notes from the day.

We started the day in the Capital City of Paramaribo. With less than half a million inhabitants, most of them living along the coast, the country of Suriname is largely uninhabited. Paramaribo is a super cool tropical city, with its old colonial neighborhoods and mosques and synagogues made of wood, sharing real estate, on the same block….just down the street from the cathedral, which is the tallest building made of wood in all of South America. With its bright yellow paint, the cathedral screams “tropical architecture” or Ethan Allan furniture… is very pretty and the fact that it shares the street with other major temples makes me hopeful that one day all religions will be able to get along as they do here in Suriname.

It takes an hour and a half to fly from Paramaribo to Kwamalasamutu. This village of Trio Indians is one of the largest indigenous dwellings I have ever been to. The Trio are part of the Carib culture….closely related to the Wai Wai, and yet they speak a different language and have different traditions. This is the third time I have been here, and although everyone dresses now in Western clothes and even my old friend Amasina is dressed like a highschooler from Detroit (last time I saw him in 1998 he was the last Trio to wear traditional clothing), the village is still pretty impressive.

Once the plane leaves Paramaribo, it takes only five minutes for us to be flying over unbroken rain forest. It makes my heart happy to know that there is a place in this world that will never be ruined my man’s greed. In the 1990s a huge chunk of land (1.6 millions hectares) was declared the Central Suriname Nature Reserve and is now protected in perpetuity. Had it not been protected it would already be the site of yet another sad tale of tropical logging and rampant deforestation, forest fires, etc. Its protection was possible thanks to the vision of the President of Suriname and the work of many amazing people, including Ambassador Wim Udenhout and my own husband, but also thanks to the generous gift of 1 million dollars given by Jeff Harbers; a Seattle resident and former executive with Microsoft. His gift was outside of the comfort level for his family but he saw the opportunity to do something remarkable and he took it! Sadly, Jeff died in a plane crash before ever having a chance to see this amazing place, and today it is a pleasure to bring his beautiful young widow, photographer Renee Harbers here. Renee has always known about Jeff’s generous gift, but today is the first time she gets a chance to see it first hand and to meet some of the people who live here and who, thanks to Jeff, will be able to maintain a traditional way of life (with or without western clothes) for as long as they want.

We walked all afternoon in the village, talking to the women, the warriors and the elders. We went on canoes on the Sipaliwini River and we marveled at the giant trees that still line its shores. There are not many places like this left in the world and today I feel really lucky to be able to go for a walk in the woods in the Central Suriname Nature Reserve, one of the most untouched wilderness left on the planet. Thanks Jeff Harbers, wherever you are.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

A Tale of Two Countries

I have made my career as a photographer by working with conservation groups like Conservation International and the WILD Foundation. Most of the time the work takes me to remote villages and research projects where it is possible to find sanctuary in nature. More and more often, however, some of the areas in the world that harbor the lion's share of our planet's biodiversity and that have seen the most environmental degradation, the biodiversity hotspots, are also the stage for violent conflict. In a recent article I co-authored with other scientists on the subject of Warfare in the Biodiversity Hotspots we outline some of the effects of warfare on biodiversity. I however, would like to write about a couple of areas where I recently have worked where violence has exploded around us.

During a recent RAVE (Rapid Assessment Visual Expedition) of the International League of Conservation Photographers

The war that has been brewing in Mexico for the past few years and is now finally exploding and spilling into the United States is not only Mexico's fault. It is fueled by the monstrous consumption of illegal drugs in the United States, the failed immigration policies of the United States and the 8 years of neglect these issues suffered during the Bush administration. The implications are serious for both countries and we need to understand that Mexico's stability and well being are in our own best interest.

So, why should we care about Mexico's cartel war?

I can offer a few ideas:

1. National Security. The biggest threat to our national security does not come from poor illegal Mexicans crossing to find jobs. This is an undesirable effect of our own lack of effective immigration policies and our reluctance to help Mexico's economy (mixed in with a little racism and xenophobia). The threat comes from a powerful country, like the United States, allowing its next door neighbor to become violent, politically unstable and lawless. How foolish is it to say: "Mexico is not our problem" when much worse enemies can take advantage of the unstable situation to infiltrate the US. This of course is not my own thinking. It was brilliant UCLA professor Jared Diamond who outlined it in his book "Collapse; how societies choose to fail or suceed". When Dr. Diamond talks about the 5 events that might cause societies to collapse, he talks about catastrophic climate events and economic depression, but he also talks about allowing our neighbors to become weak.

2. Financial Security. Protectionism is bad economics and worse foreign policy. Did you know that Mexico is the U.S.’s second largest trading partner after Canada, and that Mexico-U.S.
trade reached $232 billion in 2002? Mexico-US trade has increased by over 225
percent since the North American Free Trade Agreement of 1994. U.S. exports to
Mexico total $62.5 billion (year to date, while imports were $90.2 billion.
(Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, International Trade Administration). All the talk about "American Made" only makes sense if you have strong trading partners to buy your stuff!

3. Environmental security.The Rio Grande is the fourth longest river system in the United States and one of the most important watersheds in the southern US. The Rio Grande provides water for more than 2 million acres of croplands along its way including potatoes, alfalfa, cotton, pecans, grapes, vegetables and citrus fruits. These crops are a very important source of income for local farmer, are the fuel of local economies and are also critically important from a food security standpoint. I wonder who the genius was who decided that building an enormous fence along the river was a smart idea? Sure it provides cushy jobs for contractors but beyond being a horrendous eye sore and the most effective way of fragmenting important habitats and wildlife corridors, the fence will have serious impacts on the watershed and most importantly, it will not stop Mexicans from crossing illegally. Pieces of the fence are currently being used to build river crossings and are being dismantled and sold as scrap metal in Mexico!

4. How can we call ourselves a civilized society if we stand idle or turn a blind eye when our next door neighbor is the stage of massive violence and chaos? In the past 2 years over 6300 Mexicans have died in the cartel wars; that is more than all the US casualties that have ocurred during the entire war in Iraq! Sure, that number of deaths includes a lot of bad guys and Mexican soldiers, but it also includes hundreds of innocent victims of kidnappings, rape, mutilation and murder. If we want to call ourselves civilized, then we cannot ignore our neighbor's problems. Mexico has been there for us in our hour of need; during Hurricane Katrina, Mexico sent soldiers to help with the rescue efforts. Quite simply, from a moral standpoint, we must do everything possible to help Mexico fight this war....even if it is just to save our own skins. After all, I am sure we don't want the violence to spred like wildfire into our own nice suburban neighborhoods.

5. Most people I know enjoy some recreational marijuana. Many of them also call themselves environmentalists. What a shock they are going to get when they learn that you cannot call themselves "greenies" and be "potheads" at the same time. In South America Coca, once grown for local consumption in the Andes, is now produced in massive quantities for the US market, often also sparking armed conflict. In order to eradicate the plantations, large areas have to be sprayed with plant killers; campaigns force traffickers and growers to cut new tracts of rain forest to plant new crops causing the devastation of thousands of hectares of rain forest. Here in the United States, national forests and parks have become heavily polluted with toxic chemicals needed to yield lucrative harvests. So, let's not pretend that marijuana is a benign personal choice; it has profound effects on our planet's ecology and it is fueling one of the ugliest wars this country will ever that if we decide to ignore, will come and bite us right here at home.

Just my opinion.

Memories of the Amazon

The first time I was in the Amazon I was a mere 24 years old and I was very pregnant. The year was 1991 and I had recently married my husband, who is not only much older and experienced than me, but who also had been a jungle explorer for over 20 years. To make matters worse, this was my first ever trip outside Mexico, Canada or the US and I had never been to an Indian village. The village we were visiting was literally in the middle of nowhere. I remember the shock of arriving at the frontier town of Rendecao, where our small Cessna had to stop to refuel before heading into the heart of the Amazon. The dirty, lawless, dusty town where a bunch of garimpeiros or illegal gold miners hung out with prostitutes, drunken loggers and a handful of raggedy looking Indians truly seemed like a scene out of Dante’s Inferno.

As debilitating as Redencao was to my pregnant disposition, I was utterly unprepared for the village of Aukre. After a three-hour long flight over unbroken rainforest we landed on a grassy airstrip located next to the circular opening where the village sat. Although Russ, my husband, had prepared me for the welcoming, I was still completely taken aback by the hundred or so people who came to greet the airplane.

Imagine that you live in an isolated village in the Amazon and the only supplies that ever reach you come in a sporadic Cessna, of course you too would run for the airstrip any time an aircraft approached town! The painted bodies, the toothless grins, the smell of sweat were almost too much! I was in what anthropologists call cultural shock.

Over the following years I have been lucky to visit many other Indian villages, but I have to say that to this day, Aukre is one of the most traditional places I have ever been to. The men do wear basketball shorts, but they seldom wear shirts, and many of them still wear feather cokais, or headdresses made of colorful macaw and parrot feathers. They are also never too far apart from their trusty bordunas – the traditional wooden war club. Many of the women wear what in the Amazon is known as the Missionary dress, a shapeless number that resembles more a sack of potatoes than a dress, and has no charm or shape –with the exception of a tiny (and largely useless) pocket on one side. Every Indian woman wears one and their only redeeming feature is that they come in all sorts of bright and cheery colors. The children, however, run around completely naked and wearing no shoes. When I visited Aukre I already traveled extensively in some of the poorest parts of my native Mexico, but I had never seen so many naked children. What I initially took as a sign of poverty, eventually revealed itself as a matter of pragmatism, as Indian children are like fish and they spend most of the time swimming and splashing in the river (there is always a river next to an Indian village….or is it the other way around?).
In any case, I was so exhausted and suffering from bouts of morning sickness that I remember very little of what happened over the next few days. What I do remember is that my husband, an expert at this kind of experience (being an Anthropologist with a PhD from Harvard!) had brought stuff that the Indians wanted to trade: cigarettes, sugar, bright red cloth and several pounds of colorful beads. The purpose of the trading had to do with far more than a simple exercise in friendship; it was in fact a diplomatic endeavor that would eventually lead to a partnership between one of the world’s largest conservation groups, and one of the best politically-organized indigenous nations.

I will expand on the politics of conservation and indigenous people in future blogs. For now, I simply want to say that having that experience completely changed my life. Although I remember most vividly the “uncomfortable” portions of our visit….how I got sick when I accompanied some of the young men on a fishing expedition and couldn’t hold in my breakfast once they started throwing large, bloody fish (speared right through using a bow and arrow) into the bottom of the canoe. The smell of the fish, which by the way kept flapping in a pool of their own blood, much to my disgust and the indifference of the Indians, and the heat of the Amazonian midday sun, were enough to put me in my hammock for the rest of the day! I also remember the surprising chill of the Amazonian night. I spent my first ever night in a hammock shivering in nothing more than a pair of shorts and a tee-shirt. I had packed nothing warm and although I layered every other pair of shorts and tee-shirts I had brought, I still didn’t manage to be warm.

I mostly remember, however, an afternoon spent sitting in the shade of a large tree with the chief’s wife. I could speak no Kayapo and she spoke no English (neither of us spoke any Portuguese either, for that matter). She prepared a mushy substance using the pulp of a fruit mixed in with charcoal and with it she covered my legs, my arms and my pregnant belly with black designs. She kept repeating meikomene, which years later I discovered means “you are ok” in Kayapo.

In any case, it was not the amazing dances the women performed to thank us for bringing beads, or the colorful feather headdresses, or the evenings spent talking by the Indian campfire that I remember most. What stuck in my mind, was the gentle attitude of an Indian woman who sensed how frightened and uncomfortable I was and tried to make me feel better.

It is the common humanity we share with other cultures that attracts me most to indigenous people. It is not how different we are, but how similar we are that continues to fascinate me today.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Headed to Suriname

I am going to Suriname tonight to document the Trio Indians and the Maroons.

Where is Suriname?

Watch out Cristina!

Ever wonder what it's like photographing a 2ft x 1ft (when standing on its tip toes) land crab?

Cristina spotted this land crab as we were driving to Ambodivahibe for a fete celebrating the 1 year anniversary of their community owned marine protected area, in Northern Madagascar.