Just be a hummingbird!

The British author Binka Le Breton has found her land of milk and honeyin the Brazilian rainforest. With her NGO Iracambi, an entire village and some volunteer scientists she tries to investigate and restore the Atlantic Rainforest.

published by Peace Boat on February 16th, 2013 in English >> and Spanish >>

Binka Le Breton came onboard Peace Boat as a guest educator for the first time. Her research deep inside the Brazilian rainforests captivated the audience

The bus wouldn’t come. Minutes turned into an eternity on the Transamazon Highway. Peace Boat’s guest educator Binka Le Breton still remembers these hours of anxiety as if she had experienced them yesterday. She had just completed her research on the 2005 assassination of Sister Dorothy Stang, who had supported family farmers threatened by land grabbers. “Exactly six months after her death, I suddenly found the town covered with posters saying ‘the party is over'”, Binka Le Breton recalls. She immediately understood the signal: President Lula’s military had withdrawn, leaving the turmoil region in the middle of the Amazon rainforest to the law of the jungle. It was time to leave. But the bus wouldn’t come, the driver had just been murdered. There were only two options left: Going even deeper into the rainforest or risking a two-days-drive by car and ferry to the next town – what she did. “It was the dry season. Whoever approached me on the Transamazon Highway was covered in a cloud of dust. I never knew who was in there until I would have been too close to escape.”

When the Portuguese conquerors arrived in January 1500 on the Brazilian coast at what seemed to be the mouth of a river, they named the city to be built there “January river”, Rio de Janeiro. Peace Boat also arrived in January, but what seemed to be a river to the Portuguese, is just a beautiful bay

When Binka Le Breton talks about her experiences of 24 years in the Brazilian rainforests, one feels reminded of Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness. “The Amazon Rainforest is one of the world’s last frontiers” she says. “And as every frontier, it is an exciting, dangerous place.” A place as different from her origins as it could be. Born in Britain, Binka Le Breton has been working as a concert pianist in many different countries. In 1989, she and her husband, a World Bank consultant, decided to leave their comfortable life in Washington D.C. for a farm deep in the Brazilian Atlantic Rainforest. “Some of our friends said ‘you’re crazy’, she remembers, laughing. Others said ‘I wish I could’ and again others ‘I wish I had’.” When they first arrived in Rosário da Limeira, a village 45 kilometers up a dirt road from the nearest town, with a bar and a watering place as its main attractions, bridges torn away from the last flood and a forlorn light-bulb dangling from the ceiling of their newly acquired farmhouse, she said to herself: “I wonder if I have made a terrible mistake.” It didn’t get any better, when she discovered that she couldn’t play the piano without an audience. But she eventually found her new vocation in writing – and has never stopped since. Binka Le Breton has published half a dozen books on topics such as modern day slavery, land conflicts and profiles of human rights activists and just finished her current book about forced disappearance in Colombia and beyond. She spends at least four months a year lecturing in cities all over the world. “My dream would be to give a TED talk one day” Binka Le Breton says. As a first time mizuan on Peace Boat, onboard from Cape Town to Rio de Janeiro, she had many opportunities to make use of her great talents as presenter and storyteller.

Logging, farming and mining have reduced the Atlantic Rainforest, home of Peace Boat mizuan Binka Le Breton, to seven percent of its former extent

Taking up half of the whole continent of Latin America, Brazil ranks fifth among the largest countries in the world. More than half of its eight million square kilometers are covered by the Amazon and the Atlantic Rainforests, which constitute nearly one third of all tropical forests in the world. “Each time you walk into the forest, you find a hundred things you have never seen before.” Binka Le Breton radiates when she speaks about her neighbours – jaguars, anacondas, mountain lions, Wooly Spider Monkeys and hummingbirds. “Beyond the 20,000 plant and 2,200 animal species we have in Brazil, new ones are still being discovered. Isn’t that wonderful?” However, 93 per cent of the less well known Atlantic Forest, one of the world’s top five diversity hotspots, have been destroyed during the last decades. “In former times Brazilians saw the forest as a barrier to progress, because they believed it to be full of ghosts and goblins” Binka Le Breton says. “Cutting the forest, ‘letting the sunshine in’ as they said, was perceived as a big progress.” Today the economical interests focus on the gigantic mineral reserves located underneath the soil. Multinational companies as well as individual loggers, ranchers and miners head into the forest and fight for the land – a process Binka Le Breton has described in many of her books. “Business often speaks louder than environmental protection agencies” she says, pointing at President Dilma Thoussef’s former function as Minister of Accelerated Development. After Brazil managed to conquer its inflation in the early 90s, the “sleeping giant” took off economically and became one of the emerging BRIC countries. Thanks to plenty of sunshine, water and land, Brazil became the world’s biggest exporter of beef, chicken and soy and could pay off most of its eleven billion dollars of foreign debt. But the economic boom is being carried out on the back of the environment and the indigenous people, who have been declining from an estimated five million at the time of the Portuguese conquest to half a million today. Only a minority of Brazilians benefit from the country’s riches and despite support programs like Bolsa Familia, the economic gap is still widening. With a 54 on the GINI Index, which measures the degree of inequality in a country, Brazil is among the countries with the largest disparities in living standards. “Our country has a long way to go to protect human and environmental rights”, Binka Le Breton emphasizes.

When it came to music and dancing on Peace Boat, Binka Le Breton always was the first to join. She has left her former life as a concert pianist in Washington D.C. to move to a farm in the Brazilian rainforest

“Initially I thought of Rosário as another three-years assignment” she admits. But 24 years later, the couple is still in there – and deeply involved. Binka Le Breton now speaks tenderly about Rosário da Limeira. She has learnt to love the wildly romantic village with its stories of the giant snake that lives in the river or the one-eyed surupu that walks backwards through the forest, with neighbours who have never seen the other side of the mountain range and “Our Lady”, the daily bus, which has its tempers. But she has never learnt to accept the precarious health and education system, the lack of electricity and communication infrastructure. “Our neighbours had a strong feeling of dependency” she remembers. “When they were complaining about the destroyed bridge, we proposed to fix it, but they answered: ‘No no! Let the government do it.’ We really got on their nerves by telling them: ‘Come on, guys, we can do better!'” Binka Le Breton and her husband Robin did the first steps and the neighbours followed with growing enthusiasm.

Binka Le Breton participated in a drumming workshop facilitated by her fellow guest educator Francis Silva

“We didn’t think we would get involved with local politics, but the situation was stuck” she says. Right before the 1996 state election, the Le Bretons successfully applied for Rosário da Limeira and the surrounding area to become a brand new county within the State of Minas Gerais. As a county, Rosário manages its own budget, currently half a million dollar a month for 4000 inhabitants. This money contributed to the development of Rosário from an isolated village with little hope for its future to a thriving community with a primary high school, seven daily buses, a family health system, a recycling plant and internet. But the driving power were Rosário’s inhabitants – and two of them in particular. In the late 90s, the Le Bretons founded the Iracambi Rainforest Research Centre directed by Robin and the NGO Amigos de Iracambi directed by Binka, both named after the Tupi Indian name for “Land of Milk and Honey”. They work hand-in-hand to restore the Atlantic Rainforest, research its ecosystems, develop sustainable communities and manage natural resources. Iracambi attracts volunteer researchers from all over the world who help monitoring the forest, water and soil, inventory the fauna and flora, and plant 10,000 native species seedlings annually for reforestation projects. They create environmental protection areas, stimulate community-based tourism and teach science to local children to become Junior Scientists.

The British author has found her “land of milk and honey” in the Brazilian rainforest – and has learnt just as much from the locals as she has taught them. “If we all become hummingbirds” she said, referring to a Brazilian legend, “we can save the world”

Finally they advise local communities affected by mining on how to defend areas of high biodiversity and monitor the impacts. Skills that Rosário might unfortunately need itself one day. The private aluminum company Voto Rantim acquired a mining concession for a vast strip of Rosário’s land during the military dictatorship and can start mining any day – a nightmare for the community. “We could probably preserve the most important biodiversity” Binka Le Breton predicts, “but many farmers would have to leave for the city.” This would destroy many of the social effects they have worked for so hard during the last decades. But Rosárians do not give up, they are already making plans for the worst-case-scenario. “They are hummingbirds” Binka Le Breton says. She loves to tell the Brazilian legend of the small bird, who also figures in the Iracambi logo. “The forest is on fire” she starts, “and all the animals are fleeing to safety. All except the humming bird who is flying towards the fire with a drop of water in her beak. ‘Silly little bird’ says the eagle as he looks down and sees her. ‘Don’t you realize that you’ll never put the fire out all by yourself?’ – ‘You’re right’ says the humming bird. ‘I can’t do it by myself. But I’m doing my part.’