Sunday, March 28, 2010



The Blue Morpho butterfly, quite common in the Amazon and other tropical forests, always seems to arrive as an uncommon experience. Its spectacular size and blazing blue color are simply the kind of appearance that can "stop one's world" and command attention. I have long felt that it has been something of a guide for me, especially in moments of confusion.

Imagine my delight in discovering the Blue Morpho in cyberspace as the centerpiece of a beautiful story by Senator and presidential hopeful Marina Silva.

Looking after the Blue Butterfly
by Marina Silva
(translated with the assistance of Carolina Mendes)

Go to original in Portuguese.

Forests are not statistics. Neither are they the object of negotiations, political disputes, theses, ambitions, weeping. Before all these things, forests are a complex and creative system of life. They have culture, spirituality, economy, infrastructure, peoples, laws, science and technology. This identity is so strong that it remains as a kind of radar rooted in perceptions, in the eyes and feelings, no matter how far you go or the more you learn, know and admire the other things in the world.

I lived in the rubber plantation Bagaço in Acre, until I was 16. I have great respect and care for the forest. One who knows the forest, does not come with an open heart, but with much subtlety. There you find provision, protection and the dangers. And also the mystery, something not fully revealed -- lives and forms, almost imperceptible. The finding, at every moment, of a different vine, a root, a texture, a color, a smell. The discovery of sounds. Even the wind in the treetops composes unique melodies according to the resistance of the trees, the castanheira, the samaúma, the açaí.

During my childhood, the sound I thought the most beautiful was of the period of flowering of castanheiras. The castanheira (Brazilian nut tree) is pollinated by a huge bee, the mangangá. Imagine hundreds of mangangás entering the flowers to get nectar! As the flower is concave, the bees must have a formidable force in their wings, flying back and forth, causing a rough noise, like a powerful engine. One of my earliest memories of the world is of the noise of the mangangás in the crown of the nut tree next to the yard of our house.

Although for many people the forest may seem homogeneous, I always saw it as a place of diversity. I liked paying attention to small things, like ants carrying leaves to the hole. The path of the ants was very clean, it seemed swept. The rubber-tapper path was full of leaves, stumps, roots, and thorns waiting to scratch the bare leg when we passed by. And I thought how great it would be to have a rubber trail as clean as the path of the ants!

Another ant, the tucandeira, has a sting so painful that one cannot even explain it. But there was also a mythical reason to fear it. According to my uncle Pedro Mendes, who lived for a long time with the native people of Alto Madeira, the tucandeiras turned into vines. If a tucandeira died in the top of a tree, its body turned into the plant and its legs turned into the vines. When bitten by a tucandeira, the first thing to do was look for an ambé vine, cut it and drink its water because it was the antidote. I don’t know what it was but it helped to ease the pain.

My uncle taught us things that we deeply believed. He said that if we were lost and saw a blue butterfly, we needed only to follow it as it would lead us to the nearest clearing, and from there we would find a way home. This butterfly is beautiful, huge, almost the size of the hand. I’ve never seen such blue anywhere else. That color, incidentally, is brown. The INPA researchers discovered that the layout of the scales of the wings has an engineering that causes it, in the incidence of light, to become blue.

Then I understood why it took us home. Because it likes landing on fruit like ripe bananas and papayas, already pecked at by the tanager bird. When it feels hungry, it looks for the first clearing where there is a plot of fruit. And nearby, certainly there will be a house. Those are things that seem mere superstition, but there is scientific knowledge associated to it, obtained by the same principle of academic methods: the systematic observation of phenomena.

Before ecology was a branch of knowledge or environmentalism was a movement, the system of the forest had already its rules, its natural "IBAMA" [Brazil’s environmental ministry], its sustainability, through a mythical code that worked as legislation to protect the forest and the forms of life that inhabited it. You could not fish more than necessary, because the mãe d´água [Mother of Water] would sink the canoe. You could not hunt too much because the caboclinho [little spirit] of the woods would beat you. You could not kill a pregnant animal because it would make you panema, or unlucky. And to be lucky again would take such a complicated ritual that it was better to leave the animal alone.

The practice of accessing forest resources, mediated by this mythical code, ended up leading the people to a high degree of balance. Hunting was only done when the dried meat hanging in the flue of the stove was finished. So if one could not hunt too much; there was no meat for sale, it was only for one’s own consumption. Going against this standard meant the caboclinho would punish the offender with a beating with the fire vine with knots. The people caught could not defend themselves because they could not see the entity. They were all scratched and had a fever. Even dogs that hunted unnecessarily, began to leap and yelp of pain. It was the caboclinho disciplining the animal.

The reports were numerous and made me very scared to walk through the woods. The fear was overcome, firstly, by strictly complying to the mythical laws. Moreover, since I was a child I have had tremendous faith and believed that by being fair with nature, God would protect me. And even with all this fear, my sisters and I loved walking through the forest because we had great fun there. For example, making a swing of a very tough vine coming from a tree a hundred feet high. Fishing in streams, collecting fruit, bacuri, abiu, taperebá, ingá, tucumã, cajá, it was all very good.

It was a world of traditional wisdom, social and cultural organization inseparable from the existence of the forest. Then one day came the bulldozers and chainsaws which broke the mythical codes, creating the need for a legal apparatus which - since not within man - requires institutions and mechanisms to have it implemented. It was not by chance that the first major operation made by the federal police to fight deforestation, involving 480 officers in the state of Mato Grosso, was named Operation Curupira.

If we opened today our sensitivity to the values of the forest, then maybe it would be easier to redefine what we mean by quality of life. Who knows, maybe we are missing a large blue butterfly to lead us home, where the fruit of our decisions always await in abundance on the table.

Marina Silva has been a high school history teacher, was the
former Minister of Environment and is now a Senator (Green Party) from the Acre and candidate for the Presidency of Brazil . "Looking After the Blue Butterfly" was originally Published on the site of Terra Magazine July 15, 2008.

Be sure to check out the website of the grassroots movement to elect Marina Silva

1 comment:

cetusra said...

I've seen 3 blue Morphos in the last two weeks here in the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon in Rio de Janeiro after not having spotted any for three or four years. They are spectacular!