I didn’t know quite what to expect of Santarem, but its waterfront emblazoned its unique history better than any book. Firestone, Goodyear and Dunlop were totem poles lining its shore. Each took turns to zap mosquitoes with a sizzling tzing. Tube upon tube of the Michelin man glowed with such energy that all the rolls of neon fat around his stomach seemed an indictment of his electrical diet.
These global brands on the shore of the middle Amazon are now soulless corporations underpinning capitalism. Yet it was not long ago that these overbearing names so prevalent in light industrial areas had very human features. Two centuries ago, Harvey Firestone, Charles Goodyear, John Dunlop and brothers Andre and Edmund Michelin were young men whose ambitions challenged nature and whose inventions changed the world.
In 1839, Charles Goodyear invented vulcanisation, the process that gave elasticity to natural rubber (to avoid deformity in warm temperatures or fragility in cold). By 1888, John Dunlop had developed the pneumatic tyre; later the Michelins created the first detachable tyre which was used successfully in the 1895 Paris to Bordeaux rally. Along with Henry Ford, these industrial pioneers transformed everyday life. Gone were the horse and buggies clip-clopping down Caballococha’s streets that I imagined upriver. But who could have guessed that the tracks of the automotive industry originated in the Amazon jungle?
Rubber was extracted from the Brazilian weeping tree, hevea brasiliensis. When the milky white resin hardened in the sun, its durability meant rubber could not only carry vehicles over asphalt, but continue to outfit the wheels revolving on space shuttles.
It was in Santarem that the first act of bio-piracy occurred. Henry Wickham arrived in 1874, a plucky 28-year-old who gained the confidence of Indian traders, then promptly stole 70,000 seeds and hid them in banana leaves before sending them to London’s Kew Gardens. Within decades, British and Dutch colonies in Malaya began to outstrip Brazil with rubber trees that grew faster, produced higher yields, and had easier access to markets. More importantly, the dreaded South American leaf blight hadn’t made it to Asia.
By 1912, the value of Amazonian rubber had fallen so dramatically that rubber barons no longer served their horses French champagne chilled in buckets, let alone themselves. It’s little wonder that Brazilian history books depict Henry Wickham as a criminal.
Local guide Gil Seringue was said to know all there was to know about the jungle. He could be located holding court at Carol’s Bar. Gil is a curious soul. Santarem’s most informative guide preferred “hock & holl” to “heggae” and dressed in black; he also took an unusual delight in birdwatching. He had the privilege of guiding many famous faces in the Tapajós. His clients included U2 as well as the late Kirsty McCall, and he had even starred in a Michael Jackson video clip.
Without doubt, the arrival of English royalty - the “King of Pain”, Gordon Sumner, a.k.a. “Sting” - who flew into Santarem in February 1989 to great fanfare, left the biggest impression on him. It was the destruction of the Amazon, which Sting had heard about from activists in Rio de Janeiro in 1987, that compelled him to investigate. Only one year earlier, the World Bank had approved US$500 million in loans for dams in the Amazon basin.
The most hotly debated project was the proposed construction of six hydro-electric dams along the Xingu River. If built, these dams would have cut a swathe across indigenous land. Amazonian Indians banded together to protest at the Transamazonia highway in Altamira. The protest coincided with the Kayapo’s maize festival, Baridjumoko, so a big turnout was assured with Chief Raoni of the Mentuktire and Floyd “Red Crow” Westerman presiding. The Golden King of Pain may not have bathed himself in resin from a sacred lake like El Dorado, but Sting’s long blond locks and luminous tan startled everyone. A god of sorts had descended from a helicopter, having journeyed all the way from Newcastle. He spoke like most gods would, with a Geordie accent.
Gil Seringue retrieved a photo album from behind the counter that showed a younger version of himself standing beside his idol. What took my eye were the colours blazing on bodies, feathers, spears, headpieces and lip discs. The photos made an interesting contrast - they captured a meeting of modernity and the Stone Age. Sting got to act out his inner warrior.
Sting’s involvement in the protection of the Amazon rainforest has since become legendary. By raising international awareness, and thus pressuring the Brazilian government, he helped create triangular boundaries protecting Kayapo territory along the Xingu River; a 133,000 square kilometres, or “an area larger than England”, was granted incorporating Raoni’s territory, the Menkragnoti reserve. Its existence acted as an essential buffer to repel developers, ranching, mines and lumber mills, although the proposal has since been revived.
Sting did what Che Guevara and Jorge Luis Borges could not - unite art with politics. To this day, Gil informed me, vinyl copies of Dream of the Blue Turtles are handed around, and “Eshtingue” is as fondly remembered in Santarem - unlike the villain Wickham.