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Living in a makeshift camp near Dourados, Brazil, the indigenous Guaraní-Kaiowá people have lost much of their ancestral land to industrial farming and ranching. Some of their efforts to reclaim the long-disputed area have been met with violence.

South America’s Amazonia Blurs the Present and the Past

Tracing the route of a 16th-century expedition, a photographer finds that in the jungle today, tribal myths coexist with modernity.

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In Tipishca, Peru—a rainy, remote village near the Curaray River—houses are built on stilts to keep water out. Locals have seen a spike in traffic and pollution on the river since oil companies appeared in the area.
This story appears in the February 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Noble savages, lost cities, pristine wilderness—Amazonia has always conjured romantic myths and stereotypes. But what is the jungle really like in the 21st century? In 2011 I set out to find the answer.

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My interest actually began in 2008, when I was working with an indigenous community to reforest a patch of northeastern Brazil. The youngsters in the village liked to talk about the purity of tribal life, but it was a borrowed nostalgia. Like most kids their age, they danced, drank, and played soccer. One evening they refused to take me to a party; I wasn’t dressed well enough. At that moment I realized how much our perceptions and projections can differ from reality.

After that I started to read books about Amazonia. One of them was an account of the Spanish soldier Francisco de Orellana’s voyage down the Amazon River in the 1540s—the first European exploration of the region (but not, of course, the last). I decided to follow in the footsteps of that expedition, to see what the route is like today.

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Sitting on a rusted-out Volkswagen near Dourados, Brazil, Vitor “Gangsta” da Souza strikes a rapper’s pose. The young rap enthusiast lives in a temporary camp between two sugarcane elds. Appropriation runs in his family: His father built a garage out of old car parts.

Starting in the Ecuadorian Andes, I slowly made my way downriver. For six weeks I traveled through the Peruvian Amazon on a medical boat from Peru’s navy. I arrived in Colombia, and finally Brazil, where I picked up the Trans-Amazon Highway. Access was often tricky, and usually expensive. I did a lot of research just to find routes that would work.

As I traveled, I photographed staged scenes of the people and places I encountered. I didn’t look for unspoiled nature or uncontacted tribes; I collaborated directly with local communities. In one of them, in Brazil, I shot a video clip for some indigenous rappers. Later I went back to their village and led a one-month video workshop. Good relationships with local people help me create meaningful work.

I hope this project reveals how ambiguous and complicated modern Amazonia really is. Many people there today aren’t indigenous; they’re there for economic reasons. Not all of them are against development. Once you have some comfort, it’s hard to go backward.

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A shaman’s medicinal garden in Zábalo, Ecuador, is used to treat some of the indigenous Cofán people. But many in the tribe have traded the healing properties of plants for medicines manufactured by the pharmaceutical industry.
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Xapuri, Brazil, has grown in recent years. But with no bridge to span its namesake river, a ferry is still the best way to get across. Like other parts of Amazonia, the region has withstood centuries of “progress”: rubber and roadbuilding booms; gold, oil, and timber quests; and evangelical Christian missions.