Friday, 7 November 2014

The Last Guató - Canoe People of the Pantanal

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The Pantanal is the largest wetland in the world, spreading almost 200,000 square kilometres across Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay. To me, this is the best place to see wildlife in South America. It boasts its own big 5 - giant otter, giant anaconda, giant jabiru birds soaring overhead, giant water lily, and its most famous resident - the jaguar - the biggest cat in the americas. 

Five hours by boat from the nearest tourist lodge, and on the edge of the Matagrossense national park, lies the glistening Amolar mountains. At the base of one of these slopes is a single, old wooden hut. This is home to Vicente da Silva, aged 68. He is the last true Guató, ‘canoe people’ - an indigenous hunter/gatherer group that have lived in the Pantanal for centuries.

I visited Vicente to find out what his life is like in the remote heart of this vast wilderness.

Vicente, the last Guato
Jabiru stork, the tallest bird in South America

"I have lived here all my life" Vicente told me through a translator. “During the dry season my people would build mounds of earth, shells and animal bones, Here we could build a shelter that would stay dry during the wet months”. The water can rise by 3 metres and these mounds known as landfills allowed the Guató to grow crops such as maize and yam. Landfills belonged to families and were passed to their descendants. The headquarters of the national park, where I was staying, was built on one of these mounds. I would often see a Caracara digging in the sand and dust-bathing to remove parasites from its feathers.

Caracara dust bathing
The Amolar Mountains at the remote heart of the Pantanal

The Cattle and The Colonisers

Unfortunately when europeans arrived in the 19th century these high points were attractive to cattle ranchers who expelled the traditional owners a- 99% of the Pantanal is now privately owned and used for grazing as many as 8 million cattle.

Cattle transport on the Pantanal

By the 1950s it was declared that the Guató way of life had gone extinct. Instead of canoes there were now giant cattle transporters on the waterways. The remaining ‘canoe people’ had no choice but to abandon their way of life and they became dispersed through the towns and ranches. Their genetic line became mixed with that of people originating in europe.

The Surviving Guató


But some people hung on to their tradition, “my family stayed and continued to live as a Guató,” said Vicente.  Here, ‘the water provided everything we needed’. The rich animal and plant life gave us abundant food -  fish, caiman, capybara.”  “During the dry season I can hunt on the land and during the wet there’s lots of fish”.


Jumping fish
World's biggest rodents - Capybara

It is believed that Vicente is the only remaining true-blood Guató, and is the only person who’s first language is the indigenous one.  ‘I am the only person living as my ancestors did - not in villages, but along the waterways’ he says.  

It wasn’t until 1976 that missionaries identified Vicente and his remaining family amongst a few dozen people still living a traditional way of life. Vicente's family and those with indigenous claims were eventually given ownership of a small island called Insua. Many now live a modernised way of life, attending school, speaking portuguese and practicing Catholicism. Due to the islands location close to the border with Bolivia Insua is also shared with the Brazilian army - which now provides employment.

The entrance to Insua - A protected island reserve for indigenous pantanal people
The catholic church built on Insua for the converted indigenous people

Vicente however didn’t move to Insua, instead he lives two hours away by canoe, in relative isolation on the edge of the Matogrossense National Park. It would take Vicente 10 hours, mostly by power boat, to reach the nearest town.  He’s only left the Pantanal twice, once was to register with the government, and the second time was in 2012 when his mother was taken to hospital at the age of 110 years old, shortly before she passed away.

Vicente, the last Guato

Now the last of his race, he continues his proud tradition of respect and love for the pantanal and all of its wildlife. This is where his grandfather and father taught him how to canoe, fish and make the most of one of the richest habitats on earth. 

"My Ancestors Greatest Fear"

But life in the Pantanal also has it’s danger. This is home to the biggest and most dangerous cat in the Americas - the Jaguar. Only this year, Vicente says, ‘three of my cats and two of my dogs were eaten by jaguars, that came after dark.’ ‘The jaguar was one of my ancestors greatest fears’. 



Jaguar, biggest cat in the Americas
Tourists watch as wild jaguar fight

“Killing jaguars and large crocodiles meant a lot to my people, to defeat a much stronger beast than man showed courage”. skulls of cats or caiman were stacked in front of the house as a sign of strength.

Caiman Skulls as a show of strength amongst the indigenous people


Distant Ancestors

His people may have almost gone but the petroglyphs carved by Vicente’s distant ancestors will remain. The patterns, and carvings of animals, adorn the rocky outcrops of the mountains, many are covered by vegetation and take a lot of searching for, but to Vicente they are sacred sites.

Petroglyphs at the foot of Caracara hill



The Sacred Mountain

Vicente took me to the base of Caracara, a hill named after a bird closely related to the Peregrine falcon. This was home to a flower that was considered special, almost mystical, to his people. ‘It only grows on caracara’. ‘Tread carefully’ he asked as he pointed towards an overgrown trail.

Yellow-tailed cribo snake

As I climbed the air became hot and dusty and the trail was lined with giant cactus. It wasn’t just the flowers I was looking out for. I almost stepped on a Yellow-tailed Cribo snake - it must have been almost 2 metres long but it was difficult to spot amongst the tree roots. They arn’t venomous but they do like to eat venomous snakes and so I was keeping an eye out for them. 

It wasn’t long before a bright flower caught my eye, their most striking feature was not their vivid pink and yellow colouration or their thick and straight stems, but that each stem was supporting two large heads held in perfect symmetry. This was the beautiful flower Hippeastrum belladonna, ‘beautiful lady’ flower, and as they gently danced on the afternoon breeze I could understand how people may have believed them to have magical properties. They were the most perfect flower I’d ever seen.

 Hippeastrum belladonna, ‘beautiful lady’ flower

If the flower was beautiful, then the view was nothing short of breathtaking, from here I could appreciate the vast expanse of the Pantanal. This is the extent of Vicente’s world and I understood why these hills and mountains were considered sacred to the ‘canoe people’.

View of the Pantanal from the top of Caracara hill




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