Is Tourism always Welcome?

Leaves of the carnauba tree are braided into a hat.

With his six brothers and parents, Marinaldo lived on fishing. Day in, day out. “We would leave on Monday, be gone the entire week fishing in either the lakes or if there was not enough water we’d go out on the ocean and return on Saturday. We’d have one day at home and we were off again.”

The fish was eaten or swapped for farinha (manioc flour). It was their staple food, together with what nature provided such as coconuts and cashew nuts. Farinha was added to anything they ate: to fish, the shrimp and to their coffee.

“It was the best breakfast we could have,” Marinaldo reminisced. “You could work on that for hours. Or my mother made porridge from farinha and coconut milk, to which we would subsequently add more farinha before eating it. We called it eating ‘farinha with farinha‘.”

The Barter System of a Fisherman

To get hold of other products, the fishing families needed to make hats from carnauba leaves (a type of palm tree). Whenever they didn’t fish, they were making hats. Every once in a while a buyer would come from São Luís to swap the hats for a kilo of rice, half a kilo of sugar, a bit of coffee and a liter of kerosene.

“That’s how we lived,” Marinaldo tells me. “My mother would add coconut ‘dust’ (the finest coconut powder left after having grated it) to the coffee to increase the quantity. Of course, it tasted different than regular coffee, but at least we had enough for our large family of eight.”

I’m sitting around the table with Marinaldo, whom Coen and I befriended in the town of Santo Amaro and who suggested to join us for a day to an oasis in the dunes of Lençois Maranhenses National Park. As we arrived in the oases and had lunch with a local family we sat around the table and he shared stories with us about his life here in the dunes of northeast Brazil.

Having a discussion with Marinaldo atop a dune.

It is the second time in a couple of weeks that I come across a person my age (40s) who grew up with a barter system because money hardly existed during their youth and for as much as it was around, it didn’t really have a value. Marinaldo grew up in Santo Amaro, a fishing village that until some ten years ago was largely closed off from the world. The only connection to the city, São Luís, was by boat, a 12-hour journey.

The Barter System of a Rubber Tapper

Marinaldo’s story is similar to Valmir Borges, whom we had met in the Amazon. He grew up as the son of a rubber tapper. His parents had fled from the state of Acre, where serfage was still common (and still exists today). They settled in the Amazonas, far away from everybody.”We lived deep in the rainforest, where the sun hardly penetrated the foliage,” Valmir remembered. “When my mother did the laundry and it needed to dry, my father would cut some trees to create an open space, otherwise the laundry would never dry in the humid climate.”

“We lived deep in the rainforest, where the sun hardly penetrated the foliage,” Valmir remembered. “When my mother did the laundry and it needed to dry, my father would cut some trees to create an open space, otherwise the laundry would never dry in the humid climate.”

They lived on fish and manioc, like Marinaldo. Also here a vendor would show up every once in a while by boat and swap the harvested latex for the family’s necessities like soap, beans, sugar, and coffee.

There are many similarities in their life stories, even though Valmir lost his mother at a young age and he was sent to the city to live with relatives while Marinaldo lived with his parents until he got married. Neither of them regrets those days, or talk about them with a tone of feeling sorry for themselves.”This was the life we knew, so we managed,” they both commented on that.

“This was the life we knew, so we managed,” they both commented on that.

Valmir helps me climb around one of Anavilhanas’ biggest trees

The Value of Tourism

To my question of what they think of tourism as a new source of income for their region, they were very clear, with relief still visible on their faces as they spoke, “It has been a blessing. Life was so tough, so much on a level of survival. Tourism has brought an income to many villagers and the standard of living has increased enormously.”

These kind of stories you don’t see from the outside. As travelers we arrive at a village or town and see how it’s developing: mud brick houses are replaced by houses made of stone. Roads are paved or asphalted and the banners announcing a constellation of tours are hanging all over the place. Litter generally dominates the scenery  Tourism does not necessarily beautify a place.I am glad that on both occasions we got to stay longer, spent quite a bit of time with these two men and heard their stories. That, yes, tourism may destroy a lot of traditions,

I am glad that on both occasions we got to stay longer, spent quite a bit of time with these two men and heard their stories. That, yes, tourism may destroy a lot of traditions, customs, and lifestyles but, as is clear from Marinaldo’s and Valmir’s stories, that this is not necessarily a bad thing.

Caves of Madada in Anavilhanas National Park

Practical Information

Marinaldo continued to be a fisherman until some fifteen years ago the first visitors came to Santo Amaro and he was asked to guide them. He saw the opportunities ahead of him and followed several courses to be trained as a guide. He takes visitors on day hikes or multiple-day hikes into the dunes of Lençois Maranhenses National Parks or organizes tours to visit the oasis of Quemada dos Britos, the nearby village of Betaña, horseback riding trips or and downriver tubing adventure. He also runs a basic guesthouse: Pousada Lulayna Dunas.
Email: bjosemarinaldo@hotmail.com
Address: Rua Figueiredo Campos no. 93, Santo Amaro
Phone: (98) 8879-9438 

Valmir Borges (locally known as Vermelinho) became a guide in Novo Airão, in the Amazonas (northwest of Manaus). He grew up in the region and as a result knows everything about the region’s flora and fauna. He guides visitors on day trips or multiple day trips to, among other places, Anavilhanas National Park and Jaú National Park.
Website: http://valmirvermelhinho.wordpress.com/about/
Email: anavilhanasvermelinho@hotmail.com
Address: Rua Olegaria Saraiva no. 84, Novo Horizonte – Novo Airão
Phone: (92) 9238 – 9113

All photos by Coen Wubbels. Follow him on Instagram here and here.

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