by Jon Lee Anderson
One of the images in this haunting photo essay by Tommaso Protti shows a looping stretch of the Amazon River, grand and primordial. We see the river flowing in all its mightiness toward a horizon line concealed in a bank of rain clouds, or perhaps morning mist. The image is a reaffirmation of a natural region that we know to be under threat, one which we hold dear as one of the planet’s last wild places, and the photograph shows it to us as we like to imagine it: no roads score its land surface, no electrical pylons mar the blanket of forest. No hand of man is visible.
But the rest of Protti’s pictures, most of them taken at night, illuminated by flashbulbs, reveal to us an Amazon wilderness that is increasingly becoming a vast green favela, its precarious human settlements becoming subjugated to the mind-numbing violence of the narco world. Here there are pictures of young men in the act of being arrested, their lean musculatures and harsh-featured faces offering proof of lives already lived at the outer limits of human endurance. Others are crammed into a jail cell’s tiny space, their sad faces peering out from behind bars. There are the inert bodies of murdered people lying in the street and being mourned by friends or relatives, and of young women—poor ones, wearing the ubiquitous favela wardrobe of shorts and halter tops—looking on with grieving, terrified expressions. We also see a couple of young men frenziedly snorting coke in the middle of the forest, their unabashedness a chilling testament to the absence of rule of law.
In an artist’s statement Protti tell us what it is we are witnessing: Brazil’s burgeoning economy has made it a wealthy country, and with that wealth it has become the world’s second-largest consumer of cocaine and its No. 1 consumer of crack. The drugs are cultivated in the jungle borderlands of Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru, and then trafficked along smuggling routes through the Amazonian wilderness to the Brazilian cities of Manaus, Belém, Rio de Janeiro, and São Paulo. Protti has called his photo essay “Terra Vermelha,” which means “red earth,” in an invocation of the bloodshed that has exploded across the region. Because of the drug trade, violent crime has soared and people are dying as never before in the giant backwoods of this giant of a country. We learn that in the Amazonian city of Manaus, the murder rate is four times higher than in São Paulo, itself a very violent city. In Protti’s rendering, the natural Amazonian sublime has become instead a stage for a contemporary human dystopia.
We are left with the alarming realization that destruction comes in stages—that the end of nature in the Amazon will likely not terminate with the extinction of its forests but transmute into some new murderous end-game that will carry on, long after the last tree is felled.
Read more in The New Yorker here