Upriver from Maroantsetra is a vast inland watershed, a rolling landscape of mountains and valleys, a patchwork of dense rainforest and arable flats- on a sunny day, all impossibly green. It is an area known as Makira, derived from the word mahakiry, to see far. In this isolated network of rice paddies and waterways, more than a half a million people live in small villages of tilting houses and muddy trails. The primary mode of travel is poled canoe; of communication, ancient radios that hiss with static, picking up word of the outside world via Maroantsetra.
Life here can appear to the passer-through utterly idyllic and removed. There are reigning rhythms of work, pause, and play: shouts as cattle are herded to prepare the fields, thumping felt through the feet as rice is pounded, conversation that starts and stops and never rushes anywhere. Not much has changed here in the past hundred years, and it is not likely that much will in the next. It is a quiet, distant place populated by hospitable and hardworking people.
Lately, however, a series of disconnected rumors have made their way downriver, rumors that remind one of just how close to the edge this small slice of humanity lives, how precipitous the drop and how thin the net to catch a fall. Just beneath the idyll of Makira- beneath the carefree singsong of shouted greetings, beneath the calm of hot afternoons spent in the shade of porches- there is a tremendous, unspoken fragility to life.
The first rumor was of a canoe tipped in the river, hardly an unusual event in a place connected by water, except for the contents. In this canoe were twenty sacks of newly-reaped rice, 100 kilograms each, a single family’s yearly haul. Feebly, passing boats poled where the bags had gone under, but now heavy as concrete they were undeniably lost under fifteen feet of fast-moving water. This rice represented many things: a full year’s harvest, a year’s income, a year’s sustenance, a year’s school fees. The loss, in short, represented a year in the life. Where, one cannot help but think, is the safety net for that? In a community struggling along a thin line, some will be done, but there is only so much to give. The family will not starve, but they will suffer, they will be set far back. All with the flip of a canoe.
The second rumor was of bad oil and an entire family deathly ill. Word- explicit word I warn you- was that holes could not be dug fast enough to contain the illness spewing forth from these unfortunate people. Far in the countryside, where there is no doctor, where the nearest hospital is a day’s walk away, where medical knowledge is astoundingly limited, this is exactly the kind of thing that can kill someone. But what defense does one have against bad oil and poor luck? (Fortunately, according to the grapevine, the family has recovered).
The final set of rumors have leaked slowly out from Makira over the past months; they speak of a quiet gold rush in the rainforest. Whole villages- this I have seen with my own eyes- are deserted of young men, crops left unattended. They have all gone further inland, to descend into twenty foot holes mined by candlelight and prone to collapse. Hillsides are ravaged and rivers run choked with sediment. Campfires are dangerous (as the rainforest is protected and the activity therefore illegal) so men survive for weeks off the local-brewed (also illegal) liquor. There is a decent living to be had, maybe three dollars a day, but never enough to save up and get out. It is a desperation born of sustained dire poverty.
It is easy to forget, passing through the beautiful landscape of Makira, through the villages calm or rowdy, through the fields where people toil under the hot sun or in the heavy rain, that this is a delicate and fragile life. That there is an edge one quickly runs up against. But the stories from upriver remind, there is something here clung to, quietly and simply yes, but with great tenacity.