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Chapter Four: Jamnabe

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Carbon Cowboys and REDD Indians

The end of the rubber wars coincided with the arrival of another group of Whites, who created the small outpost that eventually became the city of Cacoal, and who bartered with the Paiter for access to their land. They started turning up around the turn of the century, hacking a path through the forest and erecting poles down the center of the path. Finally, they strung metal wires between the poles. This was the Cuiabá-Santo Antonio telegraph line, and it was erected by a man named Cândido Rondon.

Ironically, the telegraph line roughly retraced the route along which the Paiter had zigzagged through the forest during their Exodus and Great Migration. Eventually, it would give way to the BR-364, but first came a long period of relative peace during which their only skirmishes were tit-for-tat boundary disputes with neighboring people and occasional rogue bands of marauding Whites.

This was when Almir’s grandfather on his father’s side came of age. His name was Jamnabe, and he developed a reputation for fearlessness and diplomacy, as well as a nearly clairvoyant awareness of his environment. Like all warriors, he would sing songs of his battles – past and future.  Once he sang that that a bullet would find him on their next outing, and because his prognostications were so accurate, the other warriors mourned him on the eve of battle. Sure enough, a bullet found Jamnabe – but not before he found it. Specifically, according to Almir, Jamnabe and one of the marauders each saw the other at the same moment, and Jamnabe raised his bow and arrow, while the marauder raised his rifle. The two discharged their weapons simultaneously, and Jamnabe’s arrow splintered as it met the bullet midway between the two. Jamnabe then let a second arrow fly, killing his enemy.

In his youth, Jamnabe made his name as a scout, monitoring the Zoro, the Cinta Larga, and the Gavião. During this period, Jamnabe developed an intimate sense of how the forest worked, and he wasn’t shy about sharing his insights. “To him, it wasn’t a collection of trees and animals any more than a person is a collection of arms and legs,” says Almir. “The forest was a living entity, and our metares were wounds. When he became Labiway Esaga – our chief of chiefs – he adopted the forest as his governing metaphor.”

“If a single tree grows too large without supporting those around it, that tree will kill rather than nourish the forest, and the forest will suffer,” Jamnabe often said. “Eventually, that tree will suffer, too, because it is part of the forest.”

“His philosophy evolved as our numbers grew larger, and the unspoken customs that worked so well immediately after the Betrayal, when our numbers were depleted and our culture destroyed, proved inadequate,” says Almir. “So Jamnabe formalized the practices that worked and abandoned those that didn’t.

“We had, for example, long recognized collective rights to certain resources and individual rights to others, but it was an intuitive recognition rather than a set of rules. Jamnabe declared that fish and streams belonged to us collectively. They were to be cared for by all and shared by all, while the fruit of the metares went to each village individually, to be shared or hoarded as they saw fit, because it was the fruit of their labor. At the same time, the location of a metare impacted the microclimate, which meant it impacted the entire territory, so village elders deferred to the larger community when it came to creating their own metares, and individuals within the villages deferred to village elders when it came to creating sub-plots.”

Jamnabe was wrestling with what economists now call “externalities”, which is when a company makes money by creating a product but then dumps its costs on the rest of us. Sometimes, it does that by dumping its garbage in a river; other times, it simply destroys something priceless – like a forest – to make something that has economic value – like timber.

“Externalities aren’t as big an issue in small communities where everyone knows everyone else, but they become serious problems as a society grows,” says Almir. “Among our people, for example, we tended to share even those items we were allowed to hoard – maybe because we knew that things could go wrong.” You could lose a harvest to lightening and fire, or to marauders, and it made sense to share your own bounty so that others would share theirs. “This wasn’t so much a rational economic calculation as it was just the way we were,” says Almir. “And I believe it is the nature of most people to share among those they know. You see it in the ruthless businessman who cares for the poor of his community while supporting the logging activities that still threaten to destroy our world, and you see it in small communities that share quite freely among themselves but are ruthless in dealing with outsiders. We were like that.”

Jamnabe’s vision trickled down to Almir through the songs of his father and uncles, and some of them strike me as being incredibly prescient. Jamnabe, for example, always said that plants formed alliances – although he didn’t know how, and some scientists now believe that families of plants use chemicals to communicate with each other[1]. Modern science also recognizes the importance of living ecosystems rather than individual plants and animals, which was the essence of Jamnabe’s worldview.

When he talked of the forest as a living thing, Jamnabe spoke of how the land nourishes the rivers which in turn nourish the land. These are what Westerners now call “ecosystem services”: swamps filter water and act as floodplains; mangroves perform both of those services and protect the coast while providing breeding grounds for fish. Even people provide a service called “zoochory[2]”: in exchange for the nutrition of fruits, people and other animals spread their seeds. We now know that forests like the Amazon regulate water flows, capture carbon, and bring us rain. There’s even a theory that says the forest is a “biotic pump” that pulls moisture in from the ocean to create rain far inland[3]. According to one theory, destruction of the Amazon might even cause droughts in the United States[4].

This has led to a modern understanding of resources that, in many ways, is closer to that of indigenous people – or maybe to all of our distant forefathers – than to that of our dominant 20th Century thinking. Instead of seeing nature as a resource to be harvested, many economists now talk of ecosystem services to be maintained. When the City of New York wanted cleaner drinking water, it didn’t build a billion-dollar filtration plant. Instead, it started paying farmers in the Catskills to maintain the watershed[5] – because even a great city like New York is embedded in nature. Even this amazing tree of concrete and steel is part of the forest.

In 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, Charles Mann describes the work of anthropologist William Balée, botanist Charles Clement, and others who believe the ancient Amazonians blended charcoal, pottery, and plants to create a thick, rich soil called terra preta do Índio – (dark earth of the Indigenes), which you find in patches across the Amazon. They may have also completely altered the flora of the Amazon by cultivating more than 70 types of fruit-bearing trees, which – in theory at least – is why we can now walk through the forest and find trees bearing açai, wild pineapple, and several kinds of palm as well as lesser-known fruits like calabash, tucumá, and babaçu.[6]

Still, despite Jamnabe’s vision of unity with the forest, life was rough then – and violent. “Not only were we constantly at war with neighboring people, but our tit-for-tat system of justice once ran amok and almost led to the self-destruction of one of our clans, the Gabgir,” Almir explains. “I never learned what started this feud; obviously someone felt wronged and retaliated in a way that the other person’s family felt was extreme, prompting a cycle of revenge killings that Ba experienced firsthand. He told me of playmates being slaughtered by their own uncles, and cousins killing cousins.”

One of Jamnabe’s sisters was married to a Gabgir, which meant that he had nephews and nieces in her village. When he heard of the feud, he raced to the village, only to find his sister dead and all the children of the village orphaned. He rescued a dozen of them, including his own nieces and nephews, and vowed to protect them from their clan’s slaughter. Within weeks of being evacuated, however, four of them were murdered by other members of the clan who were afraid the children would grow up and take revenge.

“We generally let each clan handle its own internal matters, but this was spinning out of control, so Jamnabe convened a summit of all chiefs,” Almir says. “He persuaded them to break protocol for the good of all our people, and the surviving Gabgir agreed to bring their grievances to a tribunal and to submit to its judgment. This ended the cycle of revenge killings and may have saved the Gabgir from extinction. It also established my clan, the Gameb, as peacemakers within the tribe, even as we traditionally act as the strategists for war when dealing with outsiders.

Each clan had its specialty, but none of these roles were written in stone. “The Gameb weren’t forced to become warriors and peacemakers or forbidden from becoming shamans, but we were certainly nurtured in that direction,” says Almir. “Jamnabe himself was a tremendous warrior and chief, but he was also a respected shaman. That may be what got him killed.”

Before he was assassinated, Jamnabe defined the boundaries of the Paiter territory, so that they knew that the Zoro were to the North, the Cinta Larga to the South, and the Gavião to the West. These boundaries, however, shifted with the outcomes of their battles, while one boundary was inviolable: the Machado River. Whites had settled on the other side of it, and Jamnabe told the Paiter that this was a clear landmark, not to be violated unless the Whites violated it first.

[1] Michael Pollan summarized a lot of this research in “The Intelligent Plant”, which appeared in The New Yorker, December 23, 2013

[2] van Roosmalen, Marc (2013-11-22). Wild Fruits from the Amazon (Kindle Locations 380-381)

[3] It’s clear that air passing over forests yields more rain than air passing over other types of land, but there’s some disagreement over what causes it. Hydrologists generally attribute this to temperature differences, but two Russian physicists, Victor Gorshkov and Anastassia Makarieva, said it might be organic compounds in the forest itself that are bringing the rain. They first postulated the theory in “Biotic pump of atmospheric moisture as driver of the hydrological cycle on land”, (Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 11, 1013–1033, 2007) – sparking a debate between those who dispute the theory (see the follow-up comment on their story that Dutch Hydrologists Antoon Meesters and Albertus Dolman posted at Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 13, 1299–1305, 2009), and those who agree (see Dominick Spracklen et al, “Observations of increased tropical rainfall preceded by air passage over forests” Nature 489, 282–285, 13 September 2012). While the mechanism is in dispute, the phenomenon is not. Healthy forests tend to attract rain much more than do unhealthy ones or farmland.

[4] Medvigy, D et al, Simulated Changes in Northwest U.S. Climate in Response to Amazon Deforestation,

Volume 26 Issue 22, (November 2013), Journal of Climate. This is also addressed in simpler terms in “Does Brazilian Deforestation Drive Drought In The United States?” (, which is an article on Ecosystem Marketplace by Gloria Gonzalez.

[5] Kenny, Alice; Ecosystem Services in the New York City Watershed. February 10, 2006

[6] Mann, Charles C, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (Vintage Books, 2006), offers an incredibly readable dive into the latest research on terra preta and indigenous agriculture going back thousands of years and employing practices that used broken bits of pottery and charcoal mixed with organic matter to slowly build layers of topsoil several feet thick. “Because careful surveys of Amazon soils have never been taken, nobody knows the amount and distribution of terra preta,” he writes. “Most big terra preta sites are on low bluffs at the edge of the floodplain. Typically, they cover five to fifteen acres, but some encompass seven hundred or more. The layer of black soil is generally one to two feet deep but can reach more than six feet.”

Modern experiments with charcoal and fertilizer, he says, “yielded as much as 880 percent more than plots with fertilizer alone” – and that’s without the microbes that came from the organic material indigenous people used.

Steve Zwick

I edit Ecosystem Marketplace, which is a news service focused on environmental finance. With this blog, I hope to offer coverage that is a bit lighter and more holistic than what we offer on EM.

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