Isaac Risco -
Barra de Sao Manoel is a village in the heart of the Amazon with limited electricity and a population of barely 200. There is no mobile phone network, and travellers to the area can spend days cut off from the outside world.
Unless, that is, they are visiting the “Ecolodge da Barra” luxury recreational fishing hotel. This floating platform equipped with parabolic antennae lies on the side of the river, not far from the village. The luxury vessel has air-conditioning, and passengers can even access the Internet.
The Ecolodge de Barra is one of a growing number of luxury fishing establishments that have sprung up in recent years in the region of Apui, between the Brazilian states of Amazonas, Para and Mato Grosso.
“Welcome,” says the owner of the Ecolodge, Roberto C Veras, a businessman aged 65. The hotel is at a spot where the Tele Pires and Tapajos rivers merge and flow into what becomes the Juruena river.
“We offer recreational fishing,” he says, adding that the idea is to provide a sustainable development option for villagers in forgotten Amazon communities.
Veras explains that the Ecolodge, which opened in 2012, welcomes visitors from across the globe: moneyed Brazilians who come from areas such as the one he himself is from, the industrial city of Sao Paulo, but also foreigners, mostly from Australia, Europe and the United States.
He explains that the Ecolodge, with a capacity of about 30, receives some 400 visitors per year. They usually stay a week, from Saturday to Saturday.
Making it to the Ecolodge is not an easy task. The service begins in Manaos, in northern Brazil, Veras explains. The company picks up its guests there and they are flown about 1,000 kilometres in a light aircraft southwards to a village in Apui. The final stretch is by river, on a raft.
The price for a week of adventure with everything included in the Ecolodge is $6,000.
Fishing is the main attraction in the large rivers flowing through thick Amazon tropical forests. There are plenty of fish species to be caught, but one of the most popular is the so-called “peacock bass,” which can reach more than a metre in length.
Western tourists like the peacock bass because it puts up a fight before letting itself be pulled in, and that makes for an exciting struggle before the fish is caught.
“But all fish are returned to the water,” says Veras. Since the Ecolodge da Barra is located close to the Juruena National Park, a nature reserve, Veras knows his business could spark trouble with environmentalists and activists in the region.
“We only eat fish that comes from the community and we provide work for the villagers,” he adds. The Ecolodge offers employment to 34 Barra de Sao Manoel residents and also donates about 800 litres of diesel to the community each month.
Only some villagers, and buildings such as the medical post office and school, have their own electrical plants. Most villagers make a living from fishing, on a small scale, and from collecting cashew nuts.
Vilani Loyola, a 51-year-old woman from the village, is more than happy about the existence of the Ecolodge.
“It’s very good for me,” says Loyola, who makes 1,200 reales a month, (about $370), a good salary in the village. Shortly before the high season at the hotel begins, from June to August, she begins to wash and iron sheets and towels for hotel guests.
But not everyone in Apui is pleased with the foreigners who come to their communities to fish for sport. Many villagers dislike recreational fishing and spar with those villagers who are benefiting from it because they have landed jobs.
“There is rivalry and friction among villagers,” says environmentalist Aldeiza Lago dos Santos, Director of Mosaico de Apui, another nature reserve in the region.
There has been a surge in recent years in sport fishing operations in Brazil. The lodges or “posadas,” as the sport fishing venues are known, have obtained licenses to operate, but often they have not reached agreements with communities, and this can cause problems.
Many villagers believe the tourists who come to enjoy sport fishing scare away the fish they need to survive, says Lago. “They feel they are invading their space and they ask that they leave the lodges,” she says.
“Not everyone benefits. Not everyone can work in the lodges,” she adds. Lago’s work as director of the Mosaico de Apui reserves means that she is not only in charge of making sure wood loggers and gold seekers do not invade the natural park, but also of being an intermediary to ensure conflicts among villagers do not escalate.
Environmental protection organisations see no problem per se with supervised recreational fishing in the area, as long as fish are truly returned to the water and tourists do not plunder rivers.
“This kind of fishing could even be part of a possible sustainable development solution in the region,” said an expert from WWF, Roberto Maldonado, during a visit to Apui. — dpa