1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

A jungle hike to the grandmother tree

Bianca Kopsch
December 3, 2019

A giant, 900-year-old Amazon tree is the destination of eco-friendly hikes through the rainforest near Santarém in northern Brazil. Ecotourism helps to preserve it and to protect the nature reserve from deforestation.

Tourism students pose for a picture at the grandmother tree
Tourism students pose in front of the grandmother treeImage: DW/B. Kopsch

"Sumaúma Vovó", is the name of the main attraction in the jungle outside the gates of Santarém in the northern Brazilian state of Pará. "Vovó" means "grandma", which is what the more than 900-year-old kapok tree, also known as the silk-cotton tree, is affectionately called. The Amazon giant stands in the middle of the Tapajós National Forest. It is a state nature reserve of almost 530,000 hectares (ca. 1.31 million acres) which is protected by ecotourism and sustainable forest management.

A group of tourism students have come from Santarém, about 60 kilometers (37.2 mi) away, to see it. "Although it is so close, like most people from Santarém, I have never been here before. I'm excited to get to know nature and how the people use it," explains 25-year-old Leonildo Santos.

Ecotourism rather than deforestation

Northern Brazil - a farmed field in front of the rain forest near Santarem
Agriculture is forcing back the rain forest Image: DW/B. Kopsch

Students sit in the jungle village of Maguarí just behind the entrance to the protected area and wait for their forest guides. Their journey here on the new BR-163 national road led them past large soy plantations, to which the forest outside the reserve boundaries already had to give way. It connects the resource-rich Amazon region with the economically strong south of the country and has led to deforestation and land speculation. Deforestation in the entire Amazon region increased dramatically last year: between August 2018 and July 2019 by almost 30 percent compared to the same period last year, according to satellite measurements by the Brazilian Space Institute INPE. Almost 10,000 square kilometers (3,861 sq mi) of rainforest were destroyed during this period — more than at any time in the last ten years. The Amazon rainforest is of immense importance for the global climate as a huge CO2 storage facility.

Northern Brazil - vantage point view over rain forest canopy near Santarem
View of the entire nature reserve as far as the Tapajós RiverImage: DW/B. Kopsch

Environmentalists and indigenous groups accuse Brazil's current agrarian-focused right-wing government of having created an environment in which farmers, loggers and gold miners feel encouraged to continue to destroy. President Jair Bolsonaro had already advocated a relaxation of regulations to protect nature reserves and indigenous territories before his election in October 2018, in order to boost the economy by exploiting them. Since then, the protected areas have been on increased alert.

A showcase for sustainable use

The Tapajós rainforest is one of the oldest protected forest areas in the country. And it is well studied in terms of flora, fauna and sustainable use by its inhabitants. Here about 4,000 people live in and from the forest. Reinildo Farias is one of them. He was born here and has two jobs right on his doorstep: On the one hand, he works in a small local cooperative that sells certified timber to sawmills on a controlled scale. This is also intended to prevent illegal logging on a larger scale. 

Northern Brazil - guide Reinildo Farias leads tourists through the rain forest near Santarem
Reinildo Farias leads tourists through the forest Image: DW/B. Kopsch

On the other hand, since 2005 he has been guiding tourists through his forest and teaching them about the nature in which he grew up. Only locals like him are allowed to work here as guides. "Since then our lives have improved," says the 39-year-old. "We simply have a little more money and only grow on small areas for our own needs. In this way the forest is preserved." They used to live here mainly from agriculture — which meant they used to clear the necessary forest areas.

Forest hike with nature lessons

Reinildo picks up his group. The 20 or so students were distributed among three guides so that everything goes smoothly along the narrow jungle paths. "There are snakes, scorpions and other dangers here, so the guide always leads the way," he tells his group. It's a seven-kilometer hike through the dense rainforest — a strenuous march with many stops. 

Northern Brazil - close-up of a babassu palm seed that's just been cut open
The babassu palm carries seeds are reminiscent of small coconuts. They are used to produce vegetable oil Image: DW/B. Kopsch

Along the way you pass numerous medicinal trees and plants: Jatobá and Sucuúba — their milk and bark extract are said to be effective against cancer. Muira Puama, an aphrodisiac, the powdered bark of which is known as "Amazon Viagra." Cumarú, whose seeds are said to help with pneumonia. The bark from the cinchona tree contains quinine which is used to treat malaria. Andiroba, the seeds of which are used to produce oil with a decongestant effect. And last but not least the seeds of the babassu palm, from which vegetable oil (similar to coconut oil) is extracted. "In addition, one often finds a special delicacy in the kernels: larvae. They taste like coconut," Reinildo explains,

Northern Brazil, indigenous rain forest inhabitant eats a larva near Santarem
Larvae and grubs are considered a delicacy Image: DW/B. Kopsch

"you can either eat them raw — then they are tender and milky — or you roast them nice and crispy." Some of the students make a face when he bites down on them, but everyone is impressed. "I am amazed by the knowledge of the local forest guides," says 27-year-old Mayra Santos appreciatively. "And how well they teach us that."

Proud sight: the 900-year-old Amazon tree giant

After a three and a half hour hike, it is suddenly in front of them: the trunk of Sumaúma Vovó, the 900-year-old grandmother tree. It takes about 20 people to surround the huge trunk. The crown disappears into the jungle. "This is the most impressive thing I have ever seen," Leonildo marvels. Admiration is also written in the face of his fellow students. "We are so small next to this huge Amazonian."

Northern Brazil - rain forest near Santarem - four people taking a hiking break and eating a snack
A short break in the rainforestImage: DW/B. Kopsch

Just the right place for a picnic. Also for the other groups of hikers who gradually arrive here from the thicket, including a German couple from near Stuttgart. The hobby photographer is excited by the rainforest's biological diversity. He and his wife spend two days here, including an overnight stay with a local family in a jungle village. The night in a hammock costs only about five euros ($5.5 USD) per person. For the host family it is a welcome additional income and for the tourists a unique experience. "Of course we want to get to know nature here, but also the locals," says Berthold Echle. "We are very pleased with the hospitality." His wife sits next to him, sketching the giant, almost thousand-year-old Amazon tree.

Sustainable forest management to go: rubber sandals, honey and healing oils

The return journey is then faster, as fewer stops are now required for explanations. Instead, the prospect of a hearty lunch in the jungle village spurs the student group on.

Northern Brazil, close-up of rubber tree being milked
In the rainy season, the rubber trees are milked every other day by cutting into their bark Image: DW/B. Kopsch

Afterward, they visit the latex production. The rubber trees are directly in the village. In the Amazonian rainy season, so the first half of the year, they are milked every second morning by carving into their trunks. A hundred years ago, this area was one of the hubs of the rubber boom in the Amazon region. Today, this is only a small additional source of income for the local residents: On the one hand, they sell the raw material to the southeast of the country. On the other hand, they make bags, sandals and accessories from it, which they then sell in their own shop in front of the reserve's exit. There are also other home-made local products: honey, fruit pulp, healing oils, furniture, jewelry, and liqueurs — all from the forest. "The biodiversity in the jungle is overwhelming! Here one learns where the raw materials from which oils and remedies are made come from, that's really interesting," concludes student Leonildo. And guide Reinildo is also satisfied: "We do tourism for you and through it, you help us!" With more than 42,000 mostly foreign visitors per year, the Tapajós National Forest is one of the most visited protected forest areas in northern Brazil. This is a good way to prevent widespread destruction and habitat loss.

Northern Brazil - home made natural rubber handbags near Santarem
Sandals and bags are made of natural rubber Image: DW/B. Kopsch