Nelson

“You’re one of us,” Nelson said. I looked at my friend, equally surprised by the compliment and bewildered by the spin of his words. I had accepted the epithet, “gringa,” long ago; I knew I wasn’t really one of the Afro-descendent or indigenous Chachi people, the two ancestral groups living in that region of the Ecuadorian rainforest. But I loved them, and I loved the Chocó, that coastal forest wedged between the Andes Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. It broke my heart every tree that was felled, every animal that was killed, every piece of wisdom that was lost.

“You’re not going anywhere,” Nelson continued. “You’re married to a Chachi. You have children together. You’ll always be here.” I respected Nelson deeply. Although a few decades my senior, he was full of grace and life. His soft, worn skin covered a tall, lean frame, with muscles as lithe swinging a machete in the fields as dancing across the schoolroom floor. His warm, resonant voice always commanded attention, whether calling out to the music or speaking to the people gathered at a meeting. It didn’t seem to matter in a given year whether Nelson was elected president or not; he was the heart of his Afro-descendent village. His simple wood house stood like a guard post at the top of the long staircase leading up from the river, with the rest of the houses huddled on the hill behind it. I sat there in the darkness of the late afternoon, listening as the people tied up their canoes, finished washing their clothes, and took their baths in the river.

“You’re forever, Alyssa,” Nelson explained. “This project is just for a while; we have to take advantage of it while we can.” I figured from his response that the rumor I’d heard was true. The EU was sponsoring a “sustainable” cacao project in the area, and it looked like his village was going to accept. Was it really sustainable if you had to cut down so many acres of rainforest to grow the cacao? Was it really small-scale if it drew forest dwellers into commercial agriculture? Did the world really need more chocolate? Why did anyone like chocolate? All I could think of was more trees disappearing – the loggers, the miners, the growers. To me, they all meant less trees, less animals, less green. The back of my throat filled with an unspeakable sadness.

“I promise we’ll keep going with our congress,” Nelson reassured me. I knew his was sound pragmatic reasoning. Nelson cared about the forest, but he also had to take care of his village. The people in the region lived project-to-project, following whatever was the whim of the latest NGO to ride up the river. Aside from logging, a few lucky teachers’ salaries, and the sale of surplus harvest or handwoven baskets, there were almost no other sources of cash in the local economy. I didn’t have anything else to offer for the moment, only dreams and ideas; plans in progress, yes, but no results, no cash in hand to counter the offer to chip away yet another piece of the rainforest.

“Here, borrow these for a while,” Nelson said, pulling two books out of a cardboard box. “And take good care of them; they’re my only copies.” I looked at the pages of Afro-Ecuadorian oral history, wondering how long I was supposed to hold onto them. He didn’t seem to be worried about eventually getting them back; I lived just downriver. Lately, we’d spent many hours together organizing a regional ecological congress. Nelson knew parts of the forest even better than my father-in-law, and the three of us had traveled up the small tributaries to the villages almost never visited by other projects, asking everyone to join their voice in creating local solutions for the forest and its people. We were quite a site, the Afro-Ecuadorian, the Chachi, the gringa, and my toddler that I held through every canoe ride and every village meeting. I even held her through the night as we danced celebrating that first meeting of our congress.

“You’re one of us…” I still can’t solve the irony of Nelson’s words. Not long after he handed me those books, I moved away from the rainforest. Each day, I think, is the longest I’ve gone without returning to my emerald home. Once I was back in the United States, Nelson fell quickly to lung cancer. He was gone as soon as I heard about it. What access to treatment did he have in the rainforest? How could lungs fail at his age while bathed in the rich oxygen of the trees? Why were so many of my favorite people from the rainforest already gone? Was I, am I still, really one of them?

I can barely sequence the events of our last months in the rainforest. Did Nelson give me those books before we were held up at gunpoint, or after? Was I already worried about the kidnapping threats? Did I know yet about the hitmen doubling as middlemen who forced the villages to sign logging contracts with the big companies? All I remember is that I left. I lived in another region of Ecuador for over a year, only visiting the rainforest for quick work trips. And when the violence followed us to our new home, I went with the kids back to the U.S. and back to graduate school.

It was there in Chicago that another sort of middleman visited us. By that point, my two older kids were growing up, and I had a new toddler that I carried in my arms. We tried to get her to play as we walked along the waterfront, with the wind whipping at our faces and chopping up our words. The middleman was a wealthy Quiteño who’d come to visit his daughter in medical school but was also charged with an errand for one of the big logging companies. They were sitting on a shipment of hardwood flooring that was intended for Germany as part of an international development program. When the Great Recession hit, Germany blocked imported wood to protect its own markets and the logging company got stuck without a buyer; they wanted me to help find one in the U.S. As we talked, I thought about the housing bubble, the global financial markets, and their innocent victims. I’d been in the rainforest during the Dot Com Crash and had watched the school kids go without their lunch as soon as the U.S. cut international aid. For many families, that was the main meal of the day. This downturn had hit us, too. My husband, a young immigrant, couldn’t get a job, and my student stipend wasn’t enough to support a family of 5. A commission on the sale of the flooring would be a big help for us. And, after all, as the middleman pointed out, the wood came from a Chachi community; my husband had family there. Indeed, I knew the village. Suddenly, I stopped walking and looked straight at the middleman.

“You told me that flooring is green certified.” I said. “I know that village. It was virgin forest before the logging company came in. And there is no one replanting it now that they’re tearing it down. How did you get certified?” I couldn’t believe that a label I respected, that I saw on my products back in the U.S. meant nothing.

“It’s a matter of turning in the paperwork,” he explained.

“And what about replanting the trees? What about following through with the forest management plan?”

“You’re right; it’s too bad,” he said. “There’s really no one who checks on that.”

“So, the certification is no more than an empty promise for the future?” It didn’t matter how much we needed that money. We turned him away. I think we spent the rest of that Sunday doing chores and going to bed late, as usual.

You’re one of us…Today Nelson’s books sit on our big black bookshelf that wobbles on thin, worn carpeting of our apartment. Above them is a whole shelf dedicated to my oldest child’s collection – books on racial inequality, veganism, and social activism. Was it my kids’ multiracial, multinational experience that made me one of them? Was it the poverty I inherited? The life energy I gave to an impossible fight? My time in the underbelly of global capitalism? The pieces of my heart that stayed in that forest? The true humanity that the people there showed me?

Did I stop being one of them when I went away? Or am I still one of them because now I can go on Facebook and talk with those who have left to live in the city? Or with those who have phones and can catch a signal from the middle of what is left of the forest?

Sometimes I wonder who was more wrong – Nelson, because he thought I was never going to go away, or myself, because I thought he would still be there, too. You’re one of us…Those words echo in my head at least once a week, maybe once a day. And sometimes when I hear Nelson’s voice, I think his spirit is here, looking over my shoulder, even now as I type. “Do something, Alyssa…” And I feel again that impossible burden of being an outsider who sees clearly what is going on, is too powerless to make it stop, and is willing to keep trying anyway.

But when I hear Nelson’s voice, I also feel less alone. Today as the Amazon burns and the Artic melts, I wonder if that is the point of his words. You’re one of us… We’re all one of us on this planet now. We’re not going anywhere, you see, because this is our home, and we need to take care of it. We have children here. But the chaos is building; the foundation is crumbling. Like Nelson, like me, we may all be gone from our chosen home before we know it. But as I write, I see, and I think you do, too, that Nelson is not fully gone. Even now it is not too late to come together and try. That dream of the ecological congress, of communities coming together to support each other and to direct their own projects that will help people and nature survive together, is still in a greater sense alive. And you can join any day, just by opening your eyes and keeping them open – even when it hurts and overwhelms – so that your heart and mind can lead the way.

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