The Digital Journalist
The Amazon Drought

by Daniel Beltrá

I am in Seattle, my home for the last four years, having a coffee at my favorite spot, the C&P. While I'm thinking that the photo business has been kind of slow for the last two weeks, a short e-mail from Greenpeace changes it all. The Amazon is experiencing one of the most severe droughts in its entire history: large parts of the rainforest are at their driest ever and Greenpeace wants me to document it.

Barreirinha (Brazil): Big river boat trapped on a sand bank East of Barreirinha, during one of the worst droughts ever recorded in the Amazon. Oct. 27, 2005.

© Daniel Beltra/Greenpeace
I rush home while calling the travel agency. Working in the rainforest requires very specific equipment. Luckily, I have been there several times and it's an easy task getting what I need. Not that I am particularly organized; it's just that the stuff is still piled up from my previous trip in September.

Off to Glazer's camera store, the perfect excuse to pick one of the new Canon 5Ds I want. Later, after 30 long hours, I am landing in Manaus Airport. The 99 percent humidity and the temperature of over 100 F hits you like a wall when the airplane door opens.

Soon enough I find myself traveling by inflatable boat on the Amazon River towards Lago Rei, one of the areas that has been more severely affected by this terrible drought. Of its 12,000 hectares (29,652 acres) that feed more than 40 small lakes, Rei is almost dry. There are only 1,000 hectares (2,471 acres) of water left. Huge amounts of dead fish are bedding along the shallow margins, contaminating the water and increasing the risk of epidemic diseases. Urubu vultures by the hundreds are having a feast.

Curuai Lake, Para (Brazil). The Curuai Lake is almost completely dry during one of the worst droughts ever recorded in the Amazon region. Oct. 27, 2005.

© Daniel Beltra/Greenpeace
As soon as we leave the Amazon River we need to change our craft. Boats are available for rent since the local fishermen are unable to work. A small business is flourishing ferrying journalists towards the remains of the lake. Because the water is too shallow we need first a "voadeira," a small aluminum riverboat, and then a smaller wood canoe. We are scrapping the bottom of it, but manage to go through.

Thousands and thousands of dead fish, covered by maggots, are floating all over the small river. The stench is terrible, and the filthy water leaks through the wood planks of our canoe, soaking my boots and camera bag (luckily, a waterproof one). I am starting to realize the impact the drought is having. Fish is the major source of protein for the population and one of the pillars of the local economy. Future fish stocks will be seriously compromised.

According to the Amazonas State Government, about 32,000 community families are isolated in different cities and up to 100,000 families are deeply suffering with the difficult access to their villages.

The images I am getting are strong, but I am still focusing on what has already been done. When I arrived in Brazil the story was already in the media. Finding images that will push the story further is my main goal.

Amazon (Brazil): Fisherman surrounded by dead fish on the Furo do Lago do Cristo Reis during one of the worst droughts ever recorded in the Brazilian Amazon region. Oct. 21, 2005.

© Daniel Beltra/Greenpeace
On the way back to Manaus the idea of concentrating on aerial images takes shape. The next three days will be spent working from a Cessna. The plane only has one small window that can be opened, just behind the pilot's seat. I have to work in an uncomfortable position, half the time on my knees, shooting from a window barely large enough to fit my 70-200 mm lens.

Everybody on board is on the lookout for boats stranded on the huge sandbanks that are appearing all over the place. We find several small canoes abandoned on dry riverbeds, but I need a stronger image.

One afternoon at dusk, near Bareirinha, we locate a big riverboat sitting on a sand bar. The crew has managed to hold it with short beams carefully positioned on its sides. It's sitting high and dry in what looks like the Sahara desert. I wonder how long they have been like that. I can see people emerging from their cabins waving at us. This is the photo I had in mind, but it's too dark already. We will end up landing in Santarem and will try again tomorrow.

Alter do Chao (Brazil): Aerial images of Alter do Chao and surroundings during one of the worst droughts ever recorded in the Amazon. Oct. 26, 2005.

© Daniel Beltra/Greenpeace
The next day, on our trip back to Manaus, I photograph the boat under a nice afternoon sun. The distribution of the images is very successful. The story appears all over the Brazilian and international media with the riverboat image leading. I wish we would have had the occasion to visit the local populations and to spend more time documenting the human side of this disaster.

Helping to raise awareness of the problem is very rewarding and becomes the prime motivator for my work. Scientists are blaming the devastating drought currently affecting the Amazon rainforest on a vicious cycle created by the combined effects of global warming and deforestation.

The Amazon basin contains up to 30 percent of the terrestrial biological diversity. It is the largest tropical forest on the planet, almost continental in scale. It is a vast, remote and mysterious rainforest teeming with undiscovered plant and animal life and home for hundreds of indigenous groups.

In the last 10 years, the Brazilian Amazon alone has lost more than 77,000 square miles of pristine rainforest, an area the size of England and Scotland together.

© Daniel Beltrá

Daniel Beltrá, a freelance photographer from Spain, is currently based in Seattle. He specializes in nature and environmental issues and works regularly on assignment for the environmental group Greenpeace. His images are distributed by Gamma and Zuma agencies and his works have been widely published by the main international papers and magazines. He recently came back from the Brazilian Amazon having documented one of the worst droughts ever recorded. See Daniel's Web site at

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