Hope Along the Rio Negro Part 1: The View from Manaus

Author: Randy Carey

The first installment of a series looking at the Amazon ornamentals fishery and its impact on the native peoples along the Rio Negro.

SÃo Paulo

At the time I thought my view from the plane was the big picture that reflected the real story of the Amazon. Two weeks later, I realized I was wrong.

SÃo Paulo is a congested, urban city in Southeast Brazil. About 1667 miles northwest and inland lies Manaus, dead center within the Amazon rainforest. On my 4-hour flight from SÃo Paulo to Manaus I studied the landscape as it transitioned from wall-to-wall city to wall-to-wall trees. Surely this transition would tell an important part of my story, so every 10 minutes or so I would record the view from the plane.

Flying Into the Rainforest

The SÃo Paulo landscape appeared as a tightly packed mosaic of adobe-colored roofs, corralled by etchings of winding streets. As we flew higher and inland, the multi-storied buildings resembled tombstones lined up on a hilly cemetery—except these hills wore no green.

Eventually the manmade structures could no longer cover the entire landscape. Misshaped patches of greens and ambers filled the gaps. Farther inland these fields began to corral cities, and farther still the cities shrunk into communities. Every piece of land, however, was covered with something manmade, either a building or an agricultural field.

The Rainforest From Above

Two hours into the flight I tried to decipher a small patch of dark green. Unlike the occasional ponds, this color had texture. I studied this mystery for several minutes before it dawned upon me that it was a cluster of trees. Shockingly, I was halfway to Manaus before I first caught sight of the trees that cover the rainforest!

Similar to how the fields earlier had replaced buildings, now unplowed land and trees began to overtake the landscape. Soon all I could see was dark textured green and a few seemingly endless rivers, some white, others black.

At the time I thought my view from the plane was the big picture. I interpreted its meaning with the stories and perspective that I had brought with me. The rainforest is at risk, and I was witnessing the intrusion of man carving deeper and deeper into it.

My view from the plane was distant, however. All I was seeing were patches of colors. Whether someone is thousands of miles away engaged in debates, or just a few miles above looking down, he or she still doesn’t see the individual trees that make the rainforest, nor any animal that lives within it. From such a distance, one does not see the people, only the effects of people. And from such a distance people are faceless. Suspicions are easy to image and hard to disprove. When looking for someone to blame, faceless people down there are easy to accuse.

Once on the ground, the dark green gives way to trees and streams, and to the sights and sounds of the life that fills the rainforest. The people not only have faces, but they have lives that involve family, culture, politics, and history. The big picture of the rainforest can be constructed only from within the rainforest. The view from the plane was deceptively vague.

On the Ground

Captain Mo is standing in the Manaus airport holding a sign with my name. Because this is my first time in the Portuguese-speaking city, he is personally shuttling me to the boat. Five minutes and it is apparent that the driving habits here are far from disciplined. Speed limits and lane lines are treated as suggestions.

True to his instinct as a guide, Mo points out the wildlife that would interest a North American. He stops quickly so I can see a toucan that just flew past us and is now perched in a tree. Then we see vultures, and I tell him I’ve seen them before—in a zoo. To this he laughs. He could not see why any zoo would display this scavenging buzzard, a nuisance species.

“The water is rising sooner this year,” he reluctantly admits. “It is probably a month ahead of schedule.” This was not good news, though I didn’t realize at the time just how detrimental it would be to our scheduled fish collecting.

Seasons in Manaus

In Manaus, at 2 degrees south of the equator, the sun annually sways a bit to the north and then to the south, passing straight overhead twice a year. In the tropics, summer and winter do not represent contrasting hot and cold. Rather, the year is divided into the rainy and dry seasons.

Associated with these two seasons is the rise and fall of the rivers. The range between the high and low water levels is drastic. Each year is different. Not only do the high- and low-level marks vary between years, but the timing of these “seasons” varies. This annual expedition is scheduled for the river’s low water mark, and Mo is warning me that the Rio Negro, well ahead of schedule this year, will not be giving us the expected low-water conditions.

The captain claims he’s seen this before. He asserts that when the water levels are a month ahead of schedule, it always happens after some dramatic world event, like a volcano eruption or a tsunami. Mo blames this year’s phenomena on the dramatic Christmas tsunami of 2004, which occurred 13 months earlier. I’m skeptical, but I’m in no position to argue.

“How do you know Chao?” Mo asks. Dr. Labbish Chao is the founder and head of Project Piaba. I explain to Mo that I’ve come as a writer for TFH Magazine to learn more about Project Piaba. Dr. Chao encouraged me to join this two-week expedition as a way to experience the Rio Negro, the fish, the people, and the cities of Manaus and Barcelos. This ground-level view will help me understand the river and the work of Project Piaba.

Project Piaba

In 1989 a young and enthusiastic Chao received a professorship at the University of Amazonas in Manaus. Not just as an ichthyologist, but also as an aquarist, living along the Amazon and Rio Negro rivers promised a dream come true. In May of that year, Labbish journeyed nearly 300 miles up the Rio Negro to Barcelos in search of some way to study the diversity of fishes. Within the next 18 months he conducted four research trips to the area, and more followed throughout the years.

Long-time aquarists are familiar with Project Piaba from the several TFH articles Chao wrote chronicling these early expeditions. What began as fish-only research developed quickly into a people-too concern. Project Piaba was born out of this mix. In his last two of these articles (TFH September 1996, TFH October 1996), Chao explained the intent and goals of this project.

The most common way to get from Manaus to Barcelos was to take the weekly passenger boat. On the first expedition in which Chao brought students (1989), each $15 ticket bought a place to hang a hammock crammed among 40 other passengers during this 45-hour commute.


Once in Barcelos, Chao and the students had to wait another two days before the pre-arranged boat and crew could take them on their maiden exploration of the surrounding waters. The captain of this local vessel had to finish his weekly sales and delivery of 100,000 aquarium fish that would be transported back to Manaus on the commuter boat. Most of these were cardinal tetras, fetching a whole dollar per 1000 fish.

The crew motored 30 miles south to an igarape, a forest stream. Anchoring the boat, they paddled canoes into the forest to see what fish they could collect. Dr. Chao and his students had poor luck with their seining and cast nets. In contrast, the local fishermen who accompanied them demonstrated their skill using their own nets, providing the team with many types of fishes like pencils, farlowellas, and cardinals.

Chao led several similar expeditions. Exploring whatever streams and lakes they could find well into the rainforest, the teams would portage and paddle canoes for hours. After penetrating a day’s journey into the rainforest, the teams would set up overnight camps and eat some of the fish they caught. They explored in the dry season with low waters, and they explored during the rainy season when streams became unrecognizable as they flooded the rainforests.

Each expedition connected with local fishermen and their communities. Chao recognized that their familiarity with the rainforest made them valuable guides. As the research teams worked side by side with these fishermen, Chao grew more and more aware of the way of life and concerns of those living along the Rio Negro. While the object of the expeditions was to research the rainforest fishes, the doctor was being educated in the inseparable connection of fishermen with the rainforest and its fishes. Because the fisherman earns his livelihood from the rainforest, he respects it and harvests it responsibly. The well-being of the fisherman is tied to the rainforest, and the well-being of the rainforest is tied to the fisherman. Change the fisherman’s motivation and this equation changes.

A Conservation Project Conceived

As Chao began recognizing this connection, he dreamed of a conservation effort that addressed not just the fish, but also the people of the rainforest. Project Piaba was conceived.

Labbish Chao then developed this dream. In January 1994, corresponding to the first International Ornamental Fish Festival in Barcelos, Project Piaba opened a permanent fish exhibit in that all-important city. Two years later, from sizable grants from Dr. Herbert R. Axelrod and TFH magazine, the project expanded to a new center with a laboratory. The work of Project Piaba includes monitoring the populations of aquarium fishes in their habitats, improving the handling of transported fish, and working with the local communities and governments to sustain the economy of collecting and exporting aquarium fish.

The Boat and an Exporter

Mo parks in a parking lot overlooking the Rio Negro, and we climb down a steep cliff to reach his boat, the Victoria Amazonica. The captain introduces me to a crew member who knows just enough English, and then he is off to make further preparations for the upcoming expedition.

To my chagrin, I admit that this boat is more accommodating than the conditions Chao and his students endured in those early days. This annual pilgrimage to Barcelos descended from those first few expeditions. In 1991 Project Piaba, with the help of staff from the New England Aquarium, began recruiting hobbyists to join them on trips up the Rio Negro. The hobbyists pay for the trip as ecotourists; meanwhile, extra rooms are provided free to grad students and professionals who will be conducting research for the project.

Scott Dowd of the New England Aquarium continues to this day as the American liaison and coordinator for the hobbyists who join this annual tour. The expedition is affectionately dubbed Gringos Doidos, which translates loosely as “crazy Americans.” The locals find it humorous that Americans come to the Amazon with such an interest in tiny fish (perhaps as humorous as Mo found it that American zoos would display vultures). This year the doidos come from Great Britain and Taiwan, as well as from America. All of us are fascinated by nature, but fewer than half are aquarists.

I scheduled my arrival for two days before the departure. There would be plenty of time later to spend on the boat and getting wet. Now was the time to experience Manaus.


To an aquarist who reads about tropical fish and where they come from, Manaus is Camelot. It is the city that exports some of the most beautiful freshwater fishes of the world. Nearly two dozen fish exporters (and perhaps the world’s largest) operate here. Official records vouch that at least 20 to 30 million aquarium fish are exported from this city each year, and several have told me that these records vastly understate the real numbers. Do you have cardinal, rummy-nose, or bleeding heart tetras? Do you have hatchetfish or wild-caught discus? If so, they probably came from Manaus.

Those of us who arrived early pooled our money and rented a taxi to visit some exporters. Several are stationed just outside of town. The route to these facilities degrades to narrow and bumpy dirt roads. Scott pointed out that the jolts of this ride are shared by the fish coming into and going out of the exporters.

The first site reminded me more of an old, back-road farm than of Camelot. Discarded tires littered the front, the unpainted wood was weathered gray, and blue tarp hung as a makeshift wall. No one was there to welcome us, but we were told in advance that we could wander around.

Being that fishkeeping for us is an indoor hobby, the one thing that strikes a tropical fishkeeper is that here fish are kept outside. The only shelter is a roof on poles. Under the roof we saw rows and stacks of shipping containers holding Corydoras, loricariids, Apistogramma, various tetras, and discus. Off to the side, out beyond the pole barn, ran two long rows of large rectangular cement ponds. Each pond must have held thousands (probably close to tens of thousands) of cardinal tetras. One could not help being impressed by all these ponds and the vast number of cardinals that must be gathered here. But the significance of these ponds and their numbers was not apparent. Not until we journeyed up the Rio Negro did we encounter the real story behind the cardinal tetras.

It Takes Time

The expedition will launch Sunday afternoon, so on that morning we make one last trip into town. Two taxis carry us to the market district, an area that seems to be the center of the city’s activity. This is where the goods collected from the rainforest are displayed and sold.

Our starting point, the market square, is a building that occupies its own block. Most of its space is dedicated to food. The inner sections are lined with fruits, vegetables, and grains. At one end, hanging skinned carcasses are displayed as the day’s offering of fresh meats. At the other end, freshly caught fish cover the table tops. The selection of fish is larger than what’s found in the meat section.

The fish of the river are important to the people of the rainforest in four ways. The first of these is in the collection and marketing of food fish in quantity, which provides a substantial income for the fishermen and for the market workers. Meanwhile, the people can rely on this readily available food that is cheaper than other meats.

City Layout

Spanning several blocks out from market square are shops and kiosks lining the sidewalks. Interestingly, some blocks follow a theme such as hardware or cooking wares. Scott leads us along these, aiming toward some destination.

The storefronts are lined with awnings that project over the walkways. Within minutes we discover why. A sudden burst of rain pours down, and people take refuge under the awnings. It may be a city, but we are still in the rainforest. Only a few minutes pass when the rain stops.

During this walk I begin to take photos. JoÃo, a translator from SÃo Paulo, tells me to put my camera back into its bag. He warns that along these streets it is not safe to be holding an expensive item in the open, so I reluctantly obey.

We reach the edge of the market area. Across the wide street, standing in the center of its own block, is a large, exceptionally ornate building. The gray, rainy sky provides an ugly background, but my camera comes back out. I knew this was something to photograph.

The Opera House

This is the Opera House—the Opera House. Built in the 1890s and replicated after a European equivalent, it is the most elaborate building within the Amazon. It clearly stands apart from the other buildings. On one hand its presence testifies to the glory of Manaus—of the days when the city casually boated in European troupes to perform within the heart of the rainforest. On the other hand this exceptional architecture, which contrasts with everything else in Manaus, mockingly reminds the city of the prosperity it once enjoyed but let slip away. Some would say it was stolen. Stolen by what today is called “bio piracy”—a term with implications for today’s collecting of fish in Brazil.

Because it is Sunday, the Opera House is closed. The rain resumes, so we take refuge under the building’s front awning. Some of us hail a taxi to return to the boat. JoÃo negotiates with the driver in Portuguese. I overhear quarenta dois, which means “42.” Because I’m holding the money, I confirm with JoÃo that the trip will cost us 42 reais (the Brazilian currency).

A Lesson About Change

We arrive at the boat 20 minutes later. As the others leave the taxi, I hold a fifty and repeat to the driver my best pronunciation of quarenta dois. He looks frustrated and shakes his head. I’m not confident with Portuguese, so I sign “42” with my fingers. He reluctantly takes my fifty, reaches into the glove compartment, and gives me a folded set of bills as change. Out of politeness, I wait until he drives away before I unfold the bills. I scowl when I discover that he gave me back only three reais.

I thought I had been cheated, and that this was a dishonest driver taking advantage of my lack of Portuguese. But I was wrong. Two weeks later, after observing several purchases, I recognized that the burden of carrying small bills lies more with the buyer than with the seller. One merchant refused to sell if she had to give more than two reais back in change. Had I not spent two weeks along the Rio Negro, I would have failed to realize that the taxi driver was not prepared to break my fifty and that his three reais was the best he could exchange.

A Better View

I had come to Manaus with a perspective that inadequately understood the culture of the Rio Negro. A deeper understanding comes only with time and by interacting with the people. I came here thinking I knew what the real issues of this area were, but I didn’t. After two weeks of traveling the Rio Negro, and after several conversations with an American who spent three years living among the fishermen, I gained a better view.

The view from Manaus is better than the view from the plane. But upstream, along the river and among the people, the view is at its best. It was there where I discovered the important stories to tell. And I will tell them in more articles yet to come.