• Pedro Andrade, host of ‘Unknown Amazon’. (SBS)Source: SBS
While the beauty of its natural environment is undeniable, it is the people of the modern-day Amazon that are its cultural heart.
Kate Myers

20 Jul 2021 - 11:40 AM  UPDATED 20 Apr 2022 - 2:20 PM

It’s a region often referred to as the lungs of Earth, and given its sheer scale and  incredible biodiversity, it’s not hard to see why. The Amazon Basin is considered one of the most environmentally important locations on the planet, covered by a rainforest that encompasses around five million square kilometres of South America. While this makes it the world’s largest rainforest, and arguably one of its most vulnerable natural environments, it is the communities and cultures explored in Unknown Amazon who truly highlight the complexity of this ancient place.

The six-part series, hosted by New York-based Brazilian author and journalist Pedro Andrade, takes viewers on an epic and eye-opening journey to uncover what life is really like in the Amazon, as he spends time with some of the nearly ten million people who call it home. Andrade brings an infectious passion for travel and obvious pride in his homeland to his first visit to the Basin from the moment he appears on screen. This is a man not afraid to have a frank conversation or pose a difficult question, even if it lands him in hot water from time to time. And they are questions that really need answers.

From the outset, there’s no denying the global reach of the problems the Amazon faces; though remote, whatever happens here has tangible implications that stretch far beyond its borders, with almost twenty one percent of the rainforest already destroyed.

In each hour-long episode, Andrade meets a different Amazonian group, gaining insight into their everyday experiences to understand the very real challenges they are facing as a result of this environmental crisis. What he also discovers, however, is the incredible vibrancy and diversity of their unique culture that continues to endure in spite of it.

In one episode, Andrade visits a Quilombolo settlement in the heart of the Brazilian Amazon, made up of the descendants of enslaved African people who were brought to South America by Portuguese colonists in the 17th and 18th centuries.

They were forced to work in agricultural production and plantations before they fled into the safety of the forest and established themselves in small pockets along the riverside. Here, they have continued to use, harvest and maintain the abundant natural resources of the area for hundreds of years.

Despite the abolition of slavery in Brazil in 1888, today’s Quilombola face the new and ever-present threats of corporate greed and an ongoing struggle for official recognition of their land rights, caught between the rich traditions of their past and the exploitation that threatens their future.

As Andrade comes to realise through his conversations with both the victims and villains in this battle, illegal mining, cattle grazing, wildfires and now a global pandemic not only impact the natural environment that surrounds these communities but also compromise the very survival of the people within them. This begs the question, then, is it really possible to profit from the Amazon without leaving a trail of destruction? And does the answer lie in the empowerment of Indigenous peoples who have been the guardians of it for hundreds of years?

If you just can’t get enough of the Amazon’s breathtaking beauty and amazing culture, Andrade’s documentary is not the end of your journey. It will come as no surprise that its cuisine is just as varied as its people, using everything from exotic fruits to fresh and flavourful river fish to create delicious food.

There is no better person to share the origins of this exotic produce than Brazilian chef, Thiago Castanho. His series, Amazon Taste, sees him visit the same rivers, islands, forests and farms explored by Andrade, but this time to showcase the centrality of food to these communities with a particular focus on thirteen unique ingredients. Beginning in the city of Bragança in the northeast of the Pará state, Chef Thiago’s journey takes him from the sought-after cocoa bean to the incredibly popular açai berry, via a range of quality produce steeped in the exceptional skill and traditions of the local people.

Though the environmental crisis facing the Amazon is frequently the subject of news headlines around the world, these reports often fail to share the stories of the individuals who shoulder this burden each day. The Amazonian people have a deep connection to the land that is intrinsic to everything they do, a connection that has been part of their identity for hundreds of years. Andrade’s documentary might explore an Amazon previously unknown, but once you discover it, you will find it impossible to accept that it could be lost forever.

Unknown Amazon is streaming now at SBS On Demand.  Start here with episode one:

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