A Thriller: Save the Amazon!

By Mark Alpert

In the spring of 2012 I went with my wife and kids on a phenomenal trip to the Peruvian part of the Amazon rainforest. First we flew to Lima, then to Iquitos, a city in northeastern Peru, accessible only by river and air. (It’s the largest city in the world that can’t be reached by paved road.) Then we made our way to the town of Nauta on the northern bank of the Marañón, a major tributary of the Amazon River.

At Nauta we boarded the Delfin, a 120-foot riverboat. For the next ten days we cruised up and down the Marañón and Ucayali rivers, which merge in northeastern Peru to form the Amazon. Every day we left the Delfin and explored the flooded tropical forest in sleek skiffs, gliding between the trees that rose above the black floodwaters. We saw monkeys, caimans, anacondas, and an incredible variety of birds. We swam with a pod of Amazon river dolphins, pinkish mammals with bulging foreheads that contain special bio-sonar organs that allow the creatures to navigate the opaque river channels. It was one of the most amazing trips I’ve ever taken.

And it was the perfect trip for a thriller writer. As Teddy Roosevelt could attest (he went on an expedition to the rainforest a few years after his presidency and nearly died there), the Amazon is a great setting for action and adventure. During one of our treks through the jungle, our guide picked up a stick that held an unusually large ant. This insect, he explained, was commonly known as the bullet ant, because its sting is as painful as a bullet wound. (It’s also called the 24-hour ant, because the pain lasts for a whole day.) What’s more, some indigenous Amazon tribes use the bullets ants in their initiation rites. The tribespeople collect the ants, render them unconscious, and embed their bodies into pouches woven from leaves, with the ants’ stingers pointed inward. Boys undergoing the initiation rite have to stick a hand into the woven ant-studded pouch and endure the stings for at least five minutes. And not just once, mind you; to become a tribal warrior, you have to go through this torture twenty times.

This kind of information is fantastic raw material for thrillers. I put a bullet-ant scene in my novel The Furies, which was published by St. Martin’s in 2014. You can get the details here.

What impressed me the most about the Amazon was its vastness. The river and its tributaries drain a huge portion of the continent, and the rainforest’s environmental riches seem inexhaustible. So you can imagine my dismay when I read about the fires that have been raging across the Amazon region over the past few weeks. Many of the fires have been set by farmers clearing land for agriculture in Brazil, where a new president has gutted the rules that have protected the rainforest. According to the Brazilian government, the deforestation of the Amazon now stands at 19 percent of the region’s area, and that percentage might well be an underestimate.

Even worse, some experts predict that the rainforest may soon reach a tipping point when the deforestation will accelerate and become self-perpetuating. The loss of forest will decrease the amount of moisture in the air, drying the region and making fires even more likely. And because the vegetation in the Amazon contains about 100 billion tons of carbon, large-scale fires will release a devastating amount of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. (In comparison, all the coal-fired power plants across the world release a total of 15 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere each year.)

As thriller writers, I think we can all recognize an existential threat when we see one. If we were writing a novel about this catastrophe, it would have corporate or political villains (such as Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro) exacerbating the problem and simultaneously justifying their actions using moralistic or nationalistic reasoning. (Because most villains actually see themselves as heroes, right?) And we would create heroes and heroines (preferably spunky and/or badass) who are roused to action when they learn the horrifying extent of the problem (“The Call to Adventure”). The struggle to save the Amazon would be difficult because the opposing forces are so formidable (business interests, rabble-rousing politicians, poor farmers just trying to feed their families), but after many setbacks the protagonists would prevail, ideally after a climactic battle in the jungle (involving swarms of sentient bullet ants!)

We can all imagine writing the story. The problem doesn’t seem insurmountable. So why is it so much harder to solve in real life?

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About Mark Alpert

Contributing editor at Scientific American and author of science thrillers: Final Theory (2008), The Omega Theory (2011), Extinction (2013), The Furies (2014), The Six (2015), The Orion Plan (2016), The Siege (2016), and The Silence (2017). His latest thriller, The Coming Storm (St. Martin's Press, 2019), is a cautionary tale about climate change, genetic engineering, and Donald Trump. His website: www.markalpert.com

7 thoughts on “A Thriller: Save the Amazon!

  1. Sold! I just made this trip and loved it. Except we only did day trips on the Amazon. Wish I had had your itinerary. But I do want to read about it, and my nightstand just cleared.

  2. I’m a lifelong member of The Nature Conservancy. One of the most impressive things they do is work with indigenous people/locals to teach them how to protect their environment while still making a living with it. They have helped islanders figure out how not to overfish yet not stop fishing, etc. In other words, they turn those who do the damage into those who protect the resources. Some of their work is in the Amazon. Sadly, that’s not enough to stop the big business idiots from doing what they are doing.

  3. Strange. I thought The Kill Zone was about writing and not really about liberal politics.

    Ole stupid me.

      • That’s the very definition of politics, but, please, do carry on.

        I’d like to publicly thank the author of this post for proclaiming who the villains are. Without his wise guidance, I’d be a child lost in the political woods.

        Not me!
        Now I’m no longer blind! Now that the villain has been named and given how I should just take the author’s word for it, because, errr, let’s see, not doing so wouldn’t just mean I hold different political views from him, goodness no, it can’t be just that, it’d mean I’m a terrible person.

        Now, at long last, and all thanks to this post, I am one with the Forest.

        I’m forever grateful.

  4. I agree the world would run better without politics and THOSE kinds who referer to this column and these people making great humble, truthful and knowledgable comments. There is always the STUPID one who inturn recognizes their own stupidity with tongue in cheek, not realizing how STUPID and non-caring they are. Bob Martin GBS Survivor ramgbs.wordpress.com my story if interested?

  5. Here’s a thriller that’s leaped off the page!

    Wonder who the protagonist(s) will be to tackle this situation, make it right, and return us readers to a new world order that averts the crisis and saves mankind! Ah, maybe its us following the path of what many in Hawaii did recently to stop the construction of another telescope on Mona Kea, at least for the next two years. https://www.forbes.com/sites/melaniefine/2019/08/31/hawaiis-mauna-kea-protests-strike-common-chord-around-the-globe/#39d27362601d

    Nice job Mark!

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