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?