Listening to the Endangered Sounds of the Amazon Rainforest

Watching the first few minutes of “The Territory,” a new documentary set in the Amazon rainforest, is like listening to a symphony of deforestation. The film opens with the sound of an engine revving, the camera lingering on a boot pressed down on a dusty gas pedal. The clutch clicks and grinds, and then there’s the heavy crunch of footsteps in lush jungle, the buzz of chainsaws, a spray of sawdust, the scrape of sharpening blades, the slick gurgle of gasoline. A tree topples to the ground with a muffled thud.

This sequence is our introduction to a determined group of Brazilian settlers who want to tame this legally-protected area of the Amazon, stripping it for farmland. When we first meet the Indigenous caretakers of this landscape, the Uru-eu-wau-wau people, they are accompanied by noises of joy, life and nature: laughing children, rushing water, chirping birds. The Uru-eu-wau-wau were first contacted by the Brazilian government in the 1980s, and hundreds of them subsequently died of disease. 

There are now fewer than 200 Uru-eu-wau-wau left in their 7,000 square miles of territory, “an island of rainforest surrounded by farms.” The stakes of the conflict could not be higher, because the fates of the Uru-eu-wau-wau and the ecosystem they belong to are a bellwether, and a determinant, of the fate of the planet. “I believe the Amazon is the heart not just of Brazil but of the whole world,” says Bitaté, one of the film’s Indigenous protagonists. 

“The Territory” follows Bitaté, an Uru-eu-wau-wau teenager who is nominated to lead his people as they respond to growing and increasingly violent threats to their land and way of life; Neidinha, an activist who has dedicated decades to the cause of Indigenous and environmental rights; and Sergio, one of the would-be settlers, who dreams of his own farm, carved out from the rainforest. 

The film is visually arresting. There are mesmerizing glimpses of the forest, from the zoomed-in point of view of an ant to the sweeping perspective of the drones the activists use to track the settlers’ destruction, hovering high above the canopy, but its soundtrack is transportive. “The Territory” immerses the audience in the natural sounds of the Amazon—an experience as endangered as the forest itself.

The jarring industrial sounds of “The Territory” are as much of an invader of the forest as the human beings who created those sounds. The acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton, who collects natural sounds from around the world and keeps a list of what he calls “the last great quiet places,” has said on Krista Tippett’s “On Being” radio show that “silence is on the verge of extinction.” By “silence” he doesn’t mean the absence of sound–emptiness–but the absence of modern noises like traffic and construction, which drown out the unique ecological soundscape of a place. 

Few places on Earth are free from noise pollution (Hempton estimates there are fewer than 12 in the U.S.), and the invasion of loggers and farmers into the Uru-eu-wau-wau’s land threatens to destroy its sonic fabric along with the indigenous animals, plants and people who make it. 

In an interview with the podcast “Tonebenders,” the film’s composer, Katya Mihailova, spoke about the trip she made to the Amazon to collect sound for the score, gathering “anything that was alive,” from bird calls, frogs, crickets and folk music to the creaks and cracks of a tree trunk as it’s sawed into and felled. 

Listening to that sound, you can feel “the weight and the understanding” of the tree’s death in a way that isn’t possible with images alone. For the settlers’ music, Mihailova recorded the fences commonly used on farms near the rainforest, strumming and plucking their metal wires like instruments. To evoke Bitaté’s energy and strength, she turned to the notes of an indigenous horn, which is made from the bark of a native tree. 

The Amazon can be loud, especially to Western ears. Hempton, who spends most of his time in the quieter, cooler forests of the Pacific Northwest, far from the cacophony of the equator, remarked that the “solar-powered jukebox” of the Amazon is “a little too intense” to him. 

The goal for the sound team who worked on “The Territory” was not to capture outsiders’ impressions of a jumble of alien noises, the director, Alex Pritz, said in the “Tonebenders” interview. They were after something that approximated the jungle as the Uru-eu-wau-wau hear it, a symbiotic, intimately familiar tapestry, where every living creature is connected with and speaking to each other. 

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We learn what it sounds like when the Amazon’s song is silenced in a scene that captures settlers in the act of deliberately setting fire to the forest. We can hear the settlers’ patient breathing, coaxing the dry leaves they’ve collected in heaps until the brush is crackling with heat. Chainsaws whir and birds shriek, and the fire grows and grows, leaping through the undergrowth. At night, the flames dance to music that groans with grief. Clouds of ash spin and whirl, and the fire throws off red sparks that float up, little pinpricks of light against black sky and white smoke. It might be beautiful if it didn’t feel like witnessing a murder. “They burn without thinking,” says Neidinha, as what’s left of the forest smolders on screen, looking like a graveyard, where the only voices belong to ghosts. 

“We must look a long time before we can see,” Henry David Thoreau wrote, in his “Natural History of Massachusetts,” a sentiment echoed by Bitaté in “The Territory” when he says that the Uru-eu-wau-wau “have our own way of seeing.” We get a chance to see through their eyes when, during filming, Covid-19 comes to Brazil. The crew is forced to leave Uru-eu-wau-wau land to protect them from infection, leaving the task of recording the rest of the film in the hands of Bitaté and his people, who wield their cameras and microphones the same way they do their bows and arrows: as weapons crucial to the fight to save the Amazon.

Bitaté recently wrote an op-ed for Time Magazine entitled “The Media Silenced My Ancestors. I’m Making Sure Our Story Is Heard,” where he explains the importance of “narrative autonomy” for the Uru-eu-wau-wau and other groups like them. “I grew up listening to my elders recount stories of first contact with the government and incursions on our land,” he writes. “They had only their words to alert people to the injustices they faced and help them defend their territory. Few listened or believed them since they had no concrete evidence to validate their story.”

Cameras can change that equation; they can make both the magic and the ongoing plight of the rainforest feel real and three-dimensional, and they mean that the Uru-eu-wau-wau’s voices can be heard far outside the borders of their embattled territory. But just as Thoreau drew a distinction between “looking” and “seeing,” there is also a difference between “hearing” and “listening.” “The Territory” offers an opportunity and a challenge to those of us watching from abroad, to ask ourselves if we are merely hearing the Uru-eu-wau-wau’s warnings–or truly listening to them.

Kiley Bense is a writer and journalist whose work has been published in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Believer and elsewhere.

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