THE CURURÚ TOAD & THE ADVENT OF ELECTRICITY – The 2015 Amazon Visiting School Review
by Nacho Marti, AAVS Amazon Director and AA Technical Studies Tutor
23 July 2016
Mamori Lake, Amazon Rainforest
Returning to a place after a few years is always a fascinating experience. The time gap lets you notice the changes more clearly and the minute everyday variations that escape our eyes accumulate dramatically to construct an almost startlingly new scenario. However, to city-dwellers like myself, noticing the often subtle changes in natural environments has always proven challenging. For the many years that I spent my summers in Mamori Lake, right in the centre of the Brazilian Amazon rainforest, I never noticed much variation. Everything looked green and lush, there was always an amazing calm and one could very often sense that sweet smell of the tropics. Sometimes the forest was inundated, other times it was not. But that was all I could perceive. Until last summer, when I came back to Mamori with a group of talented students for the first ever edition of the Amazon AA Visiting School. It took 50 kilovolts and 6 years for me to notice variations in Mamori Lake and, from all the possible ways that I imagined electricity would change the Amazon rainforest, the one change that I would never have been able to foresee was how electric power would change the hunting habits and diet of the Cururú toad.
The Cururú Toad
The Cururú is a popular animal in Brazilian children’s literature and songs. It is a huge toad that lives on the riverbanks and produces a very peculiar and recognisable sound halfway between a pneumatic hammer and a bongo. In Anglo-Saxon countries, the Cururú is known as a Cane toad since it was used in cane plantations to control insect plagues because of its huge appetite.
The precarious post and cable system of the Amazon electricity network
When in 2003 the Brazilian Federal Government approved the programme “Light for everyone,” which was designed to bring free electricity to 3.2 million Brazilian families in rural areas, the Cururú appetite was about to be appeased once and for all.
The mechanism starts 1800 km away from Mamori Lake, in a place called Tucurui, the origin of the electric line that brings electricity to Mamori. The line flies above the rainforest from east to west, jumping from thousands of towers, some nearly as high as the Eiffel Tower. The power reaches then the substation of Careiro do Castanho, not far from Mamori, and from there, electricity is distributed to families through a precarious post and cable system. Beside televisions, radios, blenders and washing machines, what the people from Mamori appreciate the most is outdoor lighting. Incandescent bulbs hanging from trees or roofs allow locals to use outdoor spaces after the sun sets. They can now let their kids play outside or even enjoy the breeze on the porch during the evenings. It is precisely those exposed incandescent outdoor bulbs that attracts a cloud of flying insects every night that accidentally burn themselves to death by touching the hot surface of the bulb – all for the delight of the Cururú toad that patiently and unashamedly waits under the bulb to catch his nicely cooked prey.
Almost every night during the workshop, I had the pleasure to enjoy this string of events that begins so far away and concludes with the gluttonous toad under the lamp that illuminates the path from the lodge to my cabin. In our first encounter, he gave me an enormous fright as he jumped away when I was about to step on him but the following nights we tacitly agreed on pact of mutual respect which allowed me to observe him while he carried on with his feast.
I once managed to touch him and when I later shared my excitement with Zeca, our local guide and friend, he politely and embarrassingly recommended me not to do it again. Apparently, Zeca told me, the toads have a predilection to explore the depths of sewage drains before surfacing to eat burnt insects. I indeed followed Zeca’s wise advice only to discover months later, in the safety and comfort of my London office, that the toad doesn’t actually like faecal waters but instead secretes from his back a powerful drug called bufotoxin which causes hallucinations. I then understood that Zeca was trying to prevent me from unwittingly getting high, avoiding a situation that would have certainly impacted on my reputation with my students; or maybe not.
There are many more peculiar anecdotes happening in Mamori because of the advent of electricity, such as rooms with air conditioning and glassless windows, jungle outdoor parties with 500-watt sound systems, the pleasure of eating ice-cream in the rainforest, 62-inch televisions that are more expensive than the houses where they sit, or the arrival of the internet to the local school, but I would need many more pages to explain them all in detail. I am sure that encounters and situations like this will multiply with the arrival of internet to the rainforest. These unexpected, intense and magical moments are what I am hoping to continue experiencing with my friends the architect Marko Brajovic and the biologist Lele Araujo, together with our students, in the next edition of the Amazon AA Visiting School, Digital Vernacular. This August, we will explore new types of vernacular architecture that are highly adaptable to both the local environment and the new electrified and connected reality of Mamori Lake. If you feel like joining us there are still some places available. However, if you decide to come, I am afraid that you won’t be allowed to touch the Cururú.
Electricity arrives in the Amazon Rainforest
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