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Keith Schofield

Gauchos and Hamburgers

Posted from: Altamira

It was looking grim. Heron, our French Sound Recordist, has the most wonderful sense of humour. He has kept me in stitches for days. It was looking grim because at this moment his humour had been replaced by a growl that only a Frenchman can growl. All I had done was sink our crew 4x4 up to its axles in sand - having just crossed a river via some bits of wood cunningly disguised as a bridge.

We were alone - only the eye of a dead caiman watched. An hour of growling and historic sweating saw us dig the car out and back to the cowboy ranch we were filming. Stupidly, I had forgotten a lens. This meant we had to cross the river once more. Returning to the scene and recent memories of cars and bogs, we carefully plotted a route. I raced like a rally driver into the bog. I drove like rally drivers don't. We took off a couple of times. We went backwards most of the time. Even sideways. At great speed the bits of wood cunningly disguised as a bridge raced towards us.

Heron's growling moved up several octaves. We hit the bridge as promptly as we fell off it. Heron, through a grimace of squawking terror, advised we keep going at all costs. His words were wasted. My whole being centred around keeping going at all costs. Well, most of it anyway - another part of my being was more concerned with the water coming in under the doors. Much steam and squawking somehow saw us to the other side. Heron was not pleased. I was relieved.

Our trail was one of devastation. Surprisingly, Heron was happy to let me continue to drive. This showed optimism on a huge scale. He is after all, also Brazilian. We were late for Bruce - and as we bounced along a track over open grassland we wondered about the speed of deforestation that has taken place here. 50 years ago, this would have been primary forest. Now, open grassland - this beef growing ranch is 5000 hectares. It's small compared to some, which approach the size of Portugal.

Bruce was living with the cowboys - to learn about what life is like on a beef-growing ranch - and how they fit into the massive and complicated picture of climate change and the future for the Amazon. They all adore Bruce. His nature is easy and approach is humble. Chico, one of the impossibly handsome cowboys had a very large black hat - and very large dark eyes gazing from under it. Chico had just returned with Bruce and the others on horseback, from a morning of cattle driving and was getting the branding irons ready. Rubbing his hands on his chaps I realised that his effect on women must be devastating. His looks could snap knicker elastic at 50 paces. The branding irons were as red hot as their blushes would be. As he turned them his jaw set as carved mahogany - hard and brown and rare as the huge logs we had filmed being carried illegally on the back of five lorries.

All these five lorries were busted by IBAMA, the environmental branch of the Government, during a day of raids they carried out. A stroke of luck for us - we were filming the three IBAMA agents that very day. Para State has fifteen agents. Para State is the size of France. We wondered what the other twelve were up to. We wondered how it was possible to police an area of this size, with so few people, when so much of the deforestation is due to illegal logging.

Combined with vast tracts of land required for soy production and beef growing we wondered how it is going to be possible to slow the rate of Amazonian deforestation - which currently stands at the area of a football pitch every eight minutes. Bruce watched Chico wrestle the first calf to the ground. Bruce wondered what he had got himself into. In no time, several cowboys were wrestling several cows to the ground. Bruce chose one. After a minute, he was hanging on for grim death, eyes bulging and teeth gritted. He hung onto its tail, its neck, its ears. Every cow handle going.

Bruce wrestling a calf
Bruce wrestles a calf to the ground so it can be branded

Heroically he realised that there was only one way out. Only one winner. He executed the bravest rugby tackle I've ever seen. Had England played like that, they might have won the World Cup. No, that's just being ridiculous. He'd have to be South African to do that. Bruce and cow landed in a mess of legs, tails, bellowing, yelling and wrestling in a sea of mud and cowpats. The heat was as intense as the branding irons - and Bruce's new found aroma. He'd have to return on his horse. No way was he getting into our car smelling like that. Our car would find the nearest bridge and drive off it all by itself.

Tony, the ranch manager and our wonderful and amiable giant of a host was actually very impressed with the way Bruce got stuck in - especially when he decided to ride a huge bull. I filmed him through tears of laughter. By now Heron had found his sense of humour. Thankfully he was hilarious again. Like most self-respecting Frenchmen, he does not eat hamburgers. "Zut Alors!! Zis food is disgusting!!" Maybe that's why France didn't win the World Cup either. Neither did China for that matter - and more people are eating hamburgers in China than ever before.

Try telling them that they shouldn't. Try telling a family tucking into their first status-symbol hamburger meal that eating it has an effect on global climate change and a direct link to the deforestation of an area of the world called the Amazon, where cowboys are trying to live their lives and put food on their family's tables. Try telling lovely Tony, and his wonderful cowboys, that his cows are directly affecting climate change.

When I told Tony that I was South African he was astonished. He believed only black people came from Africa. Why should he know any different? He's spent his whole life on a horse breaking his back to carve this ranch out of the rainforest and feed his family. I know nothing about ranching, but through filming with Bruce on this series we've been privileged enough to acquire first hand experience of this amazingly special place and it's people - and an insight through scientists like Allessandro on the problems facing it, and the planet as a whole.

Will there be enough time to enlighten everyone? Enough time to enlighten the Tony's of this world - and the Chinese who are developing a taste for beef? I hope those who watch this series will start to question through enlightenment those ideals we take for granted as consumers. We all need to know. We are all responsible after all. Slowly we returned to the ranch house. Bruce headed expectantly to a room cunningly disguised as a shower. I say cunningly, because that night - there was no water. It's not taken for granted around here.


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