The End of the River: Strangling the Rio Sao Francisco

The End of the River: Strangling the Rio Sao Francisco

by Brian Harvey


View All Available Formats & Editions
Usually ships within 1 week


When biologist Brian Harvey saw a thousand fish blundering into a Brazilian dam, he asked the obvious: What's going to happen to them? The End of the River is the story of his long search for an answer. The End of the River is about people and rivers and the misuse of science. Harvey takes readers from a fisheries patrol boat on the Fraser River to the great Tsukiji fish market in Japan, with stops in the Philippines, Thailand, and assorted South American countries. Finally, in the arid outback of northeast Brazil, against a backdrop of a multi-billion dollar river project nobody seems to want, he finds a small-scale answer to his simple question. The End of the River is a journey with many companions. Some are literary, some are imaginary. But mostly they're real characters, human and otherwise: a six-foot endangered catfish, a Canadian professor with a weakness for Thai bar girls, a chain-smoking Brazilian Brunnhilde with a passion for her river, a drug-addled stick-up artist. The End of the River is about fishermen and fish farmers and even fish cops; there are scientists and shysters as well as a few Colombian narcotraficos and some very drunk, very hairy Brazilian men in thongs. Funny and sad, The End of the River is a new kind of writing about the environment, as far off the beaten track as you can get in a Land Rover driven by a female Colombian biologist whose favourite expression is "Oops - no road!" "A wonderful and engaging read with a samba beat, on the plight of the planet's living waters. The End of the River is the book Nemo would write if he could. A great way to open peoples' eyes." – Thomas E. Lovejoy, President, Heinz Center for Science, Economics and the Environment

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781550228458
Publisher: ECW Press
Publication date: 11/01/2008
Pages: 376
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Brian Harvey is an international policy and practice expert in aquatic biodiversity. He is the founder and former president and executive director of the World Fisheries Trust. He is the coauthor of Migratory Fishes of South America. He lives in Victoria, British Columbia.

Read an Excerpt

The End of the River

Dams, Drought and Déjà Vu on the Rio São Francisco

By Brian Harvey


Copyright © 2008 Brian Harvey
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-55490-335-1



Lessons from the creator of The World

Say what? Norberto dos Santos on the receiving end of my Portuguese.

I HAVE A JAPANESE FRIEN0 CALLED MISS TOJO. Maybe "friend" isn't exactly right, although "acquaintance" doesn't seem to capture her either. "Presence" might be best; she certainly is that. We'll meet her properly later.

Miss Tojo is one of the reasons I've never learned Japanese very well, because she never lets me get a word in. Miss T isn't interested in communication. Instead, she hectors, and she does it from inside my head. I hear her all the time now: whenever I hear the words "global warming," every time I read about another fishery closure or another species added to the list we've learned to grow in cages on soybean meal. I think these things are problems; Miss Tojo prefers to view them as novelties, or as obstacles to be overcome with planning and hard work. When I spotted yet another new fish in the supermarket the other day—Russet Perch, I think it was called—Miss Tojo piped up immediately. "Excellent," she said. "What will they think of next?" I had to duck into Meats to shake her.

Miss Tojo is always there. She lurks behind every page of this book, even if you can't hear her yet. Miss T doesn't mind waiting, as long as she gets what she wants. She knows I'll get to her eventually. When she realizes the book takes place mostly in Brazil, she'll be annoyed, there's no denying it, but dealing with Miss Tojo's annoyance is something we're all going to have to learn to do. We might as well start now. When we can't ignore her any longer, I'll do my best to translate what she has to say.

Translation is something I'm getting better at. I do a lot of it in this book. Not just the familiar kind, from one country's language to another's, but also deciphering the jargon of specialists who may be from one's own country but whose pronouncements are incomprehensible. Scientists—especially scientists—bureaucrats, environmentalists, sociologists: does anybody know what these people are talking about? Half the time I don't, and I've dabbled at being all of them.

I can't tell you exactly when it happened, but at some point in my career I realized that, as a scientist, I was speaking a language few people understood. How I figured this out is one of the themes of this book; I might never have figured it out at all if I hadn't had the wit to take my training as a fish biologist on the road. But I did travel, and it didn't take me long to realize that if I was going to learn anything about the world beyond my backyard, I would have to pick up a few more of the old-fashioned kind of tongues. So even if Miss Tojo's incessant nagging thwarted my attempts to learn Japanese, I did learn a few others—sort of. Fisheries projects in Southeast Asia (where I went first) weren't much of a challenge because lots of the locals spoke English. But South America, where I went next, was different.

After my first few trips to South America I knew it was no place for a linguistic ignoramus. Two weeks in Venezuela in the care of a loquacious professor was enough to convince me there might be good scientific work done here, but the "in the care of" part was a problem. I might as well have been a Western visitor to the old Soviet Union, with my minder always at my elbow, arranging hotel rooms, checking me into flights, taking me to approved shops. It was infuriating, and the experience in Colombia was worse; falling in love and meeting a narcotráfico's veterinarian were fine things to have done and I'll tell you about them later, but they should never have been attempted on a twenty-word vocabulary. There's a fine line between honoured guest and appendage, and when I couldn't get directions, let alone read a map, I felt uncomfortably dependent. What if something went wrong? I couldn't even pick up the phone and order a pizza. Worse, I didn't even know if people did that.

So I decided to take Spanish lessons. Victoria, BC, where I live, has a small Spanish-speaking community, but the only lessons these people need are in dealing with a culture in which people keep their voices lowered and never touch one another. There were only two teachers advertising, and only one of those held formal classes. "Learn Spanish Using the Renowned El Mundo System," the advertisement said, next to ads for ear coning and discreet Asian escorts. El Mundo—The World—I liked the sound of that. I wrote out a cheque.

El Mundo met in the evenings in a nondescript upstairs office in a strip mall; there was a fast-food outlet with terrible coffee below and the actual centre of The World was hard to find. There weren't any signs saying El Mundo. I poked my head into the only room with people in it and took my place at a long table ringed with dented metal chairs. It was raining outside, a freezing January drizzle, and I wondered what the weather was like in the Magdalena River or the Orinoco. Probably raining there too, but the rain would be the temperature of tears. Soon, very soon, I would be able to say, "It's raining" in perfect Spanish.

There were plenty of chairs, but only four other people. One of them kept looking at his watch. Finally he stood up and introduced himself as our instructor, placing a thick photocopied manual in front of each of us. "Welcome to El Mundo," he said in English. I noticed he had no copies left over; El Mundo must be a tight ship. The cover of my manual, which was about the thickness of a weekend newspaper, said, "El Mundo. Spanish for Beginners. By Jaime Diaz." I glanced at the young woman opposite me. She was staring at the title, mouthing the words.

Jaime Diaz had thick black hair and crumpled good looks but he seemed tired, as though carrying the weight of El Mundo on his shoulders had worn him down. He had a resonant voice with what I later found out was a fine Peruvian accent and he wore—oddly I thought for a Latin, especially one this handsome—a brown cardigan sweater. He spoke perfect English.

"I want to ask, Why are you here?" he said. We all looked at our manuals. "You, sir? Gary, yes?" Jaime nodded at a pale young man with protruding front teeth like a gerbil's, and smiled, I thought a bit uncertainly. The young man seemed an unlikely student to me too. He stared fixedly at the tabletop.

"Me and my friend," Gary finally said. "In Mexico there. We do, um, security work." He cleared his throat. "Down there in Mexico." Jaime Diaz laughed nervously and I tried to imagine the fellow with a badge on his chest and swinging a nightstick. Maybe his friend provided the muscle, while the little man barked orders in confident El Mundo Spanish. Jaime moved on.

"And you?" He nodded to the young woman across from me. "Rachel, isn't it?"

Rachel was stunning. She had wavy auburn hair that flew out in a ravishing penumbra, and her smile was unforced and radiant. "For shopping?" she said brightly. "In Costa Rica?" Rachel's sentences ended with question marks. "I'm going down there on vacation and, like, I want to be able to order stuff ... and stuff?" I couldn't keep my eyes off that smile. "My friend and me," she added, as though to forestall any offers of assistance.

The third student was a middle-aged woman and I have forgotten her reason for wanting to learn Spanish, but it couldn't have been a compelling one because we never saw her again. Then it was my turn. After Gary and Rachel and the nameless middle-aged woman, my own aspirations seemed out of place. I felt the familiar confusion about how to describe my work, what language to use. I could easily have said, "Going down for a little fishing" or "golf tournament" or even something slightly off-centre like "bird watching in the Galapagos," but for some reason I decided to come clean. Maybe there was still a chance to impress Rachel. I cleared my throat.

"I'm a biologist. I work on fish."

Jaime Diaz looked relieved—interested, even. "What kind of fish?" he asked.

"Oh, migratory ones. The kind that swim up the rivers, you know." I could feel everyone's eyes on me. Gary the security man looked up suspiciously.

"Like salmon?" Jaime seemed genuinely intrigued. Perhaps he was starved for stimulation. I wondered about his home life.

"Sort of," I said. "But only in the rivers, not out to sea like salmon. Fish like"—I racked my brain for an example—"like bagre." Bagre was a big catfish.

"Oh, I love bagre. Bagre is muy sabroso." He smacked his lips so that we could all absorb this first lesson. "I never knew it migrated, though.

Your work is like, conservation?" Jaime and I were getting along.

"Sort of," I said again, adding, "I help the people there to collect samples, that kind of stuff." That should do it, I thought, but Jaime was implacable.

"What kind of samples?" he asked, leaning forward.

"Sperm." I looked away from Rachel and the middle-aged woman. Gary sniggered.

"Oh, yes," said Jaime. He shuffled his copy of El Mundo and the first lesson began.

I only spent three sessions in the office building because by that time I was the only student left. Gary said scarcely a word, stumbling repeatedly over "My name is Gary," so that it was clear to everyone, even to him, that he was never going to progress to "Freeze, cabrón! Up against the wall. And slowly, if you don't want to lose another of your cojones." He dropped out after the first week. Rachel vanished the week after; all I had learned about her was that she sold belts in the mall. Jaime took the defections in stride, rubbing his hands together and proposing that we meet privately and continue our studies at my own pace.

That suited me fine, and it lowered Jaime's overhead. Over the next three months or so, as the deadline for my next trip to South America loomed, we progressed through the fourteen verb forms, stumbling on the subjunctive, which I have yet to master. I added vocabulary to an expanding list that I mumbled daily at the dinner table, covering half of the page with one hand and eating with the other. Within three weeks Jaime and I were having actual conversations.

This was when the problem began. To converse, you need a topic. When you are just starting out with a language it's extremely hard to spin any exchange beyond a few sentences unless the topic is trivial or the instructor is unusually creative at seizing whatever ideas you give him and tossing them back in ways you can respond to. Even for the creator of El Mundo—The World!—this was difficult. Nobody would think of approaching a four-year-old and launching an exchange on the upcoming election, but that's what a language teacher is expected to do. Inevitably, our conversations would veer in the direction of the only thing Jaime and I had in common: we were both men in our early forties. After two or three of these sessions at my kitchen table, the ratio of English to Spanish was actually increasing. We were going backward.

"Como vai?" I would inquire as Jaime settled himself with the day's photocopied lesson and his handwritten corrections on my previous week's essay. "Ah, you know how it is," he would reply in English, spreading his hands and cocking his head ruefully (if nothing else, I was learning Latin American body language). "The wife, the job, what are you gonna do?" Toward the end, just before I left to try out my new language in South America, I had learned a lot about the Latin community in Victoria ("Don't go near that one, she's loco") but was more or less teaching myself the language.

But the lessons had worked, better than I thought, although there were still frightening gulfs. A lot depended on who was talking. In Venezuela I had two scientific colleagues, Julio and Luís. Julio was no problem; his false teeth forced him to speak slowly. Luís, on the other hand, spoke extremely fast and never seemed to open his mouth at all and I don't recall understanding a single word. Colombia was better; they pronounce the entire word there, not just selected pieces. But when I returned to Canada I realized I was going to have to spend time in Brazil as well, so I threw myself into the conversion, buying a copy of 501 Portuguese Verbs to replace the Spanish version and starting a brand-new vocabulary book.

Spanish and Portuguese are not that far apart; they share many of the same words and have an almost identical grammatical structure. Once again I simply ignored the subjunctive tense and all its arcane permutations—if I really needed to say "I should have realized that, had we not taken this road, we might not have become lost" I would rely on eye-rolling and rueful slaps to the head. The real problem was pronunciation. Spanish is like Japanese, each word a string of syllables democratically assigned exactly the same emphasis. No accents, no sing-song, no sounds that don't actually exist in English. But Portuguese is not so sensible; it's flamboyant and baroque, bristling with accents and rhythms and weird, non-English sounds, resonating nasal honks from somewhere high up in the ventricular cavities of the nose and forehead, like the tones of a classically trained singer. For this stuff, I needed a conversation partner. And so it all happened again.


If Spanish speakers were thin on the ground in Victoria, Brazilians were almost nonexistent. Nobody offered actual lessons, and it took me some determined digging before I located Lucia Lopes behind a desk in a cut-rate travel agency across town. She was certainly Brazilian, and living in Canada hadn't tempered the way she dressed. She was tiny, but her gestures were large. I wondered how her clients kept their minds on their itineraries.

Lucia and I agreed to meet weekly at the Starbucks next door to her agency. Apparently I would also buy her coffee, but I didn't mind; she only charged me twenty-five dollars a session. She didn't have Jaime Diaz's interest in the problems of migratory fish in South American rivers, but then, how many people in Victoria did? How many people anywhere? Lucia made up for her lack of interest in fish by being a champion talker. That was the problem; she would say something like, "And your family, Brian, how are they?" and before I could collect my thoughts and patch together a reply in Portuguese she would be off. "My little girl, so difficult. And my husband ..." Here she would roll her eyes and take a big, bosom-inflating breath and the men in the coffee shop would shift uneasily in their seats.

Her husband came up a lot. I learned the Portuguese for "military" and "away from home." After three or four sessions Lucia asked me for a job because her boss at the travel agency was "an animal." I decided Lucia and I were finished, that I could look up the Portuguese for "jealous" and "fisticuffs" myself. I was ready to go to Brazil.

I'd learned enough Portuguese to start doing my own research on a story that had been eating at me for years—a story about a river in Lucia's country. Its name was São Francisco. What I didn't know was that I was already in the middle of another kind of story: how I had to re-educate myself in order to make sense of Lucia's river and its problems. The river was a stunning example of the freight train of human folly, thundering driverless toward the inevitable hairpin curve in the track. But it already had its champions. Should I — could I—join them? Answering that question meant putting both Brazilian and personal events in the larger context of history and science, and telling them as I experienced them—as bits gleaned here and there in the course of a personal journey that meandered as much as the river.

This book is about those journeys: how the São Francisco got to where it is, how I stumbled into it, how I let the river carry me along until it became clear that I was taking a journey without a destination. In the end, my struggle to stay afloat in the São Francisco story forced me to rethink what I'd been trained to do—which brings me back to Miss Tojo.

I bring up Miss Tojo again because we all search for explanations, for unifying images we can hang our hats on, for anything to help us answer the awful question, "How the heck did we end up like this?" On the personal side of things, I don't think Miss Tojo is much help. But for the mess that particular river was in—and not just that river, but other rivers, lakes and oceans, and everything that swims and crawls and waves to and fro within them, out of sight and minding its own business—the image of Miss Tojo is the one that sticks in my mind. You'll see why when we meet her. But first we have to get through a lot of other stuff.


Excerpted from The End of the River by Brian Harvey. Copyright © 2008 Brian Harvey. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


PART I: Against the Current,
PART II: Science, Sex, Sushi,
PART III: Velho Chico,

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews