Page last updated at 11:58 GMT, Friday, 17 December 2010

An invitation to dine in the Amazon

Justin Rowlatt with some of the inhabitants of Jurity

By Justin Rowlatt
BBC News, Brazil

The habitat and lifestyle of native tribes of Brazil is under threat from deforestation, but they are still willing to share their hospitality and local jungle delicacies with strangers.

It looked like a mummified baby.

Its dark brown skin was stretched taught over its face, its eyes were half open and its lips were drawn back over its sharp teeth.

The creature's arms were still intact, jutting stiffly beside its chest, but its hands and the rest of its body from the waist down was missing.

Tacuarentia must have sensed I was curious because he held the body up towards me so I could get a good look.

It is rude in almost every culture to turn down the offer of food, however disgusting

It appeared to have been grilled over an open fire and I noticed that - whatever it was - it still had eyelashes.

I also caught the faint whiff of putrefaction.

"Ka'i," he said, waving the little corpse.

He must have realised that I did not understand because he then tore a strip of flesh from its shoulder and popped it into his mouth.

He chewed it with exaggerated relish, pointing at his mouth and grinning.

You will have already guessed - as I did - what was going to happen next.

'Revolting' snack

Tacuarentia pinched a generous piece of meat again from the creature's shoulder - a white bone now poked through - and held it up to me with smile.

Clearly, this was an invitation to dine.

The morsel had a piece of scorched skin attached and I could see there was a layer of white fat between it and the fibres of light brown meat.

Justin Rowlatt is on an international filming trip to explore the effects of China's policy of "going out" into the world to secure the energy and raw materials its rapidly growing economy needs.
A two-part documentary series will air on BBC Two in early 2011.
He will also be reporting regularly for the BBC News website.

There was a table with a crisp white tablecloth surrounded by four heavy chairs and, on the ceiling, a big silver fan.

This was - without any doubt - the most revolting snack I have ever been offered but it is rude in almost every culture to turn down the offer of food, however disgusting.

We had only been in Jurity - Tacuarentia's village - for a few minutes and I was keen to make a good impression.

What's more, our little scene had now attracted a small crowd of villagers. We were hoping to spend a couple of days filming with these people so this was an important moment for our team.

We were not here to tell a happy story.

Threatened forests

We were here to show how the global demand for Brazil's resources is driving deforestation even in places that were once remote like this.

The Awa are an Amazonian tribe of hunter-gatherers who, until very recently, were completely isolated.

Some of the villagers in Jurity were contacted for the first time just 12 years ago, yet now their land is the most deforested of any indigenous tribe in the Amazon.

It is a huge problem for the Awa because if they lose their forest, they lose their traditional way of life.

Manmade fires to land for cattle or crops in Brazil
There are already farms where the forest has been completely cleared within a couple of miles of the village

I will be honest, though, at this moment I was not worrying about the perils faced by this community.

I was deciding whether I could bring myself to accept Tacuarentia's offer.

I looked around at the expectant faces of the 20 or so Awa people who were looking on.

They wore ragged T-shirts and shorts or skirts. Some of the men had rope bands decorated with feathers around their biceps and some of the women wore necklaces with beads and animal teeth.

I looked back at Tacuarentia's repulsive offering.

I was already pretty certain that I had worked out what it was, when one of the men from the Brazilian indigenous people's organisation who had come to the village with us confirmed my fears.

"Macaco," he said. I was being offered a mouthful of barbecued monkey.

I made my decision. I took the scrap of monkey meat and put it into my mouth.

It was cold and greasy but I chewed gamely, only just managing to resist a powerful urge to gag.

'Shockingly vulnerable'

Nevertheless, despite my best efforts, my disgust must have been evident to everyone there because the entire group of Awa collapsed in gales of laughter.

Indigenous Brazilians protesting about land rights
Brazil's native people have asked for government support over land rights

Rather than being offended that I did not like their food, they seemed delighted at my discomfort and mimicked my grimaces to each other to renewed laughter.

Indeed the Awa were behaving as if I was the funniest thing to have ever stumbled into their forest and, from that moment on, they could not have been more welcoming.

Two days later, the Brazilian forest agency had arranged for a helicopter to fly us out.

Most of the village turned out to wave us goodbye but, as we rose from the clearing beside Jurity, it became shockingly clear just how vulnerable this community is.

There were already farms where the forest had been completely cleared within a couple of miles of the village and I could see and smell the smoke from the fires, made by farmers to clear yet more land.

Even in areas of forest that seemed pristine, I could make out the roads made by loggers carving their way through the jungle canopy.

"Why do you white men need so much wood?" one of the Awa men had asked me before we left.

It is a good question.

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