The PhD candidate with his own jungle
‘I don’t announce to everyone that I’m here to save the environment’
David Ekkers did not see his burnout coming. It was late at night and he was working on his PhD research in his lab at the Zernike campus. ‘I had some music playing. I was feeling pretty chill.’
Until everything went wrong. ‘It came out of nowhere. My heart started beating really fast, and I was overcome by a feeling of fear.’ After that, he started getting intense stress responses: ‘To light, noise, crowds.’
Three years later, Ekkers decided to drastically change his life; he and his partner Marina Rillo, also an alumnus of evolutionary biology at the UG, signed a contract for 231 hectares of jungle in Rillo’s home country of Brazil.
They want to preserve the environment there.
The way he sees it, you can talk about how the environment is in danger, but you can also do something about it. ‘That’s what I wanted to do, deep inside.’ He made himself a promise: ‘I will never let practical issues or the idea that this isn’t what I was trained to do stop me. I only have one life.’
If I ask him about a bird, the village elder tells me how to cook it
So they went for it. It’s a three-and-a-half-hour drive from São Paulo, forty kilometres on a semi-paved road, and another five on an unpaved road. ‘Some bits are pretty good. But if it’s been raining, we can’t drive those last five kilometres.’ Finally, the road crosses a river that cars can’t pass through at high tide.
On the other side, though, lies their own plot of jungle (see map below), a little bigger than the Zernike campus. ‘Everywhere you turn, you see the tropical rainforest’, Ekkers says. ‘There are palm trees, vines, orchid, bromeliads, and mangrove, as well as toucans, snakes, and armadillos; all the fauna you’d expect in a place like that.’
Nilton, the supervisor they hired, already lives there. He is 1,4 metres tall and seventy years old. He’s kind of like the village elder. ‘People in the village really respect him’, says Ekkers, which means it’s unlikely they’ll do any poaching as long as he’s around.
But Nilton can’t really wrap his head around the concept of preservation. ‘If I see a bird and I ask Nilton, who knows so much about the environment there, what type it is, the first thing he’ll tell me is how to cook it and how tasty it is.’
Next to massive real estate development, hunting is the worst threat to the area, says Ekkers. To his horror, Nilton told him the best way to catch a jaguar: ‘Hang a dead calf in a trap and wait for three days.’
Not that Nilton actually hunts jaguars, Ekkers hastens to add, since that’s illegal: the species is seriously endangered. But it reminded the biologist of the reality of where he was. He might think hunting is problematic, but to the locals, it’s apparently perfectly normal.
Ekkers wants to educate the people in the area; to tell them that their environment is unique and that they should treasure the little that is left. They need to know that there are fewer animals around, something that Nilton has already noticed. ‘I told him it’s because of the hunting.’
Once upon a time, the Atlantic rainforest ran along the country’s entire coastline. ‘But now, there’s only 12 percent left’, says Ekkers, and of that, only a little over half covers large areas. That is why he and Rillo chose this particular plot of rainforest, strategically located between the land and the sea. ‘The biodiversity here is immense. We’ve got species that don’t live anywhere else. There is so much to preserve here.’
The next step is to have the plot declared a conservation area. This process cannot be reversed by law, so it would be a boon. Ekkers hopes to convince others to buy plots of land to expand the conservation area. The only question is how, since not everyone has a Brazilian partner like he does, which complicates things.
The national parks in Brazil are also scattered across the country. On top of that, president Bolsonaro is chipping away at them, says Ekkers. Hunters and lumberjacks are allowed to take rare animals and plants unimpeded. The Amazon is even more lawless; activists trying to save the environment are regularly murdered there.
That doesn’t happen as much where they are, says Ekkers, ‘but I don’t announce to everyone that I’m here to save the environment. When I meet Bolsonaro supporters I tell them I want to stimulate tourism in the area. And that fixing the ecosystem means there will be more fish to catch. They love fishing.’
Apart from building a new house, their plans aren’t very substantial yet. They’ve been living in an old house that was already there. When the coronavirus hit Brazil, Ekkers spent some time alone there. Cut off from the rest of the world, he worked on his research, writing about the evolution of cheese bacteria’s carbon metabolism.
He didn’t even have a desk at first. ‘I made one myself from wood that was lying around.’ The internet connection was spotty. And it was hot: 35 degrees Celsius, with a completely saturated humidity level.
I’d wake up with bits of rotted ceiling on my face
The place was also crawling with mosquitoes, he says. ‘They were everywhere, all the time.’ There were also hornets and other stinging bugs, who would attack him at different times during the day. ‘The house has cracks everywhere, so you can’t keep them out. I’m basically being eaten alive.’ Insect repellent only works for thirty minutes. The only thing that works is ventilators.
The roof is also caving in. ‘I’d wake up with bits of the rotted ceiling all over my faces. Sometimes there’d be some bugs mixed in, too.’ He chuckles. ‘I guess that’s why there aren’t a lot of people living here. Friends who came out here to help couldn’t handle it. But it’s a great blank slate on which to build new things.’
He removes his cap and rubs his hand across his shorn scalp. Rillo squeezes herself between his chair and the wall in their small apartment in Oldenburg, where she’s doing a postdoc track at the university. They’ve been renting out their house in Groningen. They live soberly, spending as much money as they can on their jungle project.
Money is another practical problem. One option is to work in the Netherlands and travel to Brazil every once in a while. But they’d rather live in their own jungle and work for the university of São Paulo. Or even for the UG. They’d love to do research on biodiversity. ‘That’s our dream.’
Translation by Sarah van Steenderen