In 1542, the Omagua tribe of the Amazon River basin made a terrible strategic mistake: They saved the lives of a band of starving Spanish explorers. After the Spaniards recovered, they continued upriver, pillaging and killing. So began the violence and despoliation that continue today. The Omagua are barely hanging on; many other tribes are gone forever.
Chris Feliciano Arnold’s The Third Bank of the River presents a wide-ranging panorama of this vast region in western Brazil, so full of both promise and suffering. Combining history, contemporary reporting and memoir, Arnold entwines the stories of the region’s Amazon River basin’s endangered indigenous tribes, the violence of the jungle city Manaus and its economy of environmental exploitation and cocaine trafficking.
The days when rubber barons worked natives to death are gone, but the tribes still face threats—particularly from the diseases of Caucasians. In one astonishing incident from 2014, an isolated tribe under pressure from illegal loggers raided a less isolated village, but were gravely sickened by contact with stolen clothing.
In Manaus, the paramilitary police have become a gang competing with drug cartels. In retaliation for the killing of an off-duty cop, death squads of officers assassinated dozens of random victims in drive-by shootings during 2015’s “Bloody Weekend.” Arnold follows the investigation into the massacre, and uncovers the life of one victim—an ordinary man who loved to dance.
In these travels, Arnold is undergoing his own process of self-discovery. Born in Brazil, then adopted as an infant by an Oregon family, he sees how easily he could have been one of the lost boys of Manaus. But all is not hopeless: public health experts treat the tribes, anthropologists debate how best to protect them, missionaries do their best to help. Brazil’s political system may be in crisis, but decent individuals persevere.