Natural causes

Ricardo seemed an unlikely environmentalist.
Jenny James tells of his life – and death.

There are no two ways about it: Ricardo was crazy. He was our nearest neighbour and one of our best friends. He was also one of the most successful men around: his tree-felling, opium-poppy-growing lifestyle had enabled him to set up a discotheque in Rovira, the nearest hamlet, where he sold drink and junk foods.

But he was not happy: his even-grumpier wife was leaving him. He started spending a lot of time on our farm. He would weed carrots in silence beside me, or play for hours with our pet monkey or simply sit in our kitchen while food was being prepared.

Once he arrived during birthday celebrations: we were putting on quite an elaborate theatre show for our own entertainment. He watched reverently, though it was in English, and later returned with a message from the local Community Action Group, of which he was a prominent member: please would we perform for the people of Rovira on Mother’s Day? I was horrified. We did not consider ourselves professionals and had never done such a thing before. I argued and wriggled. He held his ground. And won.

We put on our three-hour theatre in Rovira on Mothers’ Day.

Ricardo was a good community leader. He was neither swayed unduly by the guerrillas, nor by empty Government promises. He grew closer to us, not out of any heartfelt environmental concern, but because he was bored and saw us as a possible source of fresh influence (and maybe affluence). Just before he died, aged 34, he became the lover of Anne, a community member.

For a long time, Ricardo had been moaning at us to buy his farm, which included a huge area of virgin forest. We simply had no money, our environmental campaign had scarcely begun and large sums of money (like $5,000) were not our forte.

But Ricardo knew how strongly we felt about trees and made a clever move. One day, when I was resting with the children on our ‘afternoon log’, we were jolted out of our reverie by the hideous sound of chain-saw teeth snarling and gnawing nearby. Then the inevitable sickening thud. Then another. And another.

Ricardo was felling the forest that stood between his farm and ours. The children and I held on to one another in tears. Louise, 15 at the time, quietly and savagely muttered: ‘I hope a tree falls on him.’

Ricardo’s smart move did wonders for our Green Campaign: in pain at the tree felling, I wrote an impassioned plea for help to the green movements of Europe. The miracle happened: an English couple I will probably never meet sent the money and we saved the rest of Ricardo’s forest, leaving him the already opened land.

Surprisingly, our friendship with him deepened, though it never cured his grumpiness. He brought me flowering shrubs and tree cuttings to plant. He asked to come along and support us when we had a big meeting with the southern-region guerrilla commander to get permission for some young Irishmen to make a video of the area. And, most amazingly, he showed interest in giving up his disco and turning it into an environmental centre.

I started giving him beautiful maps and posters of Amazonia, which he stuck up on his walls next to pictures of naked women on motorbikes, photos of Rambo and paintings of a self-pitying blonde, blue-eyed Jesus.

One day I left for a rare trip to Bogotá. Soon after, Anne phoned me. She was choked with tears.

‘Ricardo is dead,’ she sobbed.

In Colombia, it is so unusual for a man to die young from anything other than violence that they specify ‘Murió de muerte natural’ – he died from natural causes.

Ricardo had been fainting a lot. Anne insisted he see a doctor, who found nothing wrong. A few days later, Ricardo dropped dead from a massive brain haemorrhage whilst digging out a huge pit to make a fish-farm next door to us.

Some months later, I was discussing the dangers of tree-felling with a neighbour after one of our lads had an accident.

‘Yes,’ said the neighbour, ‘that’s what happened to Ricardo – his fainting fits began after a branch fell on him when he was cutting the forest next to you.’

Jenny James has lived and worked in the Colombian rainforest since 1987. ~ End 3 ~

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