The photographer Leonardo Carrato has known Aladino Mimico for more than seven years now. Mimico is a Shaman living in Pebas, a village in the Amazon rainforest, and when Carrato visits, usually for one-month stays, he becomes a member of his family. He goes with him to search for food and medicine in the forest, and he returns with him for healing sessions during the day. At night, he listens to myths–stories long passed down from one generation to the next.
The years-long friendship began when the photographer set out to understand the brutal history of colonialism, globalization, and their effects on Indigenous communities in the Amazon. At the same time, he also wanted to learn about what these communities could teach us about sustainability in the age of climate change and widespread deforestation. For that, Carrato knew he had to start with a Shaman, a leader equipped with the knowledge to show him the way.
Traveling throughout Amazon isn’t a simple feat, but Carrato had a way in: the Italian photographer Ernesto Bazan invited him to a workshop in Iquitos, Peru. From there, he crossed the Amazon, and two months later, found himself in Belém do Pará, Brazil. On the way, it was in Pebas, along the Ampiyacu River, that he met Mimico, a member of the Bora Indigenous community, who have called the Amazon their ancestral home for generations.
“Aladino’s story begins in Brazil, on the border with Peru, where his grandfather and father were enslaved in the rubber industry in the early 1900s,” the photographer explains. “On the run from a cruel reality, they found asylum together with their own people in Pebas. As his father and grandfather were also Shamans, they were finally able to pass on all their vast knowledge to Aladino.”
The definition of “shaman” changes based on where you are and who you ask, but in the Amazon, Carrato says the term encompasses many different roles, including the role of a scientist, doctor, and historian. “The Shaman is the person who is responsible for connecting the material and the immaterial or subjective world,” he says. “In Indigenous cosmology and from an Amerindian perspective, the forest is a great chaotic center populated by a diversity of beings, and the shaman, using a western term, needs to act as a diplomat to establish a certain natural order among those who are there.”
(For a more thorough understanding of the importance of a shaman in these communities, he recommends reading the work of the Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro; Davi Kopenawa, the shamanic leader of the Yanomami; and the Brazilian philosopher Déborah Danowski.)
As Carrato stresses, Mimico is a shaman “24 hours a day, even when dreaming.” He’s also a husband to his wife, Juana Mimico, and the father of eleven children. A guardian of the knowledge passed down to him by his father and his father’s father, he’s also seeing the world change rapidly around him. Younger generations are leaving for bigger cities, and few are interested in becoming shamans and inheriting the wisdom that comes with it.
Meanwhile, Indigenous communities face prejudice, and their land continues to be exploited. “The Amazon is facing an extremely delicate moment, with the impact touching the entire planet,” Carrato says. The Amazon is a carbon sink, absorbing massive emissions and helping to offset climate change. Just this year, however, January saw a record-breaking destruction of trees. President Jair Bolsonaro has lifted legal protections for the area. More than 10,000 species of plants and animals face serious risk of extinction.
Combined, these pressures have taken a toll on the Shaman and left scars both literal and psychological. He’s torn between his duties as a shaman and the knowledge that his people’s traditions and way of life are under threat. “The Bora live today in a region where, in addition to the aforementioned activities, they also face drug trafficking, the struggle for land against large landowners, and the exodus of the population to large centers in search of work,” Carrato explains.
The coca plant has been used in religious rituals, rites, and traditions across generations, and it plays an important role in the work of a shaman. At the same time, modern pressures have resulted in the exploitation of the plant, which is also used in the production of cocaine. Given decreasing resources and opportunities, some have been forced to turn to coca for survival, with fewer and fewer people understanding its history.
As a shaman, Mimico has had to consume large doses of coca as part of healing practices, spiritual duties, and everyday tasks. But when that consumption was combined with the pressures of a changing cultural landscape and dwindling natural resources, he suffered an internal hemorrhage and had to be hospitalized. He almost died. His recovery is ongoing.
Others in the community face health challenges, physical and mental, and a lack of resources to help. During one of Carrato’s visits, a man died by suicide. An announcement of the death was made over a loudspeaker. A very young child died of an infection.
Carrato believes that Mimico agreed to their collaboration for a simple reason: to tell his story. In the face of a crisis in his community, this is one way he can show the world what’s happening. “Indigenous culture is transmitted mainly orality, and as many of the younger members of the community seek other ways of living, much can be lost, including the sacred stories that were passed from generation to generation through conversations,” the photograph says. “With this, Aladino also understands the importance and power of transmitting knowledge through photography.”
In recent years, Carrato has spent a lot of his time at the sacred mount, where the Bora Shaman does spiritual work, finds essential plants, observes the wildlife, and takes time for reflection. It took the photographer three years to be allowed in this place. “Accessing it requires knowledge of Indigenous culture, clarity of thought, and a greater understanding of shamanism and the Amerindian perspective,” he says. “The walk is exhausting, but physical and mental exhaustion is necessary.”
He’ll never forget the moment he first reached the mount. “I’m not sure if I’ll be able to put into words the feelings I experienced, but it’s something that goes beyond what is usually understood,” he admits. “There seems to be a clarity and everything seems to make sense. It is a feeling of integration, of belonging.”
It’ll take collective action and long-term resistance to stop the devastation in the Amazon. In the meantime, Mimico, and the community are doing the best they can to survive. The Shaman and the photographer speak on the phone often. Carrato is listening, and he hopes the world will too. “The moment is urgent,” he says. “We don’t have much time.”
All images © Leonardo Carrato. En Bora by Leonardo Carrato is an ongoing and evolving project. You can follow the photographer on Instagram at @leonardocarrato for updates. Carrato was selected as the 3rd Place Winner of the Climate Change Award at last year’s BarTur Photo Award. This year’s awards are currently open, with free entries accepted through June 30th.