A journey to the heart of darkest Peru

PUBLISHED: 09:45 17 March 2017 | UPDATED: 09:45 17 March 2017

Robert Pattinson in The Lost City of Z.  Picture: AIDAN MONAGHAN

Robert Pattinson in The Lost City of Z. Picture: AIDAN MONAGHAN

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A film about missing explorer Colonel Percy Fawcett is set to spotlight the Amazon, finds Bridget Galton

Charlie Hunnam as Colonel Percy Fawcett. Picture: AIDAN MONAGHANCharlie Hunnam as Colonel Percy Fawcett. Picture: AIDAN MONAGHAN

The release of The Lost City of Z this month is set to focus attention on the Amazon and the indigenous people who live there.

Shot in Colombia, the movie stars Sienna Miller, Robert Pattinson and Charlie Hunnam as British explorer Colonel Percy Fawcett.

While on an expedition to the Brazilian jungle in 1925, Fawcett and his 22-year-old son Jack disappeared, never to be seen again.

Based on David Grann’s biography, James Gray’s film shows how the geographer and explorer believed he had discovered evidence of an unknown advanced civilisation while mapping the remote border areas between Peru, Bolivia and Brazil with aide-de-camp Henry Costin (Pattinson)

But upon his return, his theory was ridiculed by a scientific establishment who regarded indiginous peoples as savages.

After serving with distinction in WWI, and with support from his fesity sufragette wife Nina (Miller) he returned on his obsessive mission to find the ancient lost city he called Z.

Fawcett was the inspiration behind his friend Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger in the 1912 novel The Lost World - a book which itself inspired movies such as Jurassic Park and Indiana Jones.

John Forrest, Head of geography at William Ellis School in Highgate Road, hopes the movie raises awareness of the work of Belsize Park-based charity The Tambopata Reserve Society (TReeS)

The co-operative of biologists was founded back in 1986 to support conservation projects in the rainforest region of South Eastern Peru.

“The film doesn’t entirely focus on Fawcett’s time in Peru but he travelled there in the early 1900s prior to his disappearance,” says Forrest who is chairman of TReeS.

“The British had a lot of influence in the region and Peru was virtually a British colony. Fawcett determined the border demarcation between Peru and Bolivia and Bolivia and Brazil.

“He was prepared to go into an area that most shied away from because of the perceived dangers. He described it as a fly and snake infested place that no-one would want to visit – one of the villages is still called Infierno.”

Although he was a military man rather than a trained biologist, Fawcett reported many previously unknown species of animals and plants. Today jungle lodges and guides on the reserve are made available to British biologists and university expeditions carrying out field work around the river basin.

“Tambopata is the most biologically and culturally diverse region of the Amazon for birds, butterflies and insects as well as being home to groups of indigenous people,” says Forrest.

“Some expeditions are inventories to see what’s there because we still don’t know what’s in these tributary river basins.”

Run by volunteers, the society hands grants to Peruvian students undertaking field work such as probing the impact of mercury from goldmining on fish and invertebrates; studying bird species; measuring tree growth; or studying how to minimise the damage caused by fungus to brazil nuts.

The society also supports indigenous people to retain tribal knowledge - whether of medicinal remedies or spiritual traditions.

“They can’t just switch over to western medicine because they don’t have the money to pay for it, but they have all the plants growing on their doorstep,” says Forrest.

TReeS funded a centre where Shaman held workshops and treated patients. It is now run as an income generating venture by indiginous people where tourists can learn about healing plants.

TReeS also put together bilingual practical manuals on plants used to treat common illnesses.

“It’s a non-written language so we employed an anthropologist to work out how to write it down so they can retain that traditional knowledge.”

Another project saw elders taking younger members on expeditions to sites of their ancestral lands which are “important spiritually.”

“They don’t really have music but they have chants and we recorded the elders’ oral language so that it can be passed down. Otherwise a lot of them disappear.”

Fawcett’s final expedition was followed avidly by thousands of newspaper readers as he sent despatches from the jungle.

Then one day they stopped. A search expedition discovered his last camp but no sign of the explorer or his son.

Gray who wrote and directed the movie said Fawcett’s deadly obsession with the Amazon and its peoples was motivated “by many factors”.

“When I read David Grann’s book, one idea struck me as particularly worthy of exploration: here was a person for whom the search meant everything. His dream of finding an ancient Amazonian civilization sustained him through unimaginable hardships, the skepticism of the scientific community, startling betrayals and years spent away from his family.”

Learn more about the charity at Tambopata.org.uk

Lost City of Z is out in cinemas on March 24.

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