Indigenous South American Portal With Rainforest Landscape

Joanna Pinkerton, designer

This portal is the entrance to a malocca, a community house of the Tukanoan tribe living in the Amazon rainforest of Colombia. Tukanoans believe they are "children of the Primal Sun" and thus their community houses are built with the main opening, or the "male" entrance, facing east. The western entrance is seen as "female" and opens into the manioc gardens and rainforest, which are associated with the creative power of women. Manioc is a cultivated tropical plant grown for its fleshy edible rootstocks (leaf on the left side of the landscape with the moth). Social gatherings such as ceremonial dances and burial rites take place in the community house. The walls are built of wood and the roof is thatched with palm leaves. A shaman paints abstract decorative patterns on the walls flanking the doorway while in a ritual trance. These geometric patterns are derived from the beautiful ancestral houses which he visits in the spirit world (Oliver, 153-170).

The giant anaconda is the largest snake in the world. It is sacred to the Tukanoans and plays an important role in their creation story. They believe that the anaconda swam west up the rivers from the Amazon and stopped at the "waking up places" leaving the Tukanoan ancestors to build their homes.

The portal frames a view of a tropical rainforest. "Tropical jungles cover 7% of the earth's land surface and contain over half of all plant and animal species." However, "the rainforest is being destroyed at the rate of one football field a second," reports Dr. Noel Brown, director of the United Nations Environment Program in 1991. About one fourth of the carbon dioxide that humans add to the atmosphere comes from burning the rainforest (Bergstrom, video). Three-fifths of the world's rainforests are in Central and South America and have a rainfall of greater than 80 inches a year. 60 to 80% of the available nutrition to sustain life is found above ground in the rainforest canopy. The interdependence of plants and animals is a result of the soil's incapability to retain nutrients because of leaching from heavy rains (Simon, 11-16). Destruction of the rainforest has occurred through logging and the clearing of the forest to build highways, homes and agricultural sites.

The large tree in the foreground with the buttressed roots is a castanha de macaco tree, examples of which are now known to live over 1000 years. Another long living tree is the Brazil nut tree; its pods can hold 10 to 25 nuts. Both the castanha de macaco and Brazil nut trees are being cut for timber. Since the rainforest does not have distinctive growing periods, the life span of these ancient trees was unknown until the late 1990's when researchers used carbon dating to verify their age (Lewington, 58-65). The palm tree to the left of the castanha de macaco is called the "tree of life" because it provides food, roping and wood for building (Lewington, 58, 60, and 63).

Nearing extinction is the jaguar, seen in the background behind the trunk of a Brazil nut tree, and the ocelot, in the foreground. Both felines are hunted for their valuable pelts (Grolier, Vol. 6, 27, 35). A giant otter is near the bank of the river where the Orinoco crocodile swims (Grolier, Vol. 7, 28). Both are endangered due to loss of habitat and the high price their pelts bring in the market. The spix macaw (the parrot-like bird in the tree) and the eastern razor-billed curassow (the turkey-like bird on the ground) are probably now extinct (Grolier, Vol. 2, 25). The rare harpy eagle preys on animals in the upper canopy of the rainforest and requires a large undisturbed area of land for its territory (Simon, 185). Tree frogs and lizards live in the rainforest and consume insects including many beautiful butterflies. Insects are also the mainstay of the giant anteater's diet. A longhaired spider monkey with her baby sits atop the thatched roof. The number of spider monkeys is unknown "but the species is greatly threatened (with) extinction due to hunting . . . and continual deforestation . . . " (Grolier, Vol. 6,70).