A River Below
Truth and ethics become a tangled mess in this gripping exposé of eco-activism in the age of alternative facts
Deep in the Amazon, the near-mythical pink river dolphin is being hunted to extinction. Two activists, a marine biologist and a TV star, are working tirelessly to protect the species. Yet as their efforts to raise public awareness become increasingly complex, a scandal erupts and serious ethical questions are raised. This surprising roller-coaster of a doc digs into the complexities of the modern media and the moral dangers of using the ends to justify the means.
Reviewed in The New York Times
Reviewed in The LA Times
Reviewed in The Hollywood Reporter “Oh no, the vultures are never a good sign.” For Fernando Trujillo, the presence of the scavenger birds is always ominous. As he moves closer in his small boat, his fears are confirmed: a rotting pink dolphin carcass floats in the shallows of the Amazon. “Every time I find a dead dolphin, it’s terrible.” A marine biologist, Trujillo has been finding more and more carcasses like this one since the turn of the century.
The rise in pink dolphin deaths has been triggered by the extensive fishing of the piracatinga fish, or ‘mota’ since 2000. The decline in Capaz fish stocks at that time led fishermen in the Amazon to switch to the similar looking, but carnivorous and mercury-laden alternative. The Amazon pink dolphin flesh is the perfect bait. Trujilo and Richard Rasmussen, a Nat Geo TV presenter and wildlife enthusiast, fear an impending human and ecological disaster, but feel almost powerless to prevent the fishing of the poisonous ‘mota’ and the extinction of the dolphin. “If someone kills a dolphin here, who will know? Nobody”, says Richard. With the government apparently unwilling to disrupt the big money fishing industry, the survival of the dolphin and the health of the Amazon communities are in jeopardy.
But when footage shot by Rasmussen shows fishermen butchering a pregnant pink dolphin and using it as bait, the situation alters dramatically. The video, aired by Brazilian news broadcaster Fantástico, causes public outrage and leads to a government ban on fishing for piracatinga, bringing the fishing industry - and the hunting of the pink dolphin - to an immediate halt. Rasmussen sees this intervention as “the most important thing I’ve done for wildlife in my whole life”.
However, Rasmussen’s self-proclaimed heroism is brought into question when it emerges that he has orchestrated the footage, offering the fishing communities supplies and money in exchange for their involvement. “Richard gave the orders and we did the work”, says one of the fisherman who was on the boat. Following the government-imposed ban on the fishing of piracatinga, the primary source of income for the Amazon fishing communities disappears.
"We plan to get together, get a gun, and kill him” says one villager. Fernando Trujillo acknowledges that his campaign to tackle the mercury levels in the fish, meant to save the dolphins and the villagers, has had a series of unintended consequences. “This is not about dolphins. It’s about ethics, it’s about economy, it’s about social issues. It’s not so simple.” He now fears for his life. “I received some phone calls. They told me I became the target of the fish traders who were thinking I wanted to destroy their business…I'm not here to kill the economy. What kind of world is this when a biologist needs to be scared to tell the truth?” Ultimately, he feels the government have behaved irresponsibly. “It’s the government’s responsibility to monitor and to say what is safe to eat. If they don’t do their job, many people are going to die.”