National Geographic photographer Charlie Hamilton James will visit Benaroya Hall on April 10-12 to discuss the BBC series, ‘I Bought A Rainforest,’ his conservation efforts and upcoming assignments. His talk is part of the “National Geographic Live!” series.
Charlie Hamilton James was closely observing a bald eagle’s nest when the vicious comments started rolling in. Episode One of “I Bought A Rainforest” had just aired on BBC, and Twitter users were quick to point out its privileged overtones.
“I got so much hatred from people, and then halfway through the program it kind of flipped,” James said. “They realized I wasn’t just a rich white-guy colonialist buying land and kicking people off of it.”
In 2014, James, a wildlife photographer for National Geographic, spent $10,000 on 100 acres of Peruvian rain forest adjacent to Manú National Park. His intent: protect the land, mainly from illegal logging. The catch: He had never seen the land before.
IF YOU GO
‘National Geographic Live!’ with Charlie Hamilton James
2 p.m. Sunday, 7:30 p.m. Monday-Tuesday (April 10-12), Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; tickets from $20 (206-215-4747 or benaroyahall.org). Note: tickets are limited for the Monday-Tuesday lectures.
BBC documented the unorthodox experience in the three-episode series appropriately titled “I Bought A Rainforest.” James will rehash his story Sunday through Tuesday night in Seattle’s Benaroya Hall as part of the “National Geographic Live!” speaker series.
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James and his family recently relocated from the U.K. to Jackson, Wyo., after spending time in Yellowstone National Park on assignment for National Geographic. He has recently been sent to South Africa and will travel to Kenya later this month.
His life makes for excellent television.
“I didn’t even buy a rain forest; I bought an illegal coca plantation. You couldn’t have made it up,” he said of his land purchase, which happened to contain a drug operation.
Cocaine, along with beef, gold and mahogany, are all goods that cause significant damage to the Amazon rain forest to be produced.
In one scene in “I Bought A Rainforest,” a family is burning down a portion of the Amazon larger than James’ land to make room for more cattle, while James holds back tears. He was troubled by his desire to protect the land at all cost, and the inconvenient truth that the locals need to strip the Amazon of its resources to survive.
“We expect them to maintain this pristine rain forest and we shout and complain when people cut it down,” James said. “We ignore the poor people of the world at our own peril.”
Elias, an illegal logger, had a particularly strong effect on James’ understanding of the issues facing the Amazon. Elias is shown continuing to log even after James’ plea to leave his land alone.
In his final attempt to halt the logging, James visits Elias’ home and meets his wife, who is pregnant, and daughter, who is severely mentally disabled.
Crippled with doubt about his decision to kick Elias off the land, James ultimately decides to hire him to reforest the land instead. A win-win at the time. However, after James left Peru and leased his land to a nongovernmental organization, Elias “slipped up” too many times and was eventually fired.
“We have this romantic image of the people of the forest, but people like Elias are people of the forest as well, whether we like it or not,” James said. “It’s not black and white, it’s not about bad guys doing this and good guys trying to save it.”
James hopes this is what his audience will take away.
“It’s not about blame. Firstly, we are all collectively responsible,” he said.
Buying up a patch of rain forest turned out to be a fruitful learning experience for the photographer, but does he think he made a difference? No.
And does he recommend it? No again. He thinks there are plenty of better ways to help.
“Eat less beef,” he says.
Oh, and stop buying things made of mahogany.