For me, this photo has a kind of uneasy, Lord of the Flies feeling to it. I have mixed feelings about its message – it is strange, and wonderful, and sad.
It’s sad for the two-toed sloth, who will be cooked and eaten by the boy’s family tonight. But it’s also sad for the boy who is only around eight or nine years old – and is already responsible for feeding his family. He heads off into the jungle surrounding his village with his machete, and kills what he can find. This sloth is a big one; his parents will be pleased.
I came across this scene on my first day in the Afroecuadorian village of Wimbi, in Ecuador’s Choco rainforest. I was being taken on a tour of the village by the local women and girls, when we encountered two small boys with a sack. The women, keen for me to experience as much of village life as possible, asked the boys to open the sack to show me what they had caught, and this strange, long-haired, green creature was dragged out. The little boys’ expressions were serious and slightly savage, in contrast with this boy’s playful unicorn sweater, and his companion’s brightly coloured, non-matching wellington boots.
But I didn’t want to be quick to judge. In a sweltering climate where week-long power cuts make refrigeration an unreliable option, yet the nine-hour round trip to the nearest market can only be carried out every couple of weeks, jungle meat is an important part of the diet in Wimbi. Sometimes the creatures – sloths, armadillos – would be captured but not killed, kept alive until they were going to be eaten. Wasn’t this better for the land than razing the forest to farm cattle? Is buying meat of indeterminate origin any more ethical than hunting?
I’m still not sure. But each time I see this photo, it makes me ask a lot of questions.