10 August 2008

A brief intro to the Amazon

An old Indian legend says God was not yet done with the Amazon when man showed up. So, the story goes, God decided to leave, expecting man not to last very long, when He would return to finish his work. Today, over 20 million people live in this unfinished work that stretches from the Andes in the west to the Atlantic in the east, from Guyana Plateau to the north from the Brazilian savannah to the south. It’s size is baffling, containing:

  • 5% of the world’s land.
  • 20% of global fresh water reserves.
  • 1/3 of the world’s forests.
  • 40% of South America.
  • 60% of Brazil.
  • 0.4% of the global population.

Despite being one large continuous forest, the Amazon is highly differentiated from geophysical and ecological perspectives. Clear examples the curious traveler will discover are differently colored rivers: from the deep black waters of the Negro river to the yellow muddy waters of the Solimoes, and their majestic meeting where the two colors travel for many miles, side-by-side without ever mixing. At such meeting, the traveler is likely to also meet the boto rosa, the pre-historic pink dolphin of the Amazon, figure of so many legends and forbidden stories in the region. Indeed, the traveler encounters one of the last frontiers of true wilderness.

Multiple ecosystems co-exist alongside and integrated with one another; while flooded forests and floodplains (locally known as igapó and varzea) cover 5% of the region, the remaining terrain comprises firm land forests. There are five distinct regions, with specific geographical as well as biological characteristics in each: the Atlantic Amazon, with seaside swamps along the coast of the Brazilian states of Pará and Amapá in Brazil; the central floodplain, which stretches from the Atlantic all the way to Peru, following the trace of the Amazon river; the northern plateau, a land of poor soils and, the farther one goes north, the more rocky and mountainous it becomes; the southern basin, a land of rich soils and wild muddy rivers; and cis-Andine Amazon, a transition zone that ends in the steep snowy slopes of the Andes. A typical four square mile patch anywhere in the Amazon harbors over 1500 species of flowering plants, 750 of trees, 125 of mammals, 400 of birds, 100 of reptiles, 60 of amphibians, and 150 of butterflies. Amazingly, the crown of a single tree, perhaps over 50 feet high, may play host to over five thousand species of insects.

This land is a region marked by biologic, geologic, economic and social diversity; centuries of explorers have documented such. As an example, many may recall the familiar legend of the Amazon women, a myth established when the first man to travel from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic, Francisco de Orellana purportedly encountered these ferocious women fighters in 1542. Since then, other adventurers, scientists and hope-seekers have traveled, studyied and occupyied the region, albeit with varying degrees of success. Among these, the most remarkable ones include:

  • Alexander von Humboldt, who mapped a passage connecting the Orinoco basin in Venezuela with the Amazon basin, the 300-mile long Casiquiare Canal, available for visit even today only to the most adventurous of travelers.
  • Henry Walter Bates and Alfred Russell Wallace, who collectively made one of the most productive natural history discoveries. Alfred would later co-discover (with Darwin) the theory of evolution.
  • Jacques Cousteau, the fearless modern adventurer and scientist who, as far as I know, is the only person with enough courage to have swum inside a school of piranhas.

Visiting the Amazon one cannot help but appreciate the difficulties and wonders these explorers encountered. From the airplane, the green carpet seems endless and peaceful; on the ground, it is anything but. First the traveler would notice chirps, beeps, squawks, and the plethora of other strange sounds that come from nowhere and everywhere at the same time. Next, the smells of freshness and blooming plants mix with the musty smell of decaying plants, marking the unending cycle of life and death in this jungle. Look up and one sees the static result of a centuries-long fight for light: vines intertwine with trees, branches reach higher and higher to outsmart each other in a desperate fight for sunlight. So efficient is this fight that a spot on the ground is likely to have sun directly shine on it only one time every 50 years, the point at which some neighboring tree finally gives up, dies, falls to the ground and leaves an opening in the canopy, a shred of hope to newborn trees. Life in such abundance is unimagined, yet overwhelming.

Alongside such natural exuberance, over 20 million people live. The history of human occupation in the Amazon stretches back 11 thousand years, around Monte Alegre, where archeological sites have been uncovered, noting the existence of fairly complex communities much earlier than previously expected and in a region where their existence was not considered possible only a few years ago. The adventurous traveler with a few days to spare can take a small plane from Santarém to Monte Alegre to visit the natives’ wall paintings still visible today. Ancient Indian populations are still present, though outsiders are rarely invited to visit. Though shocking to some, there are some small Indian tribes that have never encountered or been identified by us, Westerners; it is a tribute not to our inability, but rather to the amazing size of the forest.

The larger, non-indigenous occupation, however, came with the discovery of valuable natural products: most notably, rubber. Hevea Brasiliensis, the locally known seringueira, is the tree that yields this precious product as soon as Charles Goodyear invented the process of rubber vulcanization in 1839. By the end of the 19th century, with industry producing bicycles and automobiles at record pace, the market for rubber was indeniably hot. The wealth of Manaus, then the center of the rubber trade, is legendary; it was the first city in South America with electricity. Cobblestones, telephone systems, tramways were all imported from Europe, along with crystal chandeliers, pianos, champagne and caviar. The main standing reminder of this era is the Teatro Amazonas, the opera house in Manaus. For a population of only 30 thousand, the Opera House could sit 1,600 and contained glass, marble, and other opulent materials imported from Europe. Such wealth hid the tremendous hardships faced by the rubber tappers, as the trees were dispersed along the forest and resisted multiple attempts of domestication in plantations. Remains of dreams of domestication can be seen in Fordlândia today, aptly named after U.S. industrialist Henry Ford, along the banks of the Tapajós river.

Today, Brazilian development is encroaching upon the southern frontiers of the Amazon. Such is fertile land, and with the recent advances in agriculture in tropical climates, population growth and the appreciation of commodities in international markets, the economics have shifted. Over the past five years, deforestation has ranged between 15 and 26 thousand squared kilometers in Brazil. Put in perspective, the Brazilian portion of the Amazon is approximately 3.6 million square kilometers, so the current rate is between 0.4% and 0.7% per year, worrisome indeed. It is estimated that deforestation has reached approximately 20% of the region, mainly to give way to cattle breeding in the Brazilian states of Mato Grosso, Rondônia, and Pará. The socio-economic process at play is a large migration from southern states in Brazil, where land is already mostly occupied, to the southern Amazon, where there is abundant land and few people.

Despite global advances, a look at the people of the Amazon will also uncover an unenviable socio-economic situation. In the historic drought of 2005, hunger, disease and isolation threatened riverside populations. In the major cities, the traveler will uncover slums and difficult living conditions.
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