Despite all the uproar in the last two decades and a half, the
Amazon is still an impressive and mostly intact forest with a size two thirds of the
For centuries the Amazon has been a source of inspiration and awe for all kinds of
dreamers and lunatics. Explorers and adventurers have entered it in search of riches or
some more intangible goods like the warrior women Amazons or the fountain of youth. Two
Americanscar pioneer Henry Ford with rubber trees in the ’30s and eccentric
billionaire Daniel Ludwig, who poured $3 billion in paper pulp, cattle raising and rice
planting projects during the ’70swere just some of the many people who tried to
conquer the region and were defeated by what has been often called as the Green Hell.
The so-called Amazônia Legal (Legal Amazon) which extends for nine Brazilian states
covers 5.2 million square km (2 million sq. miles) two thirds of which are in Brazilian
territory. If it were a country, it would be the world’s sixth largest one. The region
contains a wider variety of fauna and flora than any other place on earth. More than 1,500
bird species live there, as well as 3,000 fish species (that’s 15 times more than in all
European rivers). It is also believed that the number of insects that make the Amazon home
surpasses 30 million.
The number of plant species is unknown. Estimates vary from 5 million to 30 million.
Thirty thousand of them have been classified, representing 10% of all plants in the world.
One single acre in the Amazon contains close to 200 tree species. The forest has several
distinct layers. The biggest trees can reach 40 meters (130 feet). The upper canopy grows
generally 25 to 30 meters high (80 to 100 feet).
Since 1970 Brazil has created 124 environment parks and reservations which occupy more
than 45,000 square km (17,400 square miles), an area larger than Switzerland. In all,
Brazil has 1.8% of its total territory put aside as protected land. That’s too little,
though. By comparison, Colombia has 8% and Venezuela, 15%. To complicate matters, in less
than 30 years, 600,000 square km (231,700 square miles) of forestan area larger than
Despite occupying roughly half of the country’s territory, the Amazon is residence for
only 12% of Brazil’s 160-million strong population and contributes a miser 5% to the GDP
(Gross Domestic Product). Illiteracy reaches 25%, while the country’s average is 19%.
Annual per-capita income is 2,059, less than half the national average. Life expectation
is also lower in the area: 63 years compared to 67 years for the population in general.
Living in reservations that take close to 1 million square km (386,000 square
miles)20% of the Amazonthere are 280,000 Indians belonging to 210 different
ethnic groups, and speaking 170 languages. If you also count natives living in cities
there are more than 300,000 of them.
In 1500, when Brazil was discovered by Portuguese navigator Pedro Álvares Cabral,
there were an estimated 6 million Indians. In the ’50s this number had fallen to less than
100,000. It is believed that at least 50 tribes have never had any contact with anybody
else than their fellow Indians. In one of the few good news in the ecological battle, the
Indian population in Brazil is growing at a rate of 3.5% a year, almost triple the 1.3%
for the population in general.
The Amazon river, which cuts the Amazon from west to east, together with its 1,100
tributaries carry 20% of all potable water in the planet. Seventeen of its tributaries are
over 1,000 miles long. The river drains an area as big as the continental United States.
The Amazon stretches itself for 6,868 km (4,268 km miles). More than 2,000 species of fish
live in its waters.
The military regime dream of occupying the Amazonone of its favorite slogans was integrar
para não entregar (to integrate so not to give it way)created among other
public works the Rodovia Transamazônica, a 5,000 km-long (3,100 miles) road cutting
inside the jungle between João Pessoa, in the state of Paraíba, and the border of Brazil
with Peru. The jungle has retaken the precarious path and today only 1,000 km (621 miles)
are passable part of the time. But it is a road only for the adventurous.
The government is spending $1.4 billion in a controversial, corruption-marred
radar-based system to monitor air traffic in the Amazon, as well as fires and all kinds of
invasions, including those of Indian lands by garimpeiros (wildcat gold
prospectors)they are believed to throw 20 tons of mercury illegally used for gold
panning on the water streams each year and the sem-terra (those
without land). It is the Sivam (Sistema de Vigilância da AmazôniaAmazon Watch
System), which should start operating in 2002. The twenty-radar system will also use data
from eight weather and environmental satellites as well as five planes specially built,
which will be able to look through the thick jungle vegetation. Today, Ibama has 275
inspectors to oversee the whole of the Amazon, or 18,500 square km (7,142 square miles)
for each one of them, an area almost as big the state of New Jersey.
The Brazilian official position on the Amazon has changed dramatically (at least on
paper) since 1972, when the military regime informed the world during the Stockholm
Environment Conference that Brazil considered its own development much more important than
concerns with pollution and deforestation.
Today there are plans to explore the enormous potential of the area for ecological
tourism. Amazonas Governor Amazonino Mendes, who oscillates between defender of the
environment and very good friend of the lets-cut-down-the-forest lobby, has some Amazonian
plans such as building a monorail inside the jungle together with a floating hotel large
enough to receive up to 30,000 visitors.
"Until now the premise to economically explore the Amazon was to cut the
forest," says ecology professor and WWF (World Wild Fund for Nature) executive
director Garo Batmanian. "There are smart alternatives to that and they need to be
The world spent $260 billion in eco-tourism last year. Costa Rica, with a forest 100
times smaller than the Brazilian one got $600 million. Only $40 million was spent on
Brazilian’s most famous jungle. A ridiculously low 0,01% of the total eco-tourism bill.
And nobody else has an Amazon so rich and so vast.