Simply... The Amazon's Hidden History


new internationalist
issue 219 - May 1991

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The people of the Amazon have left few historical records.
This is because most of their artifacts were made from wood and other
organic matter which would have rotted or disappeared. But attempts
are now being made to reveal the history of the forest and its people.

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[image, unknown] Recent scientific discoveries show that, far from being 'ageless', the Amazon rainforest has undergone dramatic natural transformations. The most notable were during the Ice-age. At this time the world's tropical regions became cooler and drier. The forest shrank and broke up, the savanna grasslands expanded. The small patches of forest or 'refugia' that remained did not all evolve in the same way, with the same vegetation or animal life. So, when the forest eventually came together again there was great genetic variety within it.

[image, unknown] Humans are only recent arrivals in the forest. They first crossed the frozen Bering Straits into North America about 30,000 years ago - reaching the lowlands and forests of Latin America between 15,000 and 20,000 years ago. People first started farming and settling on the Amazonian floodplains some 5,000 years ago. Few settlements were static: groups would migrate long distances through the forest, little of which was left completely untouched. Conflicts between groups were regular occurrences. The more archeologists discover about the forest the clearer it becomes that estimates of how many people were living in the Amazon before the arrival of Europeans will have to be revised upwards - to perhaps as many as 15 million.

[image, unknown] Soon after Columbus first set foot on American soil Pope Alexander VI divided the uncharted lands of the 'new world' between Spain on the Pacific coast and Portugal on the Atlantic coast. This happened at the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494. Quite coincidentally, most of the Amazon Basin fell within the area designated for Portuguese colonization. Initial contacts between Portuguese explorers and the Indians were fairly friendly. They focussed on the extraction of brazilwood - used to produce dye - after which the Portuguese 'colony' was named. The people were, of course, named 'Indians' by Europeans because of their mistaken belief that they had landed in India. Why the river was named the Amazon remains uncertain, but it seems likely that it was because women warriors resembling those in Greek mythology were thought to live there.

[image, unknown] The first European to navigate the Amazon was actually Spanish. Francisco de Orellana travelled downstream from Peru in 1542. For the next 150 years Portuguese interest in the Amazon was largely limited to unsuccessful attempts to recruit Indian labour ('red gold') for sugar plantations on the coast. But the indigenous peoples were not interested in working as wage labourers and violent conflicts ensued. The only Europeans to actually explore the rainforest were Christian missionaries - particularly the Jesuits. But in 1777 the first systematic attempt to develop the region was devised by the Portuguese Marquis of Pombal, mostly out of fear of encroachment by the Spanish, Dutch and British. He created the Companhía Grão Pará e Maranhão in imitation of the British East India Company as a state-backed entity to stimulate and monitor trade in the eastern Amazon region.

[image, unknown] A small trade in rubber had already begun during the eighteenth century; by 1800 Belém was exporting 450,000 pairs of rubber shoes to England. But it was only after Charles Goodyear accidentally discovered 'vulcanization' in 1842, and the industrial revolution increased demand for rubber products, that the Brazilian 'boom' got underway. Rubber trees existed nowhere else in the world. Commercial houses, initially financed by the British, extended credit to labourers who penetrated the furthest reaches of the Amazon in search of rubber trees. Once there, the seringueiros (rubber tappers) were ensnared in debt bondage to the estate owners, the seringalistas, who sold basic necessities to them at grossly inflated prices. The wealth of the trade reverted mostly to Manaus and Belém, and there was no attempt to establish rubber-based industry in the Amazon itself. The trade collapsed during the First World War with the development of rubber plantations in Asia from plants smuggled out of the Amazon.

[image, unknown] The great naturalists Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland travelled to the Amazon in 1799. This was to inspire botanists and explorers throughout the nineteenth century to roam the forest - to the displeasure of the Portuguese prior to Independence in 1821. These explorers returned with fantastic tales. The Amazon became the focus of nineteenth century romantic interest in the notion of the 'natural state' and 'the noble savage'. Mark Twain wrote: 'I was fired with a longing to ascend the Amazon. Also with a longing to open up a trade in coca with all the world. During months I dreamed that dream.'

[image, unknown] The US Navy conducted the first survey of the navigability of the Amazon in 1849. The first steamboats - which made it easier to ascend the river against the current - began operating in 1853. Growing US interest in the Amazon found one expression in US involvement in the revolution in the rubber-rich region of Acre, which in 1899 declared independence from Bolivia and finally became part of Brazil. The first of many US businessmen to devise grandiose schemes in the Amazon, Percival Farquhar, managed to raise $70 million in Europe for a variety of projects, including the completion of the Madeira-Mamoré railway in the middle of the jungle. It cost 6,000 lives to construct. Farquhar was ruined by the collapse of the rubber boom.

[image, unknown] Since the 1930s - and the 'New State' established by the military President Getúlio Vargas - the modern invasion of the Amazon has progressed along largely 'strategic' and 'geopolitical' lines. Particularly since the military coup in 1964, the 'incorporation' of the Amazon into Brazilian territory has been the main motive behind Government policies encouraging the colonization and deforestation of the area. Thus much of the initial deforestation in Rondônia and Pará took place around 'Development Poles' constructed by the Government from 1966 onwards. These were combined with a preference for 'big projects', building roads, dams and other debt-inducing industrial enterprises largely with the backing of multinational lending agencies like the World Bank.

This account is based substantially upon S Hecht and A Cockburn, The Fate of the Forest, Verso, London, 1989.

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