The Amazon region boasts some of the oldest traces of pre-Colombian civilization in the Americas. Advanced indigenous cultures were fishing, growing corn, and making highly decorative ceramic vessels thousands of years before the arrival of any Europeans. The first white man to arrive on the scene was Spanish navigator Vicente Yañez Pinzõn, in 1501. Pinzõn was searching for the mythical land of gold and plenty known as Eldorado. Upon observing the great muddy Amazon River streaming out into the blue Atlantic, he was so impressed that he mistakenly referred to the river as the “Mar Dulce,” or Sweet Sea (i.e., not salty).
Evidently though, Pinzõn wasn’t impressed enough to actually sail up the Amazon. That privilege would belong to Portuguese explorer Pedro Teixeira who, in 1639, not only entered the Amazon, but sailed 3,200 kilometers (2,000 miles) upstream. In doing so, he claimed all of the territory east of Ecuador for the Portuguese crown. Although in 1616, a fortified outpost had been built at the river’s mouth—giving birth to the town of Belém—most of the Amazon remained wild and remote for decades.
The first Europeans to take interest in settling the region were Catholic missionaries who sailed up the river and established missions in Indian villages. In return for “seeing the light,” the Indians were expected to work as unpaid labor. They also unwittingly introduced the white men to the secret riches of the forest: precious woods, vanilla beans, cinnamon, pepper, and Brazil nuts.
As word got out, Portuguese traders and merchants looking to make a buck settled along the river and enslaved Indians to help them gather, cultivate, and ship these coveted items off to Europe. Indians who weren’t amenable to such working conditions were slaughtered or forced to retreat farther into the forest (where some remain to this day).
When Brazil became independent in 1822, the Amazon was still very isolated from the rest of the country and quite undeveloped. Cultural and economic ties to Europe, and even America, were stronger than those to Rio de Janeiro. In truth, Belém and Manaus were much closer in travel distance to Lisbon and New York than they were to the Brazilian capital.
Interestingly, it was an American innovation that completely transformed the region in the 19th century. In the 1840s, Charles Goodyear invented vulcanization, a process by which natural rubber could withstand incredibly high and low temperatures, and hence be used to manufacture rubber tires, boots, rainwear, and electrical insulation. At the time, sources of natural rubber were scarce. Yet unbeknownst to the rest of the world, Amazonian Indians had been using the milky sap of the hevea brasilienses (a.k.a. rubber tree) to make natural rubber for centuries. Once the white man got ahold of this Amazonian secret, all hell broke loose.
Fortune seekers from all around the globe descended upon the Amazon, the only known source of the rubber tree. Conquering vast swathes of forests, they built complexes for processing rubber, and lodgings for the masses of seringueiros (rubber tappers) who swarmed to the area in search of work. Aside from caboclos (local riverside dwellers of mixed Indian and European ancestry), there were many poor immigrants who traveled from Brazil’s Northeast. For the most part, these workers were treated like slaves. Conditions were so brutal that many succumbed to numerous diseases and died.
As for the fortune-seeking “rubber barons” (as they were called), many struck it rich. The steamships that sailed down the Amazon and across the Atlantic, carrying cargoes of precious rubber, made the return journey stocked with fine English porcelain, the latest French fashions, Italian wines, and other finery that allowed the barons to live it up in the middle of the jungle as if they were in London or Paris.
Imported materials were also used to build and furnish both public and private palaces that sprang up amidst the elegant new avenue and squares of Belém and Manaus. By the dawn of the 20th century, both cities were fabulously wealthy and their ruling elites had ambitions of them surpassing even Rio de Janeiro as the most glamorous and progressive capitals in Brazil. The heady atmosphere was such that there were tales of rubber barons who lit their cigars with large denomination bills and sent off their dirty laundry to be washed and ironed in Europe. Steel magnate Andrew Carnegie supposedly stated (wistfully): “I should have chosen rubber.”
However, a decade later, practically overnight, the boom went bust. After hevea brasilienses seeds were smuggled out of the Amazon by a crafty Englishman, new plantations in British colonies of Malaysia and Ceylon supplanted Brazil as a cheaper and more efficient source of rubber. The industry experienced a brief revival during World War II, when the Japanese interfered with East Asian rubber production. However, the subsequent popularization of synthetic rubber in the 1940s and ’50s brought the rubber era to a definitive end.
After the demise of rubber, the Amazon fell into a spectacular decline from which it never fully recuperated. Over the last few decades, there have been various mini-booms linked to the excavation of gold and minerals as well as cattle ranching and, most recently, the lucrative cultivation of soybeans. While spawning economic growth and attracting landless migrants from the poor Northeast to the region, these activities have also led to the continued devastation of the precious rainforest.
In the 1980s, deforestation of the Amazon reached a peak, causing vocal environmentalists (including rock star Sting) to alert the world to the threats facing the world’s largest source of oxygen and freshwater. Equally threatened are over 13,000 plant species (the majority still unidentified) whose potential uses as food, medicine, and cosmetics are seemingly unlimited. Since the late 1990s, with the help of multi-agency police operations and high-tech satellite monitoring, the Brazilian government has increasingly cracked down on illegal forest clearing and logging. Moreover, following President Lula’s 2003 nomination of Marina Silva (an Amazonian native and former rubber tapper) as minister of the environment, deforestation rates fell somewhat between 2003 and 2007.
During this time, more than 49 million acres of Amazon forest were designated as environmental reserves where only Amazon Indians have the right to carry out sustainable activities such as rubber tapping, fishing, and Brazil nut harvesting. As a small form of reparation for past brutalities, native groups currently have permanent rights to 21 percent of the Amazon. Meanwhile, the battle to preserve the rainforest, while allowing the economy to grow in a sustainable manner, continues to present an essential challenge.
© Michael Sommers from Moon Brazil, 2nd Edition