The Amazon River is about four thousand miles long. Only the river Nile is longer. But, unlike the Nile, The Amazon isn’t just a river. It’s a massive river system with more than a thousand tributaries, and seventeen of these are over a thousand miles long. At any one time, this mighty river system holds more than half the river water in the world. More water pours from its mouth in a day than leaves the Thames in a year and at its mouth it’s like the sea, for the banks are as far apart as London and Paris.
The Amazon jungle, the largest tropical rainforest in the world, extends for almost two and a half million square miles, an area almost the size of the United States of America. Just as impressive as its size is the variety of life it contains, for there are more living species in this jungle than anywhere else on earth.
It would seem that one reason for this wealth of life is the great age of the jungle. Some say sixty million years, some a hundred million years, but all are agreed that much of the Amazon Rain Forest has been in existence for a very long time, long enough for this great variety to evolve, long enough, too, for some amazing partnerships to develop between its inhabitants.
The interdependence of species is normal throughout the world. Every form of life, including human life, is part of the tree of life. Without insects to pollinate their flowers, many plants cannot reproduce themselves. Without the food provided by smaller animals and by plants, birds and mammals would simply starve. We are all quite familiar with this kind of dependence. In the jungle, though, many species have become totally and exclusively dependent on each other. One of the most amazing of these stories of total interdependence is the life history of the fig tree and the fig wasp.
So, in the jungle, the tree of life is very strong. Over millions of years, life forms have evolved to fill every available niche. Some have specialised to live entirely in the tree tops, some entirely on the forest floor, some even to spend the whole of their life on a single epiphyte high up on a branch of one of the giant trees.
All of this life, of course, includes the animals, and the Amazon is well supplied with animals; some well known, others less so; some attractive, others quite the opposite; and others so strange it is difficult for us to believe they really do exist.
People, too, are part of the tree of life. In the forest this is more obvious than it is in our developed world, for there the forest people take their place in the balance of life that has developed over thousands of years. And these people have lived in the Amazon for at least twenty thousand years.
There are many distinct tribes, the Yanomamo, the Ticunas and the Auka being just some of them. There are estimated to be about twenty thousand Yanomamo in a territory of about sixty thousand square miles in the region of the Venezuelan border to the north west of Brazil. And the Yanomamo are special because they are the oldest and most numerous of the tribes.
Their way of life may well seem primitive, even savage, to people accustomed to twenty-first century western affluence. And indeed, the way of life is, undeniably, simple in material terms. It is, though, also undeniable that the Yanomamo are perfectly adapted to the place in which they live. Unlike our civilization, which uses natural resources with little or no thought for the future, the Yanomamo have a way of life which, protected from outside interference, could survive for the next twenty thousand years, and more.
Total population: 120 million
Peasants with no land: 50 million
One in five children dies before its sixth birthday
The Arid North East
Life expectancy: 30 years One child dies every minute
Total population: 12 million
47% of houses have no piped water.
70% have no drains.
The average wage of a shanty town dweller: twenty pence an hour.
10,000 people a week come to the city in search of work.
During the last thirty years, there have been enormous changes in Brazil. The population has risen from 120 million to 205 million. There has been a massive improvement in the country’s economic prosperity. However, in the months before the Olympic Games 2016, the noisy demonstrations by the poor who live in the overcrowded favelas of Rio demonstrated to the world that Brazil remains a country of stark contrasts, where the few accumulate great wealth and the many live in conditions of great poverty.
Ever since the 1970s, the government of Brazil has seen the Amazon as one solution to the problem. People were given easy credit to help them move away from their poverty. They were given a piece of land and cheap housing close to one of the new roads which have opened up the forest for development. Over the years, hundreds of thousands of people have moved to the Amazon.
And this pressure of migrating people, this organised movement of the landless poor, continues to this day. Those early migrants had great hope in their hearts, and so it is even now. Thousands of people are still trying to leave their poverty and their despair behind them, as they set out for the Amazon with great enthusiasm.
So now, the people who had no land have their own farms. Things in the jungle might be uncomfortable, but at least they have planted their crops and can hope for a good harvest.
Their new home is likely to be on the edge of one of the big new roads, such as the Trans Amazonian Highway. It’s an impressive sounding name, but it’s really just a very long, single track dirt road. The farm is probably near one of the frontier towns which have sprung up to cater for the incomers. These towns look for all the world like the wild west towns in the cowboy films, with a general store, a saloon bar, and a few other hastily erected wooden shacks. The towns are always very busy because, once the road has been built, the jungle is open to anybody who wants to go there in the hope of a new life or a quick profit.
In these frontier towns there is often conflict between the Indians and the townspeople, as the Indians fight to protect the territory they have held for thousands of years and the townspeople attack to defend themselves from people they see as simply wild and dangerous savages.
So this is what home is now like for the new farmers as they patiently wait for their crops to grow. And they must wait with a certain amount of confidence, for the Amazon gives the appearance of great fertility; the land seems to support a great quantity of life. It is natural to expect that, once the trees have been cleared, the land will be very productive.
But, in fact, this is not the case, for the richness of a jungle is in the trees, not in the soil.
At best, then, life in the jungle is very hard for these peasant migrants. At worst it becomes so impossible they return to their old way of life, leaving behind them land stripped of its trees.
Prospectors also have their effect on the jungle, for the Amazon holds rich deposits of minerals. During the 1980s the discovery of gold in the north western border area of Brazil sparked off a gold-rush, with devastating consequences for the Yanomamo and for the forest they call their home. 10,000 gold prospectors invaded their land. These intruders were desperately poor people themselves and were trying to find a new life among the trees. What they found instead was a hostile environment and dangerous working conditions. The effect on the Yanomamo was catastrophic. Western diseases and conflict with the newcomers combined to reduce their population by nearly a fifth in only a few years. The gold mining and the problems it brings to the forest and its people continue to this day.
Despite such dramatic developments, however, individuals, be they peasant farmers or gold prospectors, have only a limited effect on the forest as a whole. Huge international companies contribute most to the speed of forest destruction. Some of these companies are farming the land for soya bean production; some are harvesting the trees for their timber; others are simply clearing vast areas of the forest for ranching.