How does the Amazon River Influence the Growth of South America

Starting as a modest stream in the Peruvian Andes, the Amazon flows south and east until, by the time it reaches the Atlantic Ocean, it is the largest river on Earth by volume and the second longest. Over the course of its more than 4000 mile (6500 km) length the Amazon and its tributaries have the largest drainage basin in the world, encompassing 2.7 million square miles (7 million square kilometers). Within this vast region is the great Amazon rainforest, home to a third of the plant and animal species in the world. As the source of 20% of the world’s oxygen, the rainforest undoubtedly has an impact worldwide.

With all this, one would assume that the Amazon has a central role in the growth of Brazil and other South American countries. However, other than a brief rubber boom that prompted the founding of the city of Manaus, the Amazon played little part in development until recently. It’s not for lack of resources. The rainforest provides rubber, timber, medicinal plantseven Brazil nuts. There are reserves of natural gas and oil, potentially a rich source of energy. Deposits of manganese, gold, bauxite, and other minerals are plentiful. The river itself can be navigated by ocean going ships for a thousand miles inland to Manaus.

Despite its potential, the Amazon basin has remained largely undeveloped since it was first visited by Vicente Yanez Pinzon of Spain. He was the first of a long series of explorers, including Francisco de Orellana, who in 1540-1 gave the Amazon its name after supposedly being attacked by female warriors. These explorers soon found the Amazon rainforest to be a dangerous place. Heat, humidity, tropical diseases, and dangerous wildlife made the land unappealing for potential settlers. And so the Amazon remained all but untouched until the latter part of the 20th century.

In its effort to spur development, Brazil has greatly expanded transportation. The Trans-Amazon Highway runs 3,000 miles from the Atlantic through northern Brazil to the Peruvian border. Other highways and two railroads also provide easy access to the interior of the region. Thousands of poor people, mostly landless peasants, have begun to homestead along these transportation routes. Efforts to promote tourism, however, have met only limited success. Once away from the coast, the facilities for tourists are limited, and the heat and generally inhospitable climate deter potential tourists.

The chief economic activity, other than agriculture, is logging. There is no question that timber and other forest products represent tremendous economic potential. However, logged areas of the rainforest are proving difficult to restore, leading to extensive deforestation. This problem has brought Brazil and other South American countries face to face with still another barrier to tapping the potential of the Amazon basin: environmental concerns.

For South Americans, and Brazilians in particular, this presents a serious problem. On the one hand, persistent high levels of poverty and other economic woes make development and economic growth imperative. Yet, as timber companies have already discovered, there are definite limits to the ability of the rainforest to sustain and renew itself. On the other hand, even the most determined environmentalists are coming to recognize that the Amazon basin is not going to simply be left undeveloped. With the world-wide problem of global warming, the environmental concerns cannot be ignored, either.

The Brazilian government is very much in the thick of the debate. They are continuing to promote economic development with new roads and incentives for settlers to move into the Amazon basin. Brazil has also taken steps to limit deforestation.

It is too early to say how these issues will be resolved, but a consensus seems to be emerging. Itis based on the idea of “sustainable development.” Some types of development, such as mining and tourism, can be carried out with limited environmental impact. Tapping the vast hydroelectric power of the river system is feasible without creating excessive damage to the ecosystem. Scientists and environmentalists are coming around to the idea of limited exploitation of the timber resources, if tree-planting and other sustaining strategies are implemented. What is clear at this point is that the centuries in which the Amazon basin had only a minimal role in the growth of South America are gone forever. What remains to be seen is the degree to which the various interested parties will be able to hammer out compromises that promote responsible development while preserving the rich and important ecosystem that is the Amazon basin.