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The Tragedy of the Amazon

The Last Rain Forests: A World Conservation Atlas

edited by Mark Collins, foreword by David Attenborough
Oxford University Press, 200 pp., $29.95

Neotropical Rainforest Mammals: A Field Guide

by Louise H. Emmons, illustrated by François Feer
University of Chicago Press, 281 pp., $19.95 (paper)

The Fate of the Forest: Developers, Destroyers and Defenders of the Amazon

by Susanna Hecht, by Alexander Cockburn
Verso, 266 pp., $24.95

World Resources, 1990–1991: A Guide to the Global Environment

a Report by the World Resources Institute
Oxford University Press, 383 pp., $17.95 (paper)

Government Policies and Deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon Region

by Dennis J. Mahar
The World Bank, 56 pp., $5.95 (paper)

Developing Amazonia: Deforestation and Social Conflict in Brazil’s Carajás Programme

by Anthony L. Hall
Manchester University Press, 295 pp., $45.00

The Decade of Destruction: The Crusade to Save the Amazon Rain Forest

by Adrian Cowell
Holt, 215 pp., $19.95

Anatomy of the Amazon Gold Rush

by David Cleary
University of Iowa Press, 245 pp., $17.95 (paper)

If 1989 was the year of revolution in Eastern Europe, 1988 was the year of drought and fire in the Americas. It was a year of growing public concern about global warming, with dire projections of melting ice caps and ozone depletion. It was a year of dramatic images of the charred remnants of once majestic forests from the Rockies to the Amazon basin. For the first time the destruction of the tropical rainforest of Brazil became a major issue for North Americans and for people concerned about the danger to the environment throughout the world. But how did this vast ecological disaster occur? What can be done to deal with its effects?

Some answers to these questions are provided by the books under review, each of which deals with some aspect of the tragedy of the Amazon. Another kind of answer is provided by the controversy over the murder in December 1988 of Francisco “Chico” Mendes, the ecologically minded leader of the Brazilian rubber tappers union whose two convicted killers, a father and son, were sentenced in December to nineteen years in prison. This article will examine the crisis in the Amazon and its causes. A second article will be devoted to the extraordinary story of Chico Mendes, and to potential remedies for the Amazon crisis, among them the idea of “extractive forest reserves,” a concept Mendes helped to promote. By doing so, he brought on his assassination.


The Amazon is a vast region; not all of it is rainforest, nor is all of it Brazilian. As it was legally defined in 1953, the Amazon region within Brazil incorporates about 60 percent of Brazil and includes savannah grasslands, wetlands, and shrublands, as well as humid rainforests, all connected with the Amazon river system, which contains one fifth of the earth’s fresh water supply. The river rises 17,000 feet in the Andes and flows some 4,000 miles until it reaches the Atlantic, yet as one follows it 3,000 miles inland from the sea it rises only to 300 feet. The river’s mouth is 200 miles wide, and for 1,000 miles upstream it remains seven miles wide; ocean-going liners can travel 2,000 miles up the river from the sea. The river and the rainforest cover the heart of the subcontinent and encompass nine South American countries. Seventeen of the Amazon’s tributaries are more than 1,000 miles long, each longer than the Rhine.

Brazil’s Amazonian forest is the largest remaining tropical forest on earth, and its natural life is the richest and most diverse in the world, containing 20 percent of all higher plant life, the same proportion of bird species, and 10 percent of the world’s mammals. The tall trees produce a dense overhead canopy, which keeps out all but a fraction of the sunlight. Within the semidarkness thousands of species thrive, only a tiny number of which are known or recorded by scientists. Each tree can support as many as four hundred insect species. The rainy season’s floods deposit alluvium along the river banks to form flood plains (varzeas), rich in palms, fruits, turtles, fish, and aquatic birds. Naturalists have found five hundred different plant species in one forest patch of the flooded plains. To the south and east are forests filled with mahogany, tropical cypress, and cherry wood trees. The westernmost tributary, the Araguaia, flows through swampy grasslands and forests of mahogany, Brazil nut, and rubber forests.

A marvelously comprehensive introduction to the rainforest can be found in the thoughtful and readable The Last Rain Forests: A World Conservation Atlas edited by Mark Collins. It provides maps of the present distribution of forest worldwide and helps to place the Amazon in a global context, while one can study some of the extraordinary fauna of the region in the beautifully produced and illustrated Neotropical Rainforest Mammals: A Field Guide, the first such broad regional guide ever produced.

The paradox of this “rich realm of nature,” as the early Portuguese adventurers called it, is that while the soils of much of the Amazon region are extremely impoverished, they can still sustain more than 250 metric tons of living material per acre. For many years no one could explain how they did so. As Alexander Cockburn and Susanna Hecht point out in The Fate of the Forest, a survey of the region and its crisis, the beginning of an answer came in 1960, thanks to the cold war, when the US Atomic Energy Commission sought to find out what would happen to forests in the event of a nuclear war, stimulating the first interdisciplinary study of the tropical forest.

Students discovered that whereas forests in the temperate zone draw nutrients up from the soil, in tropical forests the nutrients derive from an exchange within the living forest and are held in the tissues of living organisms. The leathery leaves characteristic of the Amazon plant life conserve nutrients as well as high levels of secondary chemicals, which make tropical leaves tough or poisonous to eat, deterring predators and also making them a rich source of drugs. Latex, a substance that acts as a defensive membrane for the Brazilian rubber tree, Hevea brasiliensis, is just such an adaptation. The wild germ plasm of the forest includes cacao, palm hearts, guarana, Brazil nuts, rubber, chicle, babassu oil, fish, manioc, cashews, and coca. As Hecht and Cockburn observe, the global annual value of the Amazonian natural products may exceed one hundred billion dollars a year.1


The assault on the tropical forests has a long history, and so does the history of human habitation in the forest. The year 2000 will mark the fifth century since the landfall on the Brazilian coast by the India-bound fleet of the Portuguese explorer Pedro Alvares Cabral. It was a land “with great groves of trees,” according to the fleet’s notary, Pero Vaz de Caminha, who described it in a letter to the king of Portugal on May 1, 1500.2 Of the lush Atlantic coastal forest that so impressed the Europeans in 1500—a narrow belt of rainforest some one hundred miles deep, which then ran along virtually the whole coast of Brazil—no more than 4 percent remains today. From among its flora, ironically, Brazil took its name from the pau-brasil tree, which yielded a purple dye much in demand among sixteenth-century European textile manufacturers, and which can scarcely be found in the wild today. The Portuguese had called their new territory in South America the “Land of the True Cross,” but this was soon forgotten and the more prosaic name stuck—resonant as it was of the forest and of business.

Like the coastal forest, the Amazon rainforest before the arrival of the Europeans sustained a large population—it is virtually impossible to estimate how large.3 In two brilliant books, John Hemming, who is director and secretary of the Royal Geographical Society of London, has heroically tried to reconstruct from thousands of pages of travel accounts, official reports, diaries, and archeological and anthropological research the lost history of the annihilated peoples of South America. He calculates that the native population of the Amazon basin alone could have been about 3.5 million in 1500.4 It is at most, 200,000 today. The lost population of Indians did not live in an untroubled paradise but they lived in harmony with the forest, and they did not destroy it.

Hecht and Cockburn tell us that the degree of human intervention in the forest ecosystem is much greater than we have realized. Scholars have learned from demographic reconstructions of the catastrophic and precipiate population decline in the Caribbean and in Mexico after the Spanish conquest that we should be very cautious before we dismiss the early accounts of large indigenous population as hyperbole.5 As with the first reactions in our own century to the Holocaust in Europe, it has been difficult for many people to accept the vast scale of extermination.

Both greed and good intentions caused the destruction of the native population. By the 1570s, the rich forests of the coastal region, especially those of the flood plains around the great natural harbors of Rio de Janeiro and Bahia, as well as further north at Recife in Pernambuco, had been cleared and the land converted to sugar cane production. The sugar mills required huge quantities of firewood to heat the cauldrons that processed sugar and the coastal forests were increasingly depleted. Forced into slave labor, and lacking immunity to European and African diseases, the Indian population died by the tens of thousands. Enslaved Africans were imported to replace them, permanently transforming the ethnic composition of the Portuguese coastal enclaves on the edge of the continent.6


As the Indian populations of the coastlands died out, Portuguese missionaries who had arrived to proselytize the native population moved inland to gain new converts. The Franciscans established Belém (Bethlehem) at the mouth of the Amazon river in 1616, and after 1649, Jesuits, Carmelites, and Mercedarians divided up the main tributaries of the river between them. Throughout the colonial period royal governors, merchants, and Portuguese colonists regularly sent up river heavily armed flotillas of canoes in search of slaves.

The religious orders, especially the Jesuits, sought to protect the Indian population from enslavement by organizing new communities of would-be peasant farmers. Although these concentrations initially led to an even more rapid spread of disease, the Jesuits in time were able to establish a network of protected villages throughout the lower Amazon to complement the great missions they organized on the plains along the Uruguay and Paraguay Rivers to the south. The struggle between the Jesuits and others who sought to protect the Indians, and the colonists who argued that they should be integrated with the European communities, albeit as lowly workers, is a long one in Amazonian history, and the arguments on both sides were often well intentioned. The Marquis de Pombal, King Joseph’s chief minister between 1750 and 1777, who expelled the Jesuits from Brazil, justified his actions in the language of the Enlightenment. (He ended African slavery in Portugal itself.) The writings in defense of the Indians by the Jesuit polymath António Vieira are among the most eloquent works in the Portuguese language.7

As Hemming shows, the missions were eventually suppressed by jealous officials of the monarchy abetted by the colonists’ avarice. In the late seventeenth century gold was discovered and prospectors flooded into the interior. The colonial government, suspicious of the loyalty of the Jesuit missions that were strategically placed along the river systems, sent teams of surveyors, soldiers, and administrators to establish Portugal’s authority over the land and establish frontiers. By the mid-eighteenth century they thus had laid claim to tens of thousands of square miles of unexplored territory. When Brazil gained its independence from Portugal in the 1820s, the new nation inherited this “hollow frontier,” containing within it many unknown Indian communities.

  1. 1

    These figures were disputed by Roger Stone in a review of the Hecht and Cockburn book, “The Politics of Deforestation,” Issues in Science and Technology (Spring 1990), pp. 77–78. He says, “The total value of Brazilian exports, including manufactured goods, amounted to less than $34 billion in 1988.” Hecht and Cockburn’s figure, however, included coca, the main product exported (albeit clandestinely) from the western Amazon basin.

  2. 2

    Full text in W.B. Greenlee, ed., The Voyage of Pedro Alvares Cabral to Brazil and India from Contemporary Narratives, Hakluyt Series, No. 81 (1838), pp. 3–33. Caminha’s letter is reproduced in facsimile in the New York Public Library exhibition catalog, Brazil–Portugal: The Age of Atlantic Discovery (Editora Bertrand and Franco Maria Ricci, 1990).

  3. 3

    All the early accounts spoke of large populations. See Sir C.R. Markham ed., Expeditions into the Valley of the Amazon: 1539, 1540, 1639, Hakluyt Series, No. 24 (1859), pp. 61, 79, passim.

  4. 4

    John Hemming, Red Gold: The Conquest of the Brazilian Indians (Harvard University Press, 1978), and Amazon Frontier: The Defeat of the Brazilian Indians (Harvard University Press, 1987). Hemming is also author of “How Brazil Acquired Roraima,” Hispanic American Historical Review, Vol. 70, No. 2 (May 1990), pp. 295–325. Unfortunately, Hemming and other scholars rarely use the extraordinary riches of the Portuguese archives to study these questions. They are particularly valuable for any work on the Amazon, including scientific work. For an introduction to the extensive scientific mission of Alexander Rodrigues Ferreira in the late eighteenth century, for example, there is a good book by William Joel Simon, Scientific Expeditions in the Portuguese Overseas Territories (1783–1808) and the Role of Lisbon in the Intellectual-Scientific Community of the Late Eighteenth Century (Lisbon: Instituto de Investigação Cientifica Tropical, 1983). There is also an excellent, but regrettably unpublished and largely ignored, Yale Ph.D. dissertation by David Davidson, “The Madeira Route and the Incorporation of the Brazilian Far West, 1737–1808.”

  5. 5

    Sherborne F. Cook and Woodrow Borah, Essays in Population History, 3 vols. (University of California Press, 1971, 1974, 1979).

  6. 6

    The African component in the formation of Brazilian society of course parallels the story of the destruction of the Indians and is essential to any understanding of Brazil. There is an excellent new book by Joseph Miller, A Way of Death: Merchant Capitalism and the Angolan Slave Trade, 1730–1830 (University of Wisconsin Press, 1988), which provides a good introduction to this story.

  7. 7

    The life of Vieira, one of the most remarkable figures of the seventeenth century, is currently the subject of a major biography by Gregory Rabassa.

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