It’s one thing to read about the Amazon, and quite another to see it first-hand, as I did for the first time last week. Even then it’s hard to get your head around the size of the world’s largest rainforest and the world’s largest river.
Yet size is really important when talking about the Amazon.
Size is why the fate of the Amazon matters to everyone: it’s a crucial storehouse for carbon, and the richest repository of biodiversity in the world. It’s also the reason why “managing” the rainforest is hard, if indeed it can be done at all. (Back in the 1970s, for better or worse, Brazil tried to build a 5,200km road called the Trans Amazonian Highway, but it never finished the job. Too much heat, rain, flooding, etc.) While Brazil has made great strides in stopping illegal deforestation (See Can Brazil Save the Amazon?), protecting what’s left of the forest remains a daunting task.
My government-sponsored trip with a group of international reporters focused on climate and the Amazon. When we met with Izabella Teixeira, Brazil’s environment minister, someone asked her whether the ministry needs more cops on the ground to enforce laws prohibiting deforestation. Of course, she said, smiling, but she was honest enough to add that there’s no way to catch all the violators. Remember, she said, we’re talking about a region of 3.5 million hectares, or 1.6 million square miles, and that’s just the portion of the rainforest inside Brazil. “If you put an army unit there, it would not be enough,” she said.
Size also makes predicting the Amazon’s future very difficult. Just last week, Andrew Revkin of The New York Times, who has reported on the region for more than 20 years, wrote on his blog:
I’m convinced that the system of rivers and forests is durable enough — not to mention expansive enough — to persist, and even thrive, as Brazil and its neighbors develop their economies.
But Lou Gold, a well-informed American blogger in Brazil, sees things very differently, warns that there’s a rush to develop the rainforest with roads, dams, energy projects, and more of the cattle ranches and soy plantations that have destroyed so much of it. A World Bank study called “Assessment of the Risk of Amazon Dieback,” available here, is summarized like this by the Bank Information Center:
The study predicts with more certainty than any other prior study that the legal Amazon (one of the four primary global climate feedback mechanisms) is very close (about 2-3% of total deforestation) to a tipping point of combined events that will lead ultimately to its collapse
Who’s right? I’m not expert enough to offer an opinion. Meanwhile, here are a few words, numbers and pictures from the trip, most chosen to give you a sense of the size of the river and rainforest.
First, a few words: Brazil is the world’s fifth biggest country and almost half the country is covered by the Amazon. One day, we flew for 90 minutes from the city of Manaus to an oil-and-gas outpost in the forest and in between saw nothing but treetops. They looked like a giant carpet of broccoli. Another day, we flew an hour in the opposite direction, from Manaus to Santerem and, again, saw nothing but forest between the two cities.
No bridges cross the Amazon. That’s not because the river is too wide, I was told, although there are places where, during the rainy season, the river grows to more than 120 miles (!) across. It’s because there aren’t enough people living alongside it to create a need for bridges. People travel from place to place by ferryboats like these, bringing hammocks to sleep in because riverboat journeys often take several days.
Now, a few numbers: The Amazonian forest holds 20% of the world’s fresh water. It’s home to about 45,000 species of plants, 1,800 species of butterflies and 2000 species of fish–ten times as many as all of Europe. (One night at dinner in Santerem, we enjoyed the ribs of a big fish called the Tambaqui that eats plants, by swimming among the trees that get covered during the rainy season when rivers rise by as much as 45 feet. A treat not to be missed if you visit Brazil.)
Some other things that I saw on the trip…
The Negro River, one of several huge tributaries to the Amazon, from our hotel in Manaus:
The Tabajo River, another big tributary, seen from the riverfront in Santerem. Way in the background, you can see a big Cargill dock, used to ship soy to Europe.
Trees in the Tapajo national forest, part of the Amazon biome:
A church at dusk in Santerem:
Tomorrow, in my last report from Brazil, I’ll explore the question: Is sustainable development possible in the Amazon? Or is it an oxymoron?
Disclosure: My trip was organized by Apex-Brasil, a government backed agency that promotes trade and investment in Brazil, and financed by Petrobras, Eletrobras and Banco do Brasil.