The most sophisticated Amerindian civilizations were those located near major rivers, and were the first to disappear with the advent of the Conquistadors. For this reason, we know little about how these Indians managed their surrounding ecosystems, but there is much evidence that points to the sophisticated manner in which they worked the forests and the land.
Before the arrival of the Europeans, the indigenous people of Amazonia had developed a forest culture which fed, in an ecologically sustainable manner, a forest population much larger than the present one. If we consider the high concentrations of Brazil nut trees found in certain corners of Amazonia many experts believe that these were planted by Amerindians who were no strangers to long-term planning (these trees typically take 15 to 20 years to mature and produce fruit). Such management schemes yielded high quality fruit, edible oil, medicinal leaves, and fiber for backpacks and other goods – all from a single species.
Five hundred years ago, Portuguese conquerors used their modern weapons against indigenous peoples armed with bows and arrows. Since the earliest adventurers explored the Amazon Valley, the principal quest has been to exploit its treasures – minerals, oils, animal skins, precious stones and metals, to name a few. Gold, emeralds, petroleum, and other raw materials important to Western civilizations have been exported in great quantities from this vast region. As explorers came more frequently in the 19th century to obtain these riches, an increasing number of people began to settle in the Amazon region. These settlers faced great struggles against the region’s Indians. The Jesuits sent missionaries to convert the Indians as an attempt to control the profitable commerce.
As expansion moved westward on the Amazon River toward the island where today the city of Manaus is located, the settlers began to exploit rubber extracted from the seringueira tree. This commerce grew in such proportions that Manaus became a very rich city by the early 20th century. The ‘Golden Age’, symbolized by the magnificent baroque Manaus Theatre and Symphony Hall, ended when the French and the English secretly took seeds of the seringueira tree to Asia to cultivate there. With the competition from Asia, Brazil was not the only supplier, and Manaus lost its position and importance. At the beginning of the 20th century, the Brazilian government decided to research the interior of the Amazon.
New explorers were sent deep into the heart of the forest to discover existing Indian tribes, their customs and forest knowledge. By 1980, the last unknown tribe was identified and contacted. The Brazilian government then created a Ministry to manage indigenous interests, the integrants being representatives from the tribes. Rich in natural resources, mineral extraction and ore production are important to the region’s economy. Albras is a major producer of aluminum; Cosipar produces cast iron; Camargo Corrêa Metais produces metallic silicium. Tourism is a main resource of the Amazon today, and there is tremendous concern over the environment.
Many millions of dollars have been spent to save the Amazon. This salvation has occurred with the creation of numerous programs that promote sustainable development in the region, instead of the previously uncontrolled exploitation of the forest. The next decade will prove crucial to determining the fate of the Amazon forest. The illegal practices that threaten the forest continue to exist (forest burning to create pasture land and mass wood extraction), though policing has increased considerably.
The growing awareness of the importance of the rain forest – both locally and globally – and the development of novel approaches to managing tropical forests provide reasons for hope. Today, as the eyes of the world turn toward this rich and amazing environment, tourism makes the regional economy grow at a very fast rate. Ships cruise the river full of passengers who venture to have their personal experiences in the forest. Manaus rebuilt itself, and its people are fully aware of the importance of foreign visitors to the region’s economy. Amazonians today receive visitors openly and hospitably.
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