The Amazon is far more than just a river system. The rainforest it sustains is a vitally important cog in the planet’s biosphere and covers an area of over six million square kilometres. As rainforests in Asia and West Africa shrink in the face of development, the enormous biodiversity of the Amazon becomes more and more important, as does its future. The rainforest is an enormous carbon sink, and if it burns the implications for global warming – as well as biodiversity – hardly bear thinking about.
The region was only integrated into Brazil after independence in 1822, and even then it remained safer and quicker to sail from Rio de Janeiro to Europe than to Manaus. It was useful as a source of timber and a few exotic forest products, like rubber, but remained an economic backwater until the 1840s, when Charles Goodyear invented a process called vulcanization, giving natural rubber the strength to resist freezing temperatures and opening up a huge range of new industrial applications. The new demand for rubber coincided handily with the introduction of steamship navigation on the Amazon, beginning an unlikely economic boom as spectacular as any the world has seen. By 1900 Manaus and Belém were the two richest cities in Brazil, and out in the forest were some of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the world at that time. The rubber boom ended in 1911 as suddenly as it had begun, as rubber plantations established in the Far East (with smuggled Brazilian seeds) blew natural rubber out of world markets. The development of the region came to an almost complete halt, relying once again on the export of forest products to keep the economy going. There was a brief resurgence during World War II, when the Allies turned to natural rubber after the plantations in the Far East fell under Japanese control, but it is only in the last forty years or so that large-scale exploitation – and destruction – of the forest has really taken off (for more on this, see the section “The Amazon: A Guide to the Issues” in Contexts).