The Mighty Amazon—A Lifeline for Millions
BY AWAKE! WRITER IN BRAZIL
AMONG rivers it is a giant. It traverses the earth’s largest tropical rain forest. Researchers say that it is essential to our planet. It is a paradise for explorers and naturalists. But for millions of Brazilians, it is also a vital communication line. We are describing the Amazon River, the backbone of the Amazon region.
A Closer Look at ‘the River Sea’
From its humble beginnings high in the Peruvian Andes, within 100 miles [160 km] of the Pacific Ocean, the Amazon—swollen by the waters of other rivers along its way—descends some 16,000 feet [5,000 m] to the Atlantic Ocean. It changes name several times before reaching Brazilian territory, where it is first called the Solimões. After its confluence with its most voluminous tributary, the Negro River, near Manaus, it becomes the mighty Amazon.
At this point an unusually beautiful spectacle called the meeting of the waters occurs. The dark coffee-colored waters of the Negro River and the muddy waters of the Solimões meet and flow side by side without mixing for approximately six miles [10 km]. This phenomenon occurs as a result of various factors, including the difference in composition, density, and temperature between the two rivers.
The controversy that surrounds the Amazon’s main tributaries and their headwaters, as well as the complicated geography of its delta, makes it difficult to know exactly where the Amazon begins and where it ends. Based on its most distant outlet in the Pará estuary, which serves as an entry point for shipping, its length is approximately 4,200 miles [6,750 km].a Determining its total length, though, is “more a question of definition than a question of measurement,” says the Brazilian edition of The Guinness Book of Records.
In volume, however, the majesty of the Amazon River is undisputed. Its volume is greater than that of the Mississippi, Nile, and Yangtze rivers combined.b With an average discharge of over 7,000,000 cubic feet [200,000 cu m] per second, this monumental river empties into the Atlantic Ocean between 15 and 20 percent of all the fresh water that flows into the world’s oceans. In just 30 seconds, it could quench humanity’s thirst for a day—two pints [one liter] of water for each of earth’s six billion inhabitants!
This extraordinary outpouring “pushes” the sea and forms a layer of fresh water spreading 125 miles [200 km] out into the Atlantic Ocean. It is not surprising that on sighting the river’s mouth, Vicente Yáñez Pinzón, a Spanish navigator who entered the Amazon in June 1500, called it Mar Dulce (the Freshwater Sea).
For those who travel on this great river, it seems to be just that—a sea flooding a carpet of forests. At some points it is so broad that a person on one of its banks cannot see the other side. During floods certain stretches of the river are up to 30 miles [50 km] wide! Its depth, averaging from 150 to 250 feet [50 to 80 m] at some stretches, varies according to its width. At its narrowest point, at Óbidos in Pará State, the river is 420 feet [130 m] deep.
Most of the Amazon has a very slight slope—averaging a mere one and a quarter inches per mile. The gentle slope of its estuary allows the tide to penetrate far upstream. Its effects are felt even at Óbidos, 500 miles [800 km] from the river’s mouth.
Because it flows almost parallel to the equator, the Amazon benefits from the summers of both hemispheres. Flooding alternates between the tributaries on the left bank and those on the right bank. As the levels of the rivers rise and fall, first on the north side and then on the south side, the entire Amazon pulsates like a huge heart. Annually, the oscillation of the Amazon’s water level varies between 30 and 40 feet [9 and 12 m]. Flooding is important for agriculture in the region. Because a considerable quantity of mineral substances and organic residues are carried by the river and deposited on its banks, it fertilizes the large lowland areas.
Who Discovered It, and How Was the Region Settled?
The Spanish explorer Francisco de Orellana was the first European to go down the Amazon, and he named it in 1542.c But why Amazon? Orellana claims to have witnessed battles of tribes of female warriors who reminded him of the Amazons of Greek mythology! Other expeditions followed, with further Spanish, English, Dutch, and Portuguese exploration. According to the Enciclopédia Mirador Internacional, the Portuguese made “countless daring raids to conquer [land] along the Negro, Solimões, and Branco [rivers] and formally claimed the region in the name of the crown.”
To consolidate its presence, Portugal established missionary activity in the area. The same encyclopedia says that in an attempt to disseminate the Catholic faith and increase the trade in “drugs of the backwoods”—wood, resins, herbs, and spices—“members of religious orders frequently transferred their missions from one point to another, always along the riverbanks. Dozens of small villages grew out of these numerous settlements.”
This early activity in the 17th and 18th centuries and the later growth of rubber plantations at the close of the 19th century brought about definite patterns of settlement in the region. Since the rivers were a natural means of penetration, people settled on their banks, forming small towns and villages. Population centers of the mid-Amazon today are old towns that date from these previous centuries.
How Do People Get Around?
The Amazon basin is the largest river basin in the world, covering some two million square miles [6 million sq km]. It is larger than the whole of Europe excluding Russia. Along with its 1,100 tributaries and other smaller watercourses, the Amazon forms a complex communications network that could be likened to the circulatory system of the human body, of which the Amazon compares to the aorta, the body’s largest artery. This network of waterways contains two thirds of all the earth’s fresh water. This extensive hydrographic network, with over 15,000 miles [25,000 km] of navigable waters, plays a fundamental role in transportation and in the lives of the local people.
Millions who dwell in the Amazon region use this natural superwaterway. Boats of all sizes sail along it, including large transatlantic vessels that travel 1,000 miles [1,500 km] upstream to Manaus. Lesser freight and passenger vessels reach as far as Iquitos, in Peru, 2,300 miles [3,700 km] from the mouth of the river. A large part of the Amazon region’s wealth leaves the area via the Amazon, and products from other parts of the world arrive the same way. The Madeira River, its largest tributary and over 2,000 miles [3,000 km] long, also bustles with commercial activity. This intense commerce annually generates about two million tons of cargo in the Amazon basin. The busiest stretch of the river is between Manaus and Belém, situated at the river’s mouth.
How Is Life Along the River?
The distribution of the people living along the river is an indicator of their dependence on river transport and their preference for the fertile soil of the lowlands. According to Altomir, a local resident, “in these areas the population along the river cultivate small farms that principally grow cassava—used to make manioc meal—which together with fish makes up the staple diet. They also raise watermelons, bananas, and corn as well as cattle.” But when the floods come, the cattle must quickly be taken to other areas, sometimes by raft.
To withstand the vagaries of the river, riverside houses are built on stilts, and floating houses are built on rafts that are moored close to the towns. The people “are very hospitable and greet strangers with a smile,” says Belarmino, a frequent traveler on the river.
It is common to see small canoes pull up to larger vessels to sell and trade merchandise—or to get a tow up the river. A rope is thrown to the canoeist, who ties it to his boat. Local produce, such as cabbage palm, Brazilian wine palm, manioc meal, nuts, and fish (including freshwater crayfish), is sold or traded for cereals and industrialized goods.
The river is a source of income for thousands of Brazilians who earn a living ferrying cargo and passengers. It is also a natural means of transportation for timber cut at lumber mills in the interior of the forest.
A large part of the protein consumed in the region comes from the river. “It has been calculated that the Amazon contains about 2,000 species of fish, many more than any other river system on earth,” claims the Portuguese edition of the book Vida Selvagem nos Rios (Wildlife Habitat). After his expedition to the Amazon region, the famous oceanographer Jacques-Yves Cousteau went so far as to say that ‘there are more species of fish in the Amazon than in the Atlantic Ocean.’
Among the animals that make up the aquatic fauna is the herbivorous manatee, threatened with extinction. It is a coveted catch, as a fair-sized manatee may yield more than 26 gallons [100 L] of oil. This mammal averages eight feet [2.5 m] in length and weighs about 770 pounds [350 kg]. In addition, there is the pirarucu, a freshwater giant that is known as the Brazilian cod. On average, it is over six feet [2 m] in length and weighs about 150 pounds [70 kg]. The bouto, or Amazon river dolphin, and the tucuxi dolphin charm people with their fleeting appearances.
Unusual Travel by Boat
Boats have long been an essential part of life in the Amazon region. They are the basis for the livelihood of thousands of vendors who sell their produce there and thus bring a touch of civilization to isolated river communities. They also provide inexpensive transport to towns and villages in the interior that are unreachable by road. Most passengers travel in hammocks crammed into a small area. This explains the rush when a boat docks—everyone wants a good spot to hang his hammock. Those who travel on the lower deck will have to share space with a variety of cargo. Since travelers are talkative, it is easy to strike up a friendship—and there is no lack of time for this, since journeys usually last several days.
Near Manaus, the river traffic is very heavy because its port is the most important in the Amazon region. It is the collection point for the produce of a vast area, which includes parts of Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia. Ecotourism is also thriving, bringing in visitors from South America and the rest of the world.
An Unforgettable Visit
Perhaps you will have the opportunity to visit this amazing area that has delighted explorers but still holds many secrets. In addition to highlighting the natural beauty of the rain forest, a trip to the Amazon region stirs feelings of reverence for the Creator of all things—including this mighty river system.—Psalm 24:1, 2.
a This makes the Amazon River 50 miles [80 km] longer than the Nile River was before the construction of the Aswan Dam and ranks the Amazon as the longest river in the world. Other studies indicate that its total length is 4,437 miles [7,100 km].
b The second-largest river in terms of volume is the Congo, in west-central Africa. However, two of the Amazon’s principal tributaries, the Negro and the Madeira, pour out as much water each as the Congo.
[Box/Picture on page 17]
THE PHENOMENON OF THE POROROCA
In the Amazon estuary, the meeting of the waters of the Amazon with those of the incoming sea causes a loud and extremely destructive phenomenon. Tidal seawater is held back by the rapid outward flow of the river. The level of the sea builds up outside the mouth of the river until the river can no longer hold it back. Then, in a huge, gushing, wall-like wave, the seawater rushes up the river, reversing the river’s flow, dislodging chunks of the riverbank, uprooting trees, and leaving a trail of destruction. The enormous waves generated by the force of these two opposing currents can reach a height of 13 feet [4 m], and the deafening noise resulting from the clash can be heard over great distances. It is the sound of the pororoca, or tidal bore.
[Maps on page 13]
(For fully formatted text, see publication)
Source of the Amazon
Machu Picchu, Peru
Globe: Mountain High Maps® Copyright © 1997 Digital Wisdom, Inc.
[Pictures on page 15]
1. A village girl
2. Homes on stilts along the river’s edge
3. The dark waters of the Negro meet the muddy Solimões near Manaus
4. The Negro River feeds the Amazon
Photos 1 and 2: Ricardo Beliel/SocialPhotos; photos 3 and 4: Lidio Parente/SocialPhotos
[Pictures on page 16, 17]
1. The port of Manaus
2. Boat passengers in hammocks
3. Fishing by canoe
Photo 1: Lidio Parente/SocialPhotos; photos 2 and 3: Ricardo Beliel/SocialPhotos
[Picture Credit Lines on page 17]
Sunset: Ricardo Beliel/SocialPhotos; surfer: AP Photo/Paulo Santos