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Day 7: Manaus to Santarém

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Luiz the conductor urges on his orchestra.
Michael Palin - BrazilBefore we leave and head east I'm given an overview of what is happening in this vast Amazon region, the size of Western Europe, from someone intimately concerned with the health of the world's largest rainforest. Paulo Adário lives in Manaus and works for Greenpeace. We sit and talk beside the river. He sees cause for cautious optimism. When he first came here the annual rate of deforestation was 'a Belgium' per year. That's 30,000 square kilometres.

'We use Belgium as a unit of measure,' he explains. 'Now it's less than a third of a Belgium. That's good news.'

As far as the indigenous population of the Amazon is concerned, there is, on the face of it, good news too. The principle of Customary Rights ensures that if a tribe can prove that they have lived in a certain area for sufficient time it becomes theirs. Twenty percent of the Amazon is now Indian land.

At the same time the world demand for Brazilian resources, be they soya, iron ore, gold, oil, aluminium or timber, is apparently insatiable. Brazil is the largest exporter of beef on the planet and seventy-five percent of the deforestation has been to clear the ground for cattle. At the Copenhagen Climate Summit in 2009, President Lula's government committed Brazil to reducing deforestation by eighty percent within ten years. Yet, only a few weeks ago, Dilma Rousseff, President Lula's successor, signed off on a huge series of dams which will have a profound effect on the rainforest in the Xingu River area. I'm glad that on balance protection is winning over reckless deforestation, but while there is so much demand and so much land one feels the debate will never be over.

Flying east from Manaus further emphasizes the size and scale of Brazil. Just under two kilometres downstream of the city is the spectacular phenomenon of the Encontro das Águas, the confluence of two mighty rivers where the dark, acidic flow of the Rio Negro meets the sediment-filled Solimões River to form the Amazon proper. For several kilometres they run side by side until the muddy flow of the Solimões wins the battle and the Amazon becomes a mighty sheet of caramel-coloured water. Manaus is 1,600 kilometres (1,000 miles) from the sea, but only thirty-two metres above sea level, which is why the land below us is a great weaving mass of water, spreading itself over hundreds of kilometres. Seeing it from above I can almost comprehend the extraordinary statistic that twenty percent of all the world's fresh water is contained within the Amazon Basin. I settle back into my aeroplane seat as all that moisture curls upwards. Clouds like big and billowing white sails merge, turn dark and suddenly the water that was down there is all around us.

Halfway between Manaus and Belém is Santarém, the third and most intimate of the big cities of the Amazon. With a population of less than 150,000 souls it lies close to a confluence twenty-five kilometres (fifteen miles) wide where the clean, green waters of the Rio Tapajós join the alluvial flow of the mother river. The vast quantities of water that swirl around it make the shores fertile, and there's a museum in the town with a rich collection of pre-European ceramics, some dating back 10,000 years. Together with nearby discoveries of cave and rock paintings, they bear witness to a creative and sophisticated indigenous culture which was virtually wiped out. What replaced it was the European taste of the settlers. Santarém is another rubber boom town with a legacy of handsome colonial buildings and a big cathedral dominating the dockside. It's also infamous in Brazilian history as the home of Henry Wickham, the rubber seed hero, or villain (according to whether you're British or Brazilian) who arrived here in 1874.<

But Santarém nearly had a second chance to get rich. Twenty-five years after Henry Wickham's seeds switched production to the other side of the world, emissaries of the legendary American car maker, Henry Ford, arrived in the city, hoping to initiate a second rubber boom in Brazil!-- E:Henry Wickham -->. It would be sustained by the demand from his motor car factories and, more importantly, it meant that no longer would he have to rely on rubber from the British Empire which he so despised. In the 1920s a town was built on the forested shores of the Rio Tapajós and christened 'Fordlândia'. Despite huge investment, this attempt to recreate the values of the American Midwest in the Brazilian jungle was a spectacular failure. To see what remains of Henry Ford's dream I'm doing what his cohorts did eighty-five years ago. I'm taking to the river.
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In the ballroom at the Opera House.
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 7: Manaus to Santarém
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: Manaus
  • Book page no: 39

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