The Amazon basin has been continuously inhabited for at least 10, 000 years, possibly more. Its earliest inhabitants were stone-age peoples, living in hundreds of far-flung tribes, some tiny, others numbering in the tens of thousands. It was from the west that Europeans explorers first arrived. In 1541 a Spanish expedition from Quito, led by Gonzalo Pizarro, ran short of supplies while exploring east of the Andes in what is today Peru. Pizarro’s cousin Francisco de Orellana offered to take 60 men along with the boats from the expedition and forage for supplies. De Orellana floated down the Rio Napo to its confluence with the Amazon, near Iquitos (Peru), and then to the mouth of the Amazon. Along the way his expedition suffered numerous attacks by Indians; some of the Indian warriors, they reported, were female, like the Amazons of Greek mythology, and thus the world’s greatest river got its name. No one made a serious effort to claim this sweaty territory, however, until the Portuguese built a fort near the mouth of the river at Belém in 1616, and sent Pedro Teixeira up the river to Quito and back between 1637 and 1639. During the 17th and 18th centuries, Portuguese bandeirantes (groups of roaming adventurers) penetrated ever further into the rain forest in pursuit of gold and Indian slaves, exploring as far as present-day Rondônia, and the Guaporé and Madeira river valleys.
Amazonian Indians had long used the sap from rubber trees to make waterproof bags and other items. European explorers recognized the potential value of natural latex, but were unable to market it because it tended to grow soft in the heat, or brittle in the cold, and thus had limited appeal outside the rain forest. However, in 1842 American Charles Goodyear developed vulcanization (made natural rubber durable) and in 1890 Ireland’s John Dunlop patented pneumatic rubber tires. Soon there was an unquenchable demand for rubber in the recently industrialized USA and Europe, and the price of rubber on international markets soared. As profits skyrocketed, so did exploitation of the seringueiros, or rubber tappers, who were lured into the Amazon, mostly from the drought-stricken northeast, by the promise of prosperity only to be locked into a cruel system of virtual slavery dominated by seringalistas (owners of rubber-bearing forests). Rigged scales, hired guns, widespread illiteracy among the rubber tappers, and monopoly of sales and purchases all combined to perpetuate the workers’ debt and misery. In addition, seringueiros had to contend with jungle fevers, Indian attacks and all manner of deprivation.
Despite Brazilian efforts to protect the country’s world rubber monopoly, a Briton named Henry Wickham managed to smuggle rubber seeds from the Amazon back to London. Before long, rubber trees were growing in neat and efficient groves in the British colonies of Ceylon and Malay, and Brazil’s rubber monopoly was punctured. The price of latex plummeted and by the 1920s the rubber boom was over. It was briefly revived during WWII, when Malay was occupied by Japan, and the Allies turned to Brazil for its Amazon rubber. Another 150, 000 seringueiros – this time hailed as ‘rubber soldiers’ – flooded the Amazon from the northeast again, only to have rubber prices fall shortly after the war was over.
Brazil has always feared foreign domination of the Amazon region. One of the official slogans of the military government of the 1970s was ‘Integrar para não entregar’ (essentially, ‘Use it or lose it’). Governments have made a determined attempt to consolidate Brazilian control of Amazonia by cutting roads through the jungle and colonizing the interior. Unfortunately, those roads became the arteries from which rampant destruction of the Amazon rain forest was – and is – fed. The state of Pará has suffered some of the most devastating deforestation in the Amazon, a fact easily visible when you fly over the state. In Rondônia, the infamous Polonoroeste program opened the state to agricultural colonization by land-hungry settlers from all over the country. Rondônia’s population leapt from 111, 000 in 1970 to 1.13 million in 1991, while about one-fifth of the virgin jungle that covered almost the whole state was felled. The rate of deforestation in the 1980s was equivalent to more than a football field a minute, for a whole decade. International pressure has brought the rate of deforestation down, but the Amazon continues to shrink at an alarming rate.