Harold Armitage has travelled extensively in the rain forests of South America.

The Amazon rainforest has been in the news of late due to depletion caused by tens of thousands of fires. It is just one of the three great river systems of South America, the others being the Orinoco and the Parana. However all have been under attacks of many forms for thousands of years.

The first humans to arrive in the Amazon rainforest came via North America and Mexico. Until recently nothing was known about them. The most recent thinking is that they arrived around ten thousand years ago from Asia travelling by boat around the Northern and Eastern coast of the Pacific Ocean.

Rio Madre de Dios (River Mother of God)

As we all know, the Spanish and Portuguese were the first Europeans to set foot in South America, the most famous being Christopher Columbus (1492), an Italian financed by the Spanish monarchy.  The ancient Greeks had worked out that the world was a sphere and even made an almost correct calculation as to its size. Columbus however was working to a more recent calculation by Frenchman Pierre d’Ailly which erroneously made the world much smaller.

The problem kicked off when a German “Orban” tried to sell siege guns to Constantine XI, ruler of Constantinople (now Istanbul). When the offer was turned down, he offered to manufacture his guns for the Turkish Mehmed II, who accepted. These very guns were turned on the walls of Constantinople which soon capitulated and was occupied by the Turks. This meant that goods coming overland on the “Silk Road” from China and S.E. Asia could be heavily taxed by the Sultan. Orban was killed when one of his guns exploded.

The search was on to find an alternative route. There were two schools of thought; sail around Africa or sail west. Columbus was a sail west man. Setting sail from Spain he was aided by the North Atlantic Gyre which in due course took him to the Caribbean Sea, where he landed in the Bahamas, Hispaniola (Cuba) and Haiti.

Every move he made was assiduously recorded by monks sent by the King of Spain that no possible source of wealth be hidden or overlooked. Columbus was a nasty piece of work; his only motive was profit. He soon spotted some small gold objects and by torture extracted the information that they came from the South. He also brought on board islander girls who he savagely beat into becoming his personal sex objects. Columbus made three more voyages during which he explored Central America and the North coast of South America. He helped set up colonies in the Caribbean.

The islanders were rounded up as slaves to work on the sugar and tobacco plantations set up by ex-pat Spaniards. When they died of European diseases, people from mainland South America were rounded up. There was exchange of disease; they got tuberculosis and smallpox, in return we got syphilis. Columbus never set foot in North America, why they have a “Columbus Day” beats me! He never realised he had found an entire new continent (hence “West Indies”).

Later the Spanish and Portuguese prowled around the coast of South America, the big bonanza being the pillaging of gold and silver of the Inca Empire. The search was also on for “El Dorado” the mythical jungle city of gold, a search that went on for the next five hundred years. The Spanish were also convinced that somewhere there were Inca goldmines. Silver was discovered and mines were set up, the most famous being Cerro Rico at Potosi, worked of course by slaves and still in operation today. We know today that the Inca gold was alluvial, washed from rivers to the East of the Andes. The search is still on to this day for the ransom of Atahualpa (Treasure of the Llanganatis), a vast treasure of gold hidden by the Incas on hearing of his murder by the Spanish.

Penetrating the interior was difficult, the rivers that did so were on the East Coast. The current and prevailing winds made travel by sailing ship extremely difficult. Access from the west was barred by the Andes mountains, second highest in the world. Finally, in 1540, one Francisco de Orellana, more enterprising than most, crossed the Andes from the West and built boats in the Amazon jungle to carry an expedition to the east coast via the River Amazon. He knew how far he was from the east coast but had no idea of the difficulties, length of the river or indeed where he would emerge. In the end it took two years; many died of disease, starvation and native attacks. On his river voyage he spoke of seeing vast cities, as splendid as anything in Europe. For the next four hundred year he was thought to be a liar.

Looking for gold. Dredger sucks up mud from the river bed.

The Amazon was intensively plundered over the next four hundred years for timber, vanilla, chocolate, Brazil nuts, cashew nuts, avocado, guava, rubber, but never more so than today. In later years the forest was cleared for agriculture and cattle ranching. Whereas in the past the rivers provided the highways (and still do in the more remote areas), superhighways have now been built into the interior. One of the earliest was in Brazil when an entire new capital city (Brasilia) was constructed in the interior. The latest is the “Interoceanic Highway” linking ports on the coast of Peru with river ports and existing highways in Brazil. These highways allow the rainforest destruction to proceed apace.

As the forest was cleared, “geoglyphs” emerged, that is, artifices on the ground created by excavation. It now seems that there WERE cities in the jungle, built on artificial mounds to raise them above the river floods. There are hundreds of such mounds linked by elevated highways. Orellana did not lie! It is now apparent that hundreds of years ago, the Amazon was inhabited by millions of people who were decimated by European diseases. It further seems that the Amazon rainforest has not existed untouched for millennia; vast areas were cleared for agriculture and have regrown since the demise of these people.

Weighing up the gold!

Nowadays there are new threats to all the South American rain forests. Oil and gas have been discovered to the east of the Andes in Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela. The oil companies extracting it have created massive pollution due to oil spills.

Illegal gold miners are excavating the banks of many rivers, searching for gold-bearing soils which they wash, and extract the last remnants using mercury. The gold and mercury are separated by boiling of the mercury, some of which finds its way into the river and hence the food chain, so poisoning thousands of indigenous people.

Coal, too, has been discovered in the headwaters; the waste from the mines often finds its way into the rivers, causing heavy metal pollution. Virtually every metal you can think of is to be found in the Andes. Mining of these also causes river pollution. These pollutants don’t go away, they will be there forever.

This was a bit I bought as a souvenir.

Some of the world’s biggest hydro-electric projects are in the river basins of South America including the Itiapu, Belo Monte, Jirau, Tacoma, Guri, Teles Pires, Brokopondo, Tucurui, Santo Antonio to name but a few. There are over 200 major hydro-electric power stations in Brazil alone and hundreds more in other neighbouring countries. Though allegedly “green”, these massive dams cause immense destruction to millions of square kilometres of rain forest.


One last fact. The equatorial rainforests are not “The lungs of the Earth”. The oxygen liberated by the vegetation is used up as the trees come to the end of their life and rot down. The system is in exact balance. The forests are a locked up reserve of carbon. If that carbon is liberated we are all in trouble. On the other hand, newly planted forests take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and lock it up as they expand and the trees grow until they too reach equilibrium.

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