For millions of years the Amazon flowed into the Pacific

In function of the PanAmazonic Synod let’s continue delving into the history of the Amazon ecosystem.

Euclides da Cunha (1866-1909), a classic of Brazilian letters, was also a passionate researcher of the Amazon region, and in 1905 he wrote: «Human intelligence could not support the weight of the powerful reality of the Amazon, human intelligence would have to grow up with her, adapting to her in order to to dominate her» (A lost paradise, Um paraíso perdido, Collection of essays on the Amazon, Petropolis 1976,15). This statement shows the exuberant richness of this vast ecosystem..

Paradoxically, the Amazon also suffers the most violence. To see the brutal face of the predatory capitalist system, we need only to visit the Amazon. The monstrous nature of the spirit of modernity, the rationalization of the irrational and the implacable logic of the anti-nature system is visible there.

The Brazilian state, national and multinational enterprises, formed a huge trio and gave rise to what has come to be called “The Amazon mode of production”. cf. Mires, F., Discourse of nature: ecological and political in Latin America, (Discurso de la naturaleza: ecología y política en América Latina, DEI, San José 1990, 119-123). It is a form of production/ destruction that is terrifyingly predatory, applying intensive technology against nature, declaring war against the rain forest, exterminating native and adventitious populations, super exploiting the work force, even to the point of slavery, seeking production to satisfy the world market.

The continental Amazon comprises 6.5 million square kilometers, covering two fifths of Latin America, half of Peru, a third of Colombia and large parts of Bolivia, Venezuela, Guyana, French Guiana and Suriname, as well as 3.5 million square kilometers of Brazil.

Geologically, the proto-Amazon during the paleozoic era (between 550 to 230 million years ago) was a gigantic gulf opening towards the Pacific Ocean. South America was still connected to Africa. In the cenozoic era. At the start of the tertiary period, some 70 million years ago, the Andes began to emerge, and during the plioceno and the pleistoceno and for thousands and thousands of years thereafter, the Andes blocked the water from reaching the Pacific. The whole Amazon depression was converted in a liquid paradise until it found a path to the Atlantic Ocean, as is now the case. (cf.Soli,H., Amazônia, fundamentos da ecologia da maior região de florestas tropicais, Vozes, Petrópolis 1985, 15-17).

According to recent investigations, the Amazon, which with 7,100 kilometers is the world’s longest river, whose origins are found between the Mismi, (5.669 m), and the Kcahuich, (5.577 m), mountains, South of the city of Cuzco, in Peru. The Amazon is also the river with the largest flow, averaging 200,000 cubic meters flow per second. By itself, the Amazon contains from 1/5 to 1/6 of the mass of water that all of Earth’s rivers jointly launch into the oceans and seas. The principal bed of the river is an average of 4 to 5 km wide with a depth that varies from 100 meters in Obidos to 4 meters at the mouth of the Xingu river.

The Amazon offers the largest genetic heritage. As Eneas Salati, one of our finest researchers, said: «In a few hectares of the Amazon jungle there exist more species of plants and insects than all the flora and fauna of Europe» (Salati, E., Amazônia: desenvolvimento, integração, ecologia, Brasiliense/CNPq, S.Paulo 1983; cf. Leroy, J.-P., Uma chama na Amazônia, Vozes/Fase, Petrópolis 1991,184-202; Ribeiro, B., Amazônia urgente, cinco séculos de história e ecologia, Itatiaia, B.Horizonte 1990, 53). But we should not deceive ourselves: this exuberant jungle is extremely fragile, because it stands on one of the poorest and most leached soils of the Earth, as we wrote in the previous article.

According to historian Pierre Chaunu, 2 million people lived In the pre-Colombian Amazon, and in all of South America there were around 80 to 100 million; 5 million of them in Brazil.

The people of those times developed a subtle handling of the jungle, respecting her uniqueness, but at the same time, modifying the habitat to stimulate plant life that was useful for humans. As anthropologist Viveiros de Castro affirms: «The Amazon we see now is what resulted from centuries of social intervention, and the societies that live there are the result of centuries of coexistence with the Amazon» (“Sociedades indígenas y naturaleza”, en Tempo e Presença, n.261, 1992, 26). E. Miranda is still more emphatic: «Little of nature remains in the Amazon that is untouched and unaltered nature by humans» (Quando o Amazonas corria para o Pacífico, Vozes, Petrópolis 2007, 83).

There were around 1,400 tribes in pre-Cabral Brazil, 60% of them in the Amazon area. Languages were spoken that belonged to 40 groups subdivided into 94 different families; a fantastic phenomenon that caused ethnologist Berta Ribeiro to affirm that «nowhere else on Earth was found such a linguistic variety as that observed in tropical South America» (Amazônia urgente, op.cit. 75).

It is worth noting that in the interior of the Amazon jungle, 1,100 years before the arrival of the Europeans an immense space (almost an “empire”) of the tribe tupi-guarani was formed. It included territories that stretched from the Andean foothills, created by the river, up to the basin of the Paraguay and the Parana, reaching up to the North and North East to descend to the Pantanal and gaucho pampas.

Practically all of the Brazilian forest, with few exceptions, was conquered by the tupi-guarani (cf.Miranda, E., Quando o Amazonas corria para o Pacífico, op.cit.92-93). A “proto-state” was created, with extensive commerce with the Andes and the Caribbean.

This demolishes the belief in a savage character and civilizing vacuum of the Amazon.

Leonardo Boff Eco-Theologian-Philosopher Earthcharter Commission

Free translation from the Spanish sent by
Melina Alfaro,


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