TreeHugger Reports From the Heart of the Amazon

Perhaps the most striking thing about flying over the Amazon rainforest is how untouched it looks; there's no checkered quilt of farmland or veins of highway. From horizon to horizon it's nothing but an impossibly vast sea of green, inspiring the same sense of minuteness one might feel gazing at the Milky Way. At that height, the Amazon is as impressive and humbling as anything I've seen, seeming to be one giant breathing thing, untouched. Yet deep within this forest plans are being laid which may change forever the face of this landscape -- for better or worse.Recently, TreeHugger was invited to visit the Amazon rainforest for a chance see, first-hand, how companies are exploring investment opportunities in Brazil, and what that might mean for the future of the world's largest rainforest, from oil field exploration to sustainable forest management.

My first stop was in Manaus, the capital city of the Brazilian state of Amazonia. Tucked along the banks of the Amazon river, Manaus is home to nearly half the total population of the Brazilian rainforest, and it shows. Despite being practically isolated from the rest of the country, accessible primarily by plane or boat, the city is a hodgepodge of hastily built apartment buildings and shantytowns alongside the restored facades of century-old theatres and shops, evidence of a quainter past.

Manaus, like many big urban centers in Brazil, seems too big for its britches, in need of a better infrastructure and a boon to the economy. In decades past, people from small towns in the Amazon fled to Manaus in search of work and opportunity, only to discover such things were hard to come by. So, in order to lure companies to the city, which might shy away otherwise for its impractical locale, the government offered incentives to foreign investors, enticing the likes of Honda, Samsung, and Sony to set up shop in here.

Depending on your point of view, a burgeoning urban center in the heart of the Amazon could be seen as a seed of prosperity or a cancerous growth -- though it's clear which side the forest is on. In the past, the government attempted to build a highway through the forest, connecting Manaus to Brasilia, in central Brazil, but it turned out to be impossible to maintain; the Amazon overtook it. Even from within Manaus, it seems the forest is trying to reclaim any errant structures, uncontested by their neglectful keepers.

So it has been, I imagine, since Manaus was founded by the Portuguese as a remote military outpost in 1669. But a lot has changed since then, particularly in recent years as Brazil looks to build a bridge towards expanded development and unprecedented prosperity.

Perhaps the best embodiment of this metaphoric bridge into the future for the state of Amazonia is an actual bridge under construction in Manaus. When it's completed later this year, this bridge across the Negro river will be one of the largest spans in Brazil, connecting Manaus more directly with the small municipality to the south. As crowded ferry boats slowly unload beneath it, full of laborers and shoppers from the opposite shore, the bridge promises even greater growth and hope to the largest city in Amazonia. But growth and hope in a city surrounded by forest comes at a price -- as many prosperous nations know all too well.

The question then remains, as Amazonia readies its bridge into the future: Can Brazil join ranks of the developed world without all the pitfalls of its example?

In the coming days, I'll be speaking with representatives of Brazil's largest energy company, politicians, and beneficiaries of sustainability projects to learn more about what the future has in store for the world's largest rainforest and the nation whose policies and practices may help pave the way for a more sustainable planet.

Read all the articles in this series, Dispatches from the Amazon

Tags: Amazonia | Brazil | Cities | Developing Nations

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