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Urban Amazon

Manaus

The majority of the 20 million people who live in the Amazon basin live in rural areas. Six percent of Amazonian people live in urban environments and it is in these cities that the financial wealth of the Amazon is concentrated. Manaus, the largest city of the Amazon, has an estimated population of over 1.6 million. It is located in the very heart of the Amazon rainforest, accessible only by two major highways (only one of which is paved) or by the Amazon River and its tributaries. It is one of the most isolated metropolitan regions of the world.

The city was founded in 1669 and obtained its name around 200 years later, in acknowledgment of the ManAio Amerindian tribe, who were the most important indigenous group of the region. The city came to prominence during the rubber boom of 1850 - 1910, an industry run by Europeans who came to the Amazon to take advantage of the huge profits available from the global sale of latex. Hundreds of architects and painters were brought to Manaus from Europe in order to carry out an ambitious urban plan, which created a European municipality of the jungle town. The floating harbour, built to adapt to the changing water levels of the Amazon, was totally imported from England and the first Brazilian university was established. The jewel in the crown of European opulence was the Teatro Manaus, a 700-seat opera house constructed with French glass and Italian marble.

Wealth

The contrast in wealth between the aristocracy of Manaus and the rubber workers was extreme. Whilst the wealthy luxuriated, their industry depended upon a brutal regime of systematic torture, in which thousands of rubber workers died and numerous indigenous groups were persecuted to extinction. The wealth of the city crashed when the actions of smugglers abruptly ended the boom. Rubber seeds, which were indigenous to the Amazon, had been smuggled to British-run Malaya, and the British colonial traders began to dominate the global rubber market from Malaysian plantations. There was a brief resurgence of the Amazonian industry during the Second World War, but it did not last.

Considerable efforts have been made by the Brazilian government over the last 40 years to boost the economy of Amazonas. The Transamazonica (Trans-Amazon Highway) was initiated in 1970, with the aim of transecting the forest from East to West and opening up Amazonas to development. Currently it is an unfinished 5000km long roadway, with only 175 km of tarmac. Large stretches of the road are abandoned, either re-claimed by the forest or occupied by illegal landowners. Laws have also been established to provide fiscal incentives for economic activity in Amazonas, though these processes have been smeared with accusations of corruption.

Zubin in a car in ManausZubin speeds past apartments worth $0.5m each in Manaus

Today Manaus is responsible for 98 percent of the Amazon state economy. The Manaus Free Zone is a free trade zone of the city that is an area of intense industrial activity. Commerce is vigorous and products made include computers, motorcycles, jet skis, and electronics. Manaus' millionaires of the moment have made their fortune from tourism, industry and politics. In Manaus, Bruce experienced the lifestyle of this select portion of the Amazon's population when he was hosted by Antonio Neto, a 28-year-old with a personal fortune worth over £1 million.

Relevant blogs

Solange Welch: Travelling the Transamazonica

Raquel Toniolo: The Wealth of the Amazon

James Smith: Dodging vultures above the urban Amazon

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Rob Sullivan

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