When it comes to statistics, the mighty Amazon River can certainly lay claim to a few rather impressive figures. It's the world's largest river by volume and is second in length to the River Nile, coming in at 6,516 Kilometers (approximately 4,050 miles). Of its length, ocean going ships can navigate the first 1,600 Kilometers - as far as the city of Manaus in Brazil. Only riverboats and small craft can go any further and even then riverboats can go only as far as Iquitos in Peru. To go any further requires not only a small craft but good navigational skills and some courage because the river and its tributaries throw up waterfalls and rapids. Most of the land surrounding the Amazon River is inhospitable, dangerous and without much in the way of civilization. If truth be told, the position that the Amazon commands today is almost entirely down to its colossal size and its notoriety and, unlike many of the world's other major waterways, barely at all to do with how it has shaped the region in which it lies.
Coursing through the heart of South America, feeding the rain forests, the Amazon River traverses some of the most remote areas on earth. Man has barely made any impression on this region nor on the river itself. Not only is the area sparsely populated becoming less so as it empties into the sea but where small tribes do live, they tend to keep to themselves and don't trade much with other tribes. We hear about fearless explorers setting off for the Amazon but the reality is that man has never really explored much of the Amazon basin at all.
There are one or two areas where commerce has taken a hold to a small extent but this is only where the rover is navigable to larger vessels. The development of good roads has helped to enhance this commerce though to this day there is not one bridge spanning the Amazon River. The city of Manaus was established in the middle of the nineteenth century to service the burgeoning rubber trade but a succession of similar towns did not materialize as had been anticipated.
For centuries, the local economy has been typified by primitive farming, hunting and fishing and in most parts of the area shows no sign of becoming otherwise. However, in a few areas there has been a slight move towards commercial agriculture though this is not on the type of scale seen in North America, for example.
By far the largest sectors of industry are mining and lumber-jacking and both can be traced back in this region to the 1980s. Large areas of forest cover were cleared and it was claimed they would grow back to their natural state. The reality has proved otherwise; re-growth has not been as good as hoped and the international community is putting pressure on South American governments to curtail logging for the sale of the delicate ecosystem of the rain-forest. Furthermore, there is thought to be large reserves of oil in the region and tapping into this resource could further damage the environment, putting at risk some of the rare native species and polluting the atmosphere.
If tourism could be realistically developed in the area then there might be less pressure on governments to exploit some of the natural resources. However, the sheer scale of the region, the problems in moving things around the region and the adverse terrain make a viable tourism industry on a scale big enough to offer an alternative to logging or oil drilling an unlikely prospect. The very fact that the huge size of the river and its tributaries means that disease can be spread over vast distances is enough to demonstrate to some how inhospitable the area really is; the humidity and the surrounding swamps are a breeding ground where germs can incubate and waterborne diseases have ravaged many tribes.
Alas, the grandeur of the River Amazon is one born out in its statistics rather than its achievements. It boasts no pioneering civilizations that have changed the world, it has sponsored no great religions nor inventions nor philosophies. Unlike other rivers, we admire the Amazon for what it is rather than what it has become.