Green tragedy

John Hemming’s history of Amazon exploration,
Tree of Rivers, highlights how this unique region continues to be traded over 500 years after the first European foray


Tree of Rivers: The Story
of the Amazon

John Hemming
2008, Thames and Hudson
368 pages

Reviewed by Georgina Jiménez

THE AMAZON has crawled like a forest creeper back up the international agenda, causing strains within the Brazilian government that burst asunder in May with the resignation of Marina Silva as environment minister and her replacement by Carlos Minc.

While there is clearly no suggestion that Minc – a founder of Brazil’s Green Party and a respected environmental champion – is any less committed than his feisty and, at times, outspoken predecessor to protecting the Amazon, there is much speculation that Silva’s departure reflects increased pressure to prioritise large-scale development projects in the region, including two big hydroelectric dams on the River Madeira.

Silva resigned in frustration at the government’s environment policies, causing much consternation among environmental groups. They spoke of the “unbearable” pressure she had been under reconciling her efforts to halt deforestation with the country’s ambitious development agenda. Her resignation will reinforce perceptions that President Inacio Lula da Silva is more concerned with economic development in the Amazon region than conservation.

Minc will come under heavy pressure from environmentalists to give rainforest conservation top priority at a time when the Brazilian government is enjoying a boom in commodity exports, some of which, such as soya, are being grown on deforested land to meet the insatiable appetite of countries such as China.

There has also been an angry response from Lula’s government to suggestions that the fate of the Amazon is far too important for the world to be left just to Brazil. Lula signalled recently, in no uncertain terms, that foreigners should butt out and leave its fate to Brazilians. “The Amazon has an owner and that owner is the Brazilian people,” he said.

Impeccable timing

It is against this backdrop – like most political ecosystems, as teeming with creepy-crawlies as the rainforest itself – that John Hemming’s comprehensive history of exploration has been published. Like much this veteran explorer has done in his adventurous life, his timing remains impeccable.

Tree of Rivers is a passionate survey of external forays into the world’s largest rainforest and riverine network, a theme that calls to mind similarities in the Brazilian defence of its sovereign right to decide what happens to this natural resource from outside interventions. One must ask to what extent, in a globalised economy and society, such assertions of sovereignty have moral or rational force (in this case, at least)… but that’s another debate.

Hemming gives the reader a rich and colourful account of expeditions along the river and into its forests since the first European paddled there, and in the process sheds light on the darker aspects of Amazonian exploration. The Spaniard Vicente Yáñez Pinzón provided an ominous portent when he and his crew sailed up the mouth of the river for a few days in 1500, taking home with them 36 men seized as slaves.

The subsequent story of Amazon exploration is one of catastrophic exploitation of the region. People became the first commodities to be extracted, leading to a demographic collapse of the indigenous population, followed in no particular order by rubber, wildlife, wood, turtles, biodiversity and, in some areas, minerals. Since that fateful first encounter, the Amazon has remained to this day a resource to be traded over by men and governments, raped and pillaged while admired from afar.

We learn of slave rebellions, benign adventurers, British indifference to abuse, and ill-fated American plantations. Hemming’s chapter on “planes, chains and bulldozers” brings this account right up to date, describing a recent process of environmental destruction without historic parallel that leaves one dizzy from its scale – despite the author’s honourable objectivity and efforts to draw attention to positive inheritances in the region.

At all times a warm fascination with the flora and fauna of the Amazon – and with its indigenous peoples – emanates from the page. No one is better placed than Hemming – a former director of the Royal Geographical Society and himself an explorer who has had many contacts with remote tribes – to write about this theme. The result is as epic as its theme.

Georgina Jiménez is a freelance Mexican writer