On August 9, 1964, precisely 51 years ago the day before yesterday, an article by Edwards C. Burks appeared in the New York Times entitled “An Off-Beat Trip to Brazilian City of Manaus”. “Not a Modern City”, read one of the subtitles in bold, followed by another less than complimentary: “Humidity Oppressive”. It sounds like Burks did not come back very well impressed with the Manaus of the 1960’s.
And here is what downtown Manaus looked like then. Opera House of Manaus. Source: Anosdourados.blog.br
Deciding whether Manaus is modern or not requires comparing it against some unknown, subjective, context-dependent criteria. It distracts us from its fully unique history and circumstances. We would do the city better justice to ask ourselves: How do you build a lasting urban center in the smack middle of the Amazon jungle? The city’s history goes back to the 1600’s, when explorers and entrepreneurs began to build what later became a 2,000,000 inhabitant city in the heart of the Amazon Biome, the scientific phrase that describes the largest tropical rainforest on the planet. Defined as the area covered by dense moist tropical forest, the Biome spans 6.7 million km2 (twice the size of India) and is shared by Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru and Suriname as well as the territory of French Guiana.
Building a city in this environment is an admirable accomplishment. One of the biggest challenges is of course to overcome isolation. The combination of thousands of kilometers of thick forest with massive bodies of water that rise and fall dramatically along the year due to torrential rains is such that building roads is usually out of the question. To this day, Manaus has no road connections to other states of Brazil, except for Roraima, to the north.
Not that roads have not been attempted in the Amazon. In 1974, Brazilian President Emílio Garrastazu Médici launched the beginning of the construction of the Rodovia Transamazônica (BR 230), starting from the margins of the Rio Xingu, 200 km from Marabá, in the state of Pará. It cost 1,5 billion dollars at the time, probably over a dozen billion at today’s value. 4,000 workers were hired to build the road, including a man called John Coningham, my father, whose stories of his experiences there triggered my interest for the region.
The workers on the BR 230 were faced with incredible hardship: distance, no means of communication, miserable terrain, poor nutrition, relentless rain (Burks was right about the oppressive humidity), and a wide variety of tropical diseases such as tuberculosis, yellow fever, typhoid fever, malaria, leprosy, filariasis and… well, you get the picture. In spite of all that, they built over 4,000 km of the projected 5,200. Construction stopped 687 km short of the planned final destination, the town of Benjamin Constant on the border with Peru. Approximately 2,200 km of the Transamazônica were never paved and are almost completely impossible to use during the six months of the rainy season. In the 90’s, infuriated by the dreadful road conditions, truck drivers set fire to the original wooden bridges, unsafe for large cargo trucks to cross. Ferries and barges are now in place. What was so difficult to build, was also very difficult to maintain. Erosion and invasion by the surrounding forest have reduced large portions of the road onto no more than a trail.
Earlier in the 20th century, a railway had also been attempted. The Madeira-Mamoré Railroad was going to link Porto Velho a Guajará-Mirim, in the state of Rondônia. The working conditions on that construction project were so horrendous that more than 5,000 lives were lost there. Today, only a small fraction of the railway functions – for touristic purposes only.
While land is not conducive for moving things and people around in the region, water is. Manaus relies on ships and boats of all types and sizes to provide most passenger and cargo transportation, with airplanes coming second. This intrigued me. While visiting earlier this year, I spoke to a couple who lives in the Upper Rio Negro and were in Manaus for a vacation. It had taken them 12 hours to travel the 990 km (about 615 miles) that separate Manaus from São Gabriel da Cachoeira, their hometown, on the fastest boat available. Another acquaintance, a sales manager for a multinational, described the intricate logistics required to ship their highly perishable products into Manaus, strictly reducing the amount of time available to get them distributed and sold. Covering the vast distances in the region is still a challenge today.
One of the most significant marks in the history of Manaus was the natural rubber production boom that occurred in the Amazon region roughly from 1890 to 1920. It demanded more infrastructure. It also brought the wealth to fund it. Manaus became one of the first cities in Brazil to have electricity and public transportation. Its downtown area saw the construction of sophisticated buildings in European styles, including its magnificent opera house that you see at the top of this post and in below.
Intensified commerce meant Manaus needed a better port. The challenge was how to operate one on a river that rises and drops around 12.2 meters (40 ft) every year. The solution was to use floating wharves. In 1902, using building materials specially ordered from France, Britain and other European countries, a British corporation began improvements to the port facilities. To the floating structures they added a customs house, a stone quay, and storehouses. And… it worked! The floating wharves are still in place at the largest floating river port in the world (although studies by the local government reveal they are in need of maintenance or replacement), and the Port of Manaus has become the commercial heart of the city. In 2011, the concessionary that runs the public port reported 2,600 vessel moorings, 27 cruise ship stopovers in international travel and a movement of 17,647 passengers. For the same year, the port complex of Manaus handled 14,781,944 tons of cargo.
Unfortunately, the economy of the region and of Manaus declined in the 1920s, when the price of natural rubber collapsed on the world market and rubber produced in Asia was much more competitive than that produced in Brazil. It was only when it was declared a duty-free zone in 1967 that Manaus began to prosper again. That was too late for Edward C. Burks, who showed up in 1964. Today, cell phone service is widely available (in fact my friend checked her email right from our boat in the middle of the Rio Negro) in Manaus and access to the internet is a common feature of businesses and middle class homes. The 2,000,000 inhabitants of the city count on a large and well run airport, public and private schools and universities, hotels of all categories, several new air-conditioned shopping malls and fine dining. They deal with traffic jams during rush hour and they enjoy a yearly opera season from March to May. They also continue to have to manage the monumental challenges of existing in a developing country and in one of its most inaccessible regions.
Going somewhere by boat? Stop here if you need some gas…
I traveled in Manaus and neighboring region in July 2015. I relied on the logistical support and guiding services of
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