The Liquid Forest


July 31, 2012

Tropical rivers have always played an essential role in the ecology of the rainforest, but they have also been important in the lives of forest and non-forest peoples. Before the arrival of the Europeans, sprawling civilizations and smaller societies formed along major waterways which served as a means of transport and communication, a route for trade, and a source of fish and fresh water. However, because of their location along major rivers, such settlements were the first to disappear, either directly affected by warfare or indirectly affected by the onslaught of European diseases.

Fisherman with a catfish from the Rio Carrao. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Today, large tropical rivers remain important forms of infrastructure providing a cheap, reliable, and easy means for transportation and communication. Major rivers ports like Iquitos, Peru, and Manaus, Brazil, are trade centers where forest products are exchanged for outside goods. Often, the only access to such ports, isolated by the surrounding forest, is by water or air. For example, there are no roads leading into to Iquitos and all construction materials, automobiles, and other essentials must be shipped into the city by river or air.

Fisherman in Laos. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Besides providing a means for commerce and communication, tropical rivers are a key source of protein, in the form of fish, for the population. However in some areas, fishermen report smaller catches as regional overfishing takes its toll. The river also provides services for city dwellers by fertilizing the surrounding soils every flood season and by taking away the tons of human waste and pollutants that city dwellers dump into the river.

Tropical fish provide an important source of income for many city dwellers, especially in the Amazon, which is home to some 3,000 species of fish. Many of the fish seen in temperate-zone aquarium shops are imported from Brazil and Peru.

Canoe in the Zacambu river. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Review questions:

  • Why is the Amazon River important to local people

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Continued / Next: Tropical lakes