Jungle Metropolis

March 1, 2014

Manaus, Brazil

We’ve just finished two days in Manaus, the largest city in the Amazon basin.  Manaus started as a mission station and a military base to reinforce Portugal’s and then Brazil’s claim on the region.  I didn’t really take off until the second half of the 19th century when rubber barons created a jungle metropolis dedicated to the export of rubber needed for the belts, hoses, pads, boots and tires of a newly industrializing West.  The future of Manaus looked secure until a British Adventurer smuggled 70,000 rubber tree seeds out of the region and got them to Kew Gardens in London.  Only about 4% of them germinated but those trees produced the seeds that Britain used to start its huge rubber plantations in Malaya.

In Malaya rubber trees could grow close to each other because the fungal blight that affected trees in the Amazon doesn’t exist in Southeast Asia.  When Henry Ford tried to create rubber plantations in the Amazon the trees, planted closely together, died out.  Before Ford Amazon tappers ran circuits between widely separated trees.  Collecting latex was a slow and labor intensive project.  In Malaya the trees, planted closely together allowed for the industrialization of rubber plantations.  The seeds were spirited out of Brazil in the 1870s.  It took until the second decade of the 20th century for the plantations in Malaya to really get going but when they did the Brazilian rubber market collapsed.

The rubber barons abandoned their city in the Amazon, with its Art Nouveau buildings, its customs house brought from the UK brick by brick, its grand opera house (see separate post) and its cast iron and glass market imported from France.  The city fell into decay until the Japanese took Malaya’s rubber plantations in World War Two when Manaus had a brief renaissance, until America learned how to make synthetic rubber from petroleum.

In the 1960s the Generals in control of Brazil decided to revitalize Manaus by creating a free trade zone.  Manaus became an assembly center for electronics and motorcycles.  Harley Davidson has its largest plant outside the US here.   The city again prospered.  Today it has one of the lowest unemployment rates in Brazil, under 5%.

But the new factories were built on the periphery of the city.  The new upscale residential neighborhoods with their high rise condos and shopping malls went up “upriver” from the port to sit along sandy beaches.  Downtown continued to decline.  In 1990 the state restored the opera house as a centerpiece for downtown revitalization.  A growing tourist industry, including increasing cruise ship calls at this port 1000 kilometers (600 miles) up the river meant that more of downtown began to see some life.  (This is one of the few ports where you can get off an ocean going cruise ship and ask “What’s the altitude here” and not be thought the fool.)   The World Cup added to the impetus to fix up downtown.  Now it’s a mix of rundown and restored, with lively street markets and a police band playing “Brazil” to give our step a little zip.

We’ve just finished two days in Manaus, the largest city in the Amazon basin.  Manaus started as a mission station and a military base to reinforce Portugal’s and then Brazil’s claim on the region.  I didn’t really take off until the second half of the 19th century when rubber barons created a jungle metropolis dedicated to the export of rubber needed for the belts, hoses, pads, boots and tires of a newly industrializing West.  The future of Manaus looked secure until a British Adventurer smuggled 70,000 rubber tree seeds out of the region and got them to Kew Gardens in London.  Only about 4% of them germinated but those trees produced the seeds that Britain used to start its huge rubber plantations in Malaya.

In Malaya rubber trees could grow close to each other because the fungal blight that affected trees in the Amazon doesn’t exist in Southeast Asia.  When Henry Ford tried to create rubber plantations in the Amazon the trees, planted closely together, died out.  Before Ford Amazon tappers ran circuits between widely separated trees.  Collecting latex was a slow and labor intensive project.  In Malaya the trees, planted closely together allowed for the industrialization of rubber plantations.  The seeds were spirited out of Brazil in the 1870s.  It took until the second decade of the 20th century for the plantations in Malaya to really get going but when they did the Brazilian rubber market collapsed.

The rubber barons abandoned their city in the Amazon, with its Art Nouveau buildings, its customs house brought from the UK brick by brick, its grand opera house (see separate post) and its cast iron and glass market imported from France.  The city fell into decay until the Japanese took Malaya’s rubber plantations in World War Two when Manaus had a brief renaissance, until America learned how to make synthetic rubber from petroleum.

In the 1960s the Generals in control of Brazil decided to revitalize Manaus by creating a free trade zone.  Manaus became an assembly center for electronics and motorcycles.  Harley Davidson has its largest plant outside the US here.   The city again prospered.  Today it has one of the lowest unemployment rates in Brazil, under 5%.

But the new factories were built on the periphery of the city.  The new upscale residential neighborhoods with their high rise condos and shopping malls went up “upriver” from the port to sit along sandy beaches.  Downtown continued to decline.  In 1990 the state restored the opera house as a centerpiece for downtown revitalization.  A growing tourist industry, including increasing cruise ship calls at this port 1000 kilometers (600 miles) up the river meant that more of downtown began to see some life.  (This is one of the few ports where you can get off an ocean going cruise ship and ask “What’s the altitude here” and not be thought the fool.)   The World Cup added to the impetus to fix up downtown.  Now it’s a mix of rundown and restored, with lively street markets and a police band playing “Brazil” to give our step a little zip.

 

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