Urbanizing the Amazon

Though cities are springing up throughout the Brazilian rainforest, there are few jobs to be had

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Mariana Bazo / Reuters

In the middle of the Amazon rainforest, there’s a creature growing.

It’s the city of Manaus. Two million people live there now, and the population is only expected to grow. The city is at one end of the Rio Negro, and a recently completed 3.5-kilometer bridge will make for easier access by migrants.

This is how it works in the Amazon - cities spring up around the transportation hubs. “Roads are the drivers of urbanization in the Amazon,” says John Browder, co-author of the book Rainforest Cities and a professor at Virginia Tech University.

According to Browder, more than half the population of the Brazilian Amazon has lived in urban areas since at least the early 1990s. Much of the current migration in the Amazon is from other cities within the rainforest. But as these areas urbanize, they face a number of problems. One example - there are very few platforms for industry.

Manaus is unique because it’s part of a free trade zone. The other agglomerations forming are not linked to industry. As a result, Browden says many of the cities are largely service-based, focusing on supporting the miners, loggers and cattle drivers that pass through.

With little industry, joblessness is rampant and many people are forced to find their housing in slums. Browden recalls asking a cab driver to take him to a place on the map that showed where the city met the rainforest. When they arrived, he found something completely different.

“All I could see from horizon to horizon were shanty towns,” says Browden.

He calls these places sponges of Brazilian unemployment. Most of the new urban areas, though, are much smaller, with populations in the low thousands. Browden says that electricity and running water are rare in these new urban areas. And – like Manaus – so are jobs.

Yet urban areas continue to develop along the new roadways being constructed, a process the government is committed to furthering. A recent article notes that the Brazilian government is planning to invest about $120 billion in infrastructure in the Amazon by 2020. Projects include roads, rail lines, dams, and electricity transmission lines. As this map from Folha de Sao Paulo shows, most projects aim to increase energy creation in the Amazon, energy that will be sent primarily to cities outside of the region.

But the infrastructure rush is not running as smoothly as these plans might suggest. The Belo Monte hydroelectric dam, slated to be the third largest in the world, was on the verge of construction when it was ruled illegal by a federal regional appeals court judge last week. Local indigenous populations had been protesting the project for years. The dam has been in the works since the 1970s, but has been mired in controversy. This new ruling is another setback in the process, but not a final death knell.

Browden says the migration and growth of urban areas in the Amazon is likely to continue. And unless jobs and industry are able to somehow develop, the famous slums of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo may start to be overshadowed by the more distributed slums of an increasingly urban Amazon.

About the Author

  • Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.