Melinda and I went to the Amazon a few years ago and enjoyed it, so when we were deciding where to go on a family vacation this year, it was a great choice. It’s definitely one of the most amazing places I’ve been.
And there's this unbelievable ecosystem. The Amazon is 4,000 miles long and carries 20 percent of the entire world’s fresh water, making it the biggest river system by far. The Nile is longer but it’s also narrower, whereas the Amazon is very wide—as much as 30 miles across during the rainy season.
Even though a lot of the rainforest has disappeared in recent years, it is still huge, making up more than half of the rainforests left on earth. It has more biodiversity than anywhere else, including more than 2.5 million different insects, thousands of plant species, and 20 percent of all the birds in the world.
The Amazon River is quite unique. Millions of years ago, there was a river that flowed to the west, but then the Andes started lifting up, blocking the river and creating a huge lake in South America that eventually flattened the land. As the Andes continued to lift, the water finally made an outlet to the east. And so the Amazon now flows from the west, up in the Andes, down to the east.
Because of the amount of water in the river basin, there are thousands of species of insects, fish, birds and mammals that have adapted to live in the area, including trees that can be under water half the year and still survive, fish that jump up and plant their eggs on bushes, and fish that jump up and eat insects. It's really incredible.
Starting high up in the Andes, it flows into dozens of tributaries. Depending on whether a tributary comes from old rock or new rock, it has either mud in it, which means you have all these grasses growing, creating a super productive ecosystem – or it's got mostly just sand and leaves that are decaying.
There are three big towns on the river. Belem is down near the mouth of the Amazon, where it empties into the Atlantic. About 900 miles upriver there’s Manaus. And in between, there's Santarem. We spent some of the time in Santarem, and some of the time in Manaus.
The real action is up in the canopy of the tropical rainforest, where the birds and insects and monkeys are doing their thing. A neat thing we did with the assistance of a guide was to climb a kapok tree by pulling ourselves up a big rope. On our way up, we saw ants and different birds nesting. The trees are amazing. They grow as high as 200 feet and can be as much as 10 feet in diameter.
The original treatment for malaria, quinine, is found in the bark of quina trees. Nobody understands how it was discovered as a treatment for malaria because the tree grows at a higher elevation than where malaria occurs. Someone took the bark and boiled it and knew that if you drank the tea it helped you with malaria. Quinine was the only treatment for malaria until modern medicine developed a synthetic form in the mid-20th century.
One of our favorite things was swimming with the pink river dolphins that inhabit the Amazon and its tributaries. These freshwater dolphins are curious and friendly, with a brain that’s 40 percent larger than humans. They are one of the many species of animals and plants that have adapted to the unique ecosystem of the Amazon Basin.
For hundreds of years, Brazil’s indigenous people have used native plants to do a lot of amazing things. If you have a headache, you use this tree to make a remedy. If you need to make something waterproof, you go tap another tree. Interestingly, about a quarter of all conventional drugs today are derived from rainforest plants.
Manioc, also known as cassava, is a yam-like vegetable which is used as an ingredient and condiment in a lot of Brazilian cooking.
Brazil has developed the world’s first truly sustainable biofuels economy based on sugarcane. Sugarcane is called a C4 plant, which means it's more efficient. In the temperate zone, the big C4 plant is corn, or maize. In the tropical zone, it's sugarcane. Brazil substitutes almost half of what its oil imports would otherwise be by making ethanol from sugarcane. There are many companies that are looking at using the sugarcane stalk to make other high value chemicals.
Embrapa, Brazil’s government agricultural research organization, has developed sophisticated agricultural techniques to make productive use of tropical soils. They figured out that adding aluminum to fertilizer solved the problem of highly-acidic soils. In just a few years, a 1000-mile-long tropical savannah known as the cerrado was transformed into highly productive cropland for growing soybeans. Now, after the United States, Brazil is the number two exporter of soybeans in the world. The people at Embrapa won the 2006 World Food Prize for their work.
I’ve been reading a lot about meteorology, trying to understand weather. The weather system in Brazil is very unusual. You’re almost equatorial, so you have the weather system from the northern hemisphere and southern hemisphere converging, with unbelievable cloud formations that are as high as anywhere in the world, with a lot of rain and energy in them. It’s a very interesting weather system.