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Notes on the Geography of Brazil: Manaus 30 Years Later

Tell someone in São Paulo that you've just been to Manaus, and they'll raise an eyebrow as if to say, "Why on Earth?" Apparently Manaus is like--or even worse than--flyover country in the U.S. Yes, Manaus is the back of beyond and really only part of Brazil because Brazil's military geniuses centuries ago figured that grabbing the Amazon was a lot easier for them than for the Spaniards on the far side of the Andes. Since then, Manaus has had two booms: the first and more glorious was based on rubber-tree tapping about 1900. The other started when the military, still worrying in the 1960s about its hold on the near-empty center of the continent, designated Manaus a duty-free zone. Think a tax-free zone for manufacturers of televisions and motorcycles. Maybe it was a sweet deal, but it raises the pesky question: who pays for the implicit subsidy? Fortunately, this website avoids the dismal science. We're just going to look around.

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Eight hundred miles from the sea, Manaus was founded in 1669 on the Rio Negro 10 miles above its confluence with the Amazon. Here's the Negro at sunset; the Amazon is out of sight but off to the left. What's that you say? Yes, I agree: no disrespect to the Amazon, but the Rio Negro is nothing to sneeze at. The water, by the way, is crystal clear but appears dark when deep.

Here's Franz Keller, commenting on his arrival in 1867, when Manaus had about 3,000 people (now it has about two million): "The shallow bay on the left shore of the Rio Negro was full of fishing-boats, from beneath whose roofs of palm-leaves half a score of brown faces popped out to have a look at the strangers." Strangers aren't so strange these days. American Airlines flies down here nonstop daily from Miami.

See Keller, The Amazon and Madeira Rivers: Sketches and Descriptions from the Note-Book of an Explorer, 1874, p. 33.

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Having built a fortress, which had already fallen into ruin when Keller came by in 1867, the Portuguese must have wondered, What Next? The answer for two centuries was, Not Much. You can wander 20 miles north of Manaus and find yourself still thinking the same thing.

What's that? You're going to wax wroth at my disgraceful ignorance of the rain forest's role as the Earth's lungs? OK, OK: I'm smart enough not to argue.

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From that forest also came this.

You know most of the story. Rubber became a major industrial commodity in the 19th century, and the supply came from rubber trees growing here and there in the Amazon forest. Then a wicked English gentleman, rather proud of his skullduggery, absconded with some rubber-tree seeds and spirited them away to Kew Gardens, from whence (can't beat that word) a later generation of rubber-tree seeds was taken to establish plantations in Ceylon and points east. Tappers no longer had to wander through the Amazon forest looking for another tree to tap. Bye-bye, Brazil's trade. The curtain fell about 1920.

Here's the prize relic of the boom, the Teatro Amazonas. The names up top are an odd mix: Joaquim Macedo was a novelist and playwright, but Eduardo Ribeiro was the governor of Amazonas in the 1890s, when the city had money to burn. Ribeiro was forced from office and a few years later was found dead in his hammock. He was 38. There are several juicy stories about this, but we venture that his death wasn't from natural causes.

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The theater's architect was an Italian with the wonderful name of Celestial Sacardim. Work began in 1884, and the theater was inaugurated in 1896. The steel frame came from Glasgow, the tiles from Alsace, the mirrors from France, the chandeliers from Venice, and the marble columns from Italy. You get the idea: nothing but the best for these erstwhile Saudis.

You can't read it, but see the name around the corner from Macedo's? It's Eduardo Ribeiro's, again. Modest Eddy, not.

The theater was abandoned about 1930 and slowly decayed until its restoration in the 1990s. That's the trouble with one-trick ponies. As one student says, Manaus suffered from its "regional isolation and intractable economic dependence on resource extraction." (See Rainforest Cities, a study of cities in the Amazon, by John O. Browder and Brian J. Godfrey (1997), p. 139.)

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In 1995, Xerox paid for the refurbishment of the Praça São Sebastião, in front of the theater. The paving isn't new, however: it's always been wavy, symbolizing the confluence of the Rio Negro with the gray-white Amazon.

The Monumento a Abertura dos Portos--the monument to the opening of the port--recalls that great event in 1866, when the Amazon was opened to ships of foreign nations. Until then, outsiders like the Yankees had pushed in vain for entry. No less than Matthew Fontaine Maury had made it a personal crusade. America's ports were as close to the Amazon as Brazil's, he argued--and it's true, if you measure between Savannah and Santos.

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The sculptor was the Italian Domenico de Angelis, who had been working on the opera house. Did he know Bernini's fountain in the Piazza Navona, with its four great rivers? Anyway we have four boats here representing four distant continents. Up top, there's an allegorical figure representing Trade; she sits next to an avant-garde Mercury, perched atop a fine spur gear.

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The African boat has an Egyptian figurehead on whose head a boy sits holding a pair of tusks. The plaque recalls Antonio Albuquerque, who as foreign minister signed the decree opening the river.

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The European cherub holds one arm aloft as if to say "Forward, ho!" while the other rests on a globe, rather like Holbein's famous old "The Ambassadors." The plaque celebrates the 400th anniversary of the discovery of Brazil.

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The cherub on Asia's boat sits on a lion and holds a bowl of...what? Fruit? Just below the lion there's an Islamic crescent. The plaque states that the monument was created in 1899 by order of the Governor of the State of Amazonas, José Cardoso Ramalho Júnior.

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The shops around the plaza have been meticulously spruced up. Call all this the spillover from the second boom, the one created by the duty-free industrial zone.

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There are houses on the square, too. The track recalls the streetcars here a century ago. No streetcars now.

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Manaus has definitely caught the heritage bug.

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Some houses are less flashy.

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Can there have been a color contest? Anyway, here's a house known as the little castle and now operating as the Churrascaria Castelhinho.

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Here's a much grander house, the Rio Negro Palace, built in 1911 by a German rubber baron. (That's rubber, not robber.) His name was Karl Waldemar Scholz, and for a time he was president of the Amazonas Commercial Association. He was also the Austrian consul. Hurt by World War I, he was obliged to mortgage the house to another trader, Luiz da Silva Gomes, who eventually owned the place and in 1918 sold it to the governor of Amazonas, Pedro Bacellar. For many years, it was then the residence of the governor of Amazonas. Since 1995 it's been a museum.

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Here's another building that's made the private-to-public transition. It started out as the mansion of a Portuguese businessman, Alexandre de Brito Amorim, who arrived in 1851 and established the Companhia Fluvial do Alto Amazonas, which not only plied the river but until 1881 ran a Manaus-Liverpool service. Amorim sold the house in 1867 to an officer of the national guard; subsequently the building housed the presidents of Amazonas until becoming the state's military police headquarters and, after 2007, another museum.

Amorim had stiff competition on the river. One competitor was the fabulously wealthy--until the sad day he wasn't--Baron de Maua, alias Irineu de Souza, who among many other projects set up the Navigation and Commerce Company of Amazonas, which merged in 1874 with the London-based Amazon Steam Navigation Company. By 1903 the company owned 33 steamers and operated five lines on the river and its tributaries.

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Remember him? His name's on the Teatro Amazonas--twice. How extensive were his modifications here? Dunno.

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Here's the Amazonas public library. It opened in 1870 and originally was in two colors: windows and all horizontal elements were white; the rest, dark. (For an old photograph, see Otono Moreira de Mesquita, Manaus: História e Arquitetura, 1852-1910, 2006, p. 258.)

At the end of the street there's a two-story building, white-trimmed. That's the old Grande Internacional Hotel, once the city's pride but now an assortment of modest ground-floor shops.

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Main staircase of the library.

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A reading room, reopened in 2013 after restoration.

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At the top of the stairs there's a painting from 1888. Called the Redemption of the Amazon, it's by Francisco Aurelio de Figueiredo. The small label mentions the Lei Aurea or Golden Law, which abolished slavery in Brazil in 1884. The painting apparently shows a new economy taking shape, with a steamboat in the river and a man unpacking imported luxuries to a circle of women, including painters and students. A full exegesis awaits.

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It's a 15-minute walk from the theater past the library down to the river. There's a modern port a few miles downstream--container ships and all the rest--just below the confluence with the Amazon, but up here the river makes do with smaller craft.

Here's what Franz Keller saw in 1867: "As the shallow shore did not admit a direct approach even for small boats, and as a landing-bridge seemed to be an unheard of luxury, there was no resource but to disembark in two-wheeled carts, standing up to the axle-trees in the water, which took both passengers and luggage safely ashore, though certainly not in what might be called an elegant way" (p. 34).

The floating docks go back to about 1900. Here's a fine bit of relevant minutia from a trade journal in 1905: "By contract with the Federal Government of Brazil a company, known as Manaos Harbour, Limited, undertook inter alia, to construct, at the port of Manaos, warehouses, inclines, permanent works, and floats for steamers of all sizes to go alongside at all times of the year, and to arrange for the discharging, loading and warehousing of all merchandise from large or small steamers."

See Electrical World and Engineer, 1905, p. 308.

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The article continues: "The annual rise and fall of the Amazon River there is about 40 feet, so that it was found necessary to provide floating landing-stages at some distance from the shore, and in order to allow of the transference of cargo from these stages to the warehouses on land a specially designed steel pontoon has been constructed."

Here's how another visitor, Henry Clemens Pearson, described the scene in 1911: "I do not think I spoke of the magnificent spread of the river in front of the city. It forms a great pool, four or five miles wide and deep enough at low water to accommodate ocean steamers. During the rainy season the river rises from 30 to 40 feet, and this was why the company that had the concession to build docks passed so many sleepless nights. They have finally anchored huge docks a little way off shore, and when the river rises pay out the anchored cables so that the dock rises with it. Goods are sent ashore from these docks on long aerial cables...."

Pearson was the publisher of India Rubber World, another trade magazine. The quote here comes from his The Rubber Country of the Amazon, 1911, p. 100.

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Improvements included this lighthouse, the Guardamoria, built so the tax police could keep an eye on things. It stands on the site of the old Portuguese fort. Despite the palazzo-look, the tower is steel-framed and was prefabricated in England.

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So was the adjacent Customs House or Alfandega. Pearson in 1911 writes of the port authority's setup: "The floating dock was built by the Manaos Harbor Co., Limited, a company made up of Brazilian capitalists, English and Brazilian steamship companies, a wealthy English rubber importing company, and others. This company under contract with the Brazilian government built a fine custom house and a quay with an earth backing, the length of the city's water front. The land reclaimed by filling became their property. In addition to this they received, for building the floating dock quays and storehouses, the right to levy tolls for 60 years" (p. 101).

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Sure enough, the government didn't take over the property until the lease ran out.

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The other prominent feature of the waterfront is the municipal market, assembled from materials cast in Liverpool and built in stages, with the central building erected in 1880 and the lateral pavilions added about 1900. There is at least some resemblance to the old Les Halles market in Paris.

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The sheds were closed for about eight years until, refurbished, they opened again in 2013. Streetcars once ran past the market's palatial offices, but the tracks have been removed.

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The building was added by Adolpho Lisboa, who arrived in Manaus in 1902 and served as the municipal superintendent for five years.

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His name appears also on the side of this monument to Tenreiro Aranha, the founder of Amazonas, which was split off from Para in 1850. The monument formerly stood near the waterfront but has been moved closer to the theater.

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Aranha had earlier worked for Baron de Maua's Navigation and Commerce Company of Amazonas.

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Here's the power plant that opened in 1896. It used a steam engine to generate electricity for streetcars. Abandoned for some years, it was renovated in the 1980s and reopened as the Centro Cultural Usina Chaminé--that is, the Chimney Powerplant Cultural Center.

Henry Pearson offers this anecdote: "The street subway line in Manaos was built by Americans--in fact financed by them--and later sold to the government and for a time the service was good. Then one noon the engineer and his helpers had their siesta interrupted by the blowing out of a cylinder head on the great engine. Unfortunately no one was hurt, the aforementioned public servants escaping. At the time of my arrival new equipment was going in, competent engineers had been engaged and better service was in sight" (pp. 96-7).

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The tram lines ran over this bridge, variously called the iron bridge, the Ponte Benjamin Constant, and the Ponte de Ferro da Cachoeirinha. It was built during the administration of--wait for it--Eduardo Ribeiro, and it crosses a branch of the Educandos inlet or igarapé.

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Lots of infrastructure is left over from those days. Here's the 1900 Palace of Justice, built by the--I don't have to tell you--Ribeiro administration.

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Here's a public school from 1895; it's close to the same Igarapé Educandos. When the local student population declined with slum clearance, the school closed in 1979, re-opening in 1988 to house the State Council of Education.

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Jose Paranagua was president of Amazonas in the early 1880s and so had nothing to do with building this school. Who did? The small gray plaque reads "Administracão do Dr. Eduardo G. Ribeiro." Where the "doctor" comes from is anybody's guess. Before coming to Manaus, Ribeiro had been a military officer and a professor in Brazil's military college.

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Here's the Amazonian Dom Pedro II College, opened in 1886 as the Lyceu Provincial Amazonense.

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Here's the Instituto Benjamin Constant, opened in 1896 as a school for the blind. It's named not for the Franco-Swiss Benjamin Constant but for Brazil's Benjamin Constant Botelho de Magalhães (1836-1891), a soldier and philosophical positivist who helped overthrow Pedro II and establish the Brazilian republic.

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Here's the Palace Hotel which, contrary to what you might expect, opened as late as 1953. The building had previously been Kahn Polack, a retail store. For a photo from that pre-hotel era, see Durango Duarte, Manaus entre o passado e o presente, 2009, p. 252.

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Here's the town's luxury-good importer. It opened in 1906 and in fact specialized in French products. An advertisement of the time prominently displays the words "chic" and "elegancia." Brazil: Manaus 30 Years Later picture 41

There are many leftovers from this period, including this building next to the Palace Hotel.

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Many of the buildings are virtual copies of each other. This one, at 95 Rua Rocha dos Santos, is almost identical to the now-demolished Hotel Restaurant Francais on Avenida Eduardo Ribeiro 35, which advertised "Grande concerto todas as noites" and "serviço de primeira ordem."

See Daniel Schoepf, George Huebner, 1862-1935: Un Photographe à Manaus, 2000, p. 169.

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AB? How about Antonio Borsa, owner of the nearby Grande Hotel, the city's biggest. Can't say how many guests the hotel had, but in 1902 13,000 Brazilians arrived in Manaus, along with 2,400 Portuguese, 1,100 Spanish, 954 Italians, 225 English, and a paltry 64 Americans. They had to stay somewhere.

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An owner from Lebanon?

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For every building that's been restored, another has been left to decay.

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You ask about typical housing? The general pattern since the early days of Manaus has been for the poor to cluster near or even on the river, while the rich live along a spine stretching inland for miles almost perpendicularly away from the Municipal Market. The river was apparently not seen as an amenity. Even here, where the housing is pretty good, the river below is a mess. The view is from the bridge over the Igarapé Educandos.

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Gradually, over the last several decades, the stilt houses or palafitas built on the igarapés have been cleared, but some survived in 2017.

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The satellite dishes are (but probably shouldn't be) a surprise. These houses, approached over the flimsiest plank paths, do have water and power.

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Here's some of the public or social housing that's replaced many of the stilt houses. The work's been carried out by PROSAMIM, the Manaus Igarapé Social and Environmental Restoration Programme.

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Vivaldo? You might guess a footballer, but I'm hazarding Vivaldo Frota, an ex-governor of Amazonas who died in Manaus in 2015.

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There are highrises, too, some rundown. Does this look like an apartment building? No? There's a good reason.

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Entrance. Welcome to what was the Hotel Amazonas, the city's best when it opened in 1951. A four-star hotel as late as 1980, it became a condominium in 1996.

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People with more money live farther inland, especially in the neighborhood called Adrianopolis with its Galeria Cristal. It boasts a Carrefour hypermart.

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Here's a gated high-rise community, if that's not a contradiction in terms.

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The money for such places comes from the duty-free industrial zone created by the military government that seized power in 1964. At its head was Humberto de Alencar Castelo Branco, president of Brazil. Could you trust him? João Goulart thought so; Branco had been his chief of staff until leading the coup that toppled Goulart. The bust sits in front of the office of Suframa, the Superintenencia da Zona Franca de Manaus.

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Decree 228 of 1967 established both the FZM (Zona Franca de Manaus) and the administrative body SUFRAMA. The idea was to encourage investment in assembly plants making things with parts admitted duty-free and then either exported without duty or sold domestically without sales tax. By 1975 140 projects had been approved; by 1991, 811. Some weren't built, but by 1991 the city had 150,000 factory workers, some in the original Industrial District near this office but half scattered around other parts of the city and region. A severe recession in 1991 cut those numbers in half, but the blow was temporary. That was the good news. The bad was that about two-thirds of the jobs were held by young women working at low wages.

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Since 1976, Honda has made over 20 million motorbikes here.

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Yamaha has a plant, too.

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So does Proctor and Gamble.

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Far away from all these and on the northern fringe of the city, 3M has a plant.

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Fueling the city, Petrobras has a riverside refinery.

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A local marketer called Atem sells fuel from the refinery.

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The refinery is several miles from town, and there's no bus. Instead, workers after their shift pile into a truck.

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Meanwhile, the river's edge is enough to make you curse the invention of plastic.

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Where does this stuff go after the bank of the Amazon?

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It stays put at least for a while.

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A Petrobras tanker brings crude to the refinery.

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Stuff made in the assembly plants goes out in container ships like this one, property of a company running weekly service north to Panama and south to Santos.

Aliança is the Brazilian subsidiary of Hamburg Sud. For a map of this particular line, see http://productandserviceguide.hamburgsud-line.com/#/64

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Some traffic goes out by barge.

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That includes new motor vehicles.

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Way off in the distance you can see the color of the river shift to a lighter shade. Welcome to the Amazon proper. If you're a purist, you'll insist that the Amazon starts here, at the confluence of the Rio Negro in the foreground and the Solimões, coming in beyond the point in the distance. Some of its water appears today to have wrapped around the point and pushed into the channel of the Rio Negro.

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There's passenger traffic here, too.

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Cars are lined up for the next ferry.

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The ferries link up with the infamous BR-319, a road running 885 kilometers south to Porto Velho. Completed in 1973, the middle section of the mostly unpaved road was soon almost impassible. Objections from ecologists, who knew what the road meant for the forest, have prevented its renovation.

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Still, there's local traffic.

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Above Manaus on the Rio Negro, however, there's the tremendous Manaus-Iranduba Bridge, or the Ponte do Rio Negro. It opened in 2011 with an eye to pushing industrial expansion over to the right bank of the river and the broad interfluve between it and the Solimões. Manufacturers were given a tax and duty holiday here for 50 years.

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Highway 174 meanwhile heads north past the 3M plant toward Boa Vista and the Venezuelan border. It's only a quick 450 miles to Boa Vista, which has grown explosively from 5,000 people in 1950 to over a quarter million. We, lazy slugs, are just going 20 miles up the road to see if it's true that the isolation of Manaus has kept the local forest in better shape than elsewhere in Brazil.

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Need to stop? Pretty fancy station. The company is the distributor whose tank farm we saw earlier: Atem Distribuidora de Petroleo.

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Let's turn off. Side roads are always better.

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For a while, trees. Primary forest? Call me a doom-and-gloomer, but I doubt it.

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Then, signs of cattle.

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Rough pasture.

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An old banana plantation.

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A Manaus escapee.

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More forest. Surely it's regrowth. ("Surely" means I'm bluffing. Haven't you learned anything?)

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Pioneer settlement means first-generation churches, simple as poverty can make them.

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The sign reads: Igreja Pentecostal Primitiva do Brasil, Jose Alves Filho.

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Far cry from the opulence of Italian cathedrals, and maybe a bit closer to Christ's message.

Just sayin'.

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Back in Manaus, there's a hypermodern park. You ask why are we here, and why now?

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It's for this monument to Jefferson Peres, 1932-2008, a Brazilian senator, professor of economics at the Federal University of Amazon, and Mayor of Manaus from 1988 to 1995. Contrary to what you might expect, he was opposed to the "wholly artificial" Manaus industrial zone. He also opposed BR 319, the abortive road south.

His dream for Manaus was sustainable production of forest products, combined with tourism. As a later author has suggested, Peres wanted "cosmopolitan sophistication with pristine rainforest identity." It's a dream, but as one of Graham Greene's characters says in Our Man in Havana, we should dream more. "Reality in our century is not something to be faced."

For "cosmopolitan sophistication," see Juan Miguel Kanai, "Capital of the Amazon Rainforest: Constructing a Global City-region for Entrepreneurial Manaus," in Urban Studies, August 2014, p. 2396.

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