The Amazon basin is 6.7 million square kilometers and comprises 36% of South America.
Much of the basin is carpeted by the verdant and rich ecosystem of the Amazon rainforest, the largest on the planet.
Here’s the catch:
Only thirty million people live in the vast Amazon basin.
Why so few?
The vast area of the Amazon has always had much more land than it has had people.
The difficulty of living in the jungle, historical patterns of migration and remoteness from coastal regions have all contributed to a history of less population in the Amazon basin area.
In a smaller area, of course, 30 million people would be significant, but the sheer size of the Amazon basin makes those who do live there tiny in comparison.
That said, there are 350 indigenous tribes who call the region home as well as major cities like Manaus and Belem.
Ancient pre-colonization cultures have also been found in the Amazon, stretching for 1,800 kilometers from east to west.
While this proves that there has been a long history of human habitation in higher numbers than once believed, most of the region is still relatively low-population and always has been.
2) Heavy rainfall
Another of the main reasons why the Amazon basin is so sparsely populated is rain.
It rains a lot in the Amazon, and the hot and humid conditions make life difficult.
This can include many industries and businesses which require refrigeration as well as the energy needs required to sustain large populations in hot and highly humid conditions.
Living near the equator is like waking up in a hot shower, and although people find ways to adapt, this is part of what has discouraged widespread migration or settlements in the area.
In terms of rainfall itself and the resulting flooding and slippery conditions which occur, this is also highly significant.
Rain is heaviest from March all the way until July and may vary widely after that point to heavier or lighter levels.
The overall amount of rainfall at the end of the year is massive.
“Rainfall in the lowlands typically ranges from 60 to 120 inches (1,500 to 3,000 mm) annually in the central Amazon basin.”
3) Dense rainforest
The Amazon River Basin is mainly covered by dense rainforest.
There are other types of terrain in the Amazon, but for the most part we are talking about lush and verdant rainforest full of all sorts of creatures, mushy ground and difficult weather conditions.
This makes it more difficult to establish and clear large cities, roadworks and infrastructure.
Cities like Manaus, Loreto, Peru and Par seem to rise up out of nowhere, and once you leave you are right back in the countryside or tiny villages.
Internet access is spotty and forestry, mining and mineral extraction are often the focus of settlements and outside interests which come onto areas of the Amazon, including infringing on indigenous lands.
4) Dangerous pests and animals
The Amazon Biome is incredibly biodiverse and teeming with life.
New species and plants are discovered all the time, including a stunning 1,200 species between 1999 to 2009 and new ones every day.
In fact, 30% of all animal species in the world live in the Amazon basin and 10% of all global biodiversity is housed in the region.
This is a remarkable advantage for the world’s scientists, and for greedy pharmaceutical companies.
But it’s not just sunshine and roses.
Not all of these animals and insects are friendly to humans, and it’s not just anacondas or jaguars that you have to worry about.
There are all sorts of poisonous species which make life a bit more dangerous deep in the jungle.
For this reason, new towns don’t pop up quite as easily as they might in a drier, low-key environment with less disease-carrying insects, deadly snakes and venomous spiders.
5) The Amazon River itself
Last and far from least, the Amazon River itself is one of the reasons why the Amazon basin is so sparsely populated.
It’s not easy to transport goods and products around the jungle, and building roads is extremely difficult, expensive and time-consuming, especially when they get frequently washed out by heavy rains and humid conditions.
The Amazon River is one way to transport goods, but it takes a long time and it’s extremely long at 6,600 kilometers.
This means it takes a long time and sufficient shipping capacity to get items from point A to point B.
This makes business harder and also makes building and maintaining cities and urban areas much more difficult.
Transport and logistics are the key to maintaining human settlement, and when they’re much harder then it tends to put a crimp in that.
Taking vehicles from Manaus to Belem on a ship takes a long time, and also increases their price!
This is part of why the Amazon is so sparsely populated: it’s hard to transport things!
The challenge ahead
The Amazon is sparsely populated by human beings, but its biodiversity is enormous.
The indigenous tribes who maintain their way of life in the Amazon basin also hold a priceless piece of the world’s heritage and wisdom in their rites and way of life.
At this point only around 2.7 million of the approximately 30 million of the Amazon basin’s inhabitants are indigenous, but that’s still significant and must be protected.
The Amazon basin is crucial for life on this planet, often referred to as the “lungs of the world” and teeming with fish, reptiles, vertebrates, mammals, birds and medicines, minerals and resources.
The challenge ahead is to protect the Amazon from the ideology of eternal expansion and “growth” that underlies the Western and global capitalistic model of modern society.
The forest has already lost 17% of its cover in the past 50 years and the loss is accelerating.
This is a hit to the climate as well as to biodiversity, the hydrological cycle and every other aspect of life on earth.
The Amazon must become a priority for policymakers and activists. This special part of the earth is worth protecting, for all of us.