The story of the Amazon, as John Hemming’s admirable book makes clear, is a largely dismal tale of ravage and exploitation. Ever since it was discovered in 1500 by the former captain of Columbus’s ship, Niña, Europeans have projected their fantasies onto the region. Seen successively as utopia, El Dorado, Lost World and new frontier, its present incarnation as a natural resource to be plundered at least puts greed nakedly to the fore.
Its sheer size is hard to grasp. Rising in Peru, not very far from the Pacific, it debouches into the Brazilian Atlantic across a basin that would cover three-quarters of the United States. The longest road through its territory, the Trans-Amazonia Highway, would stretch from Lisbon to Moscow. A fifth of all the fresh water in the world flows along its length, which is bordered by rainforests larger in area than the Indian subcontinent and richer than any other ecosystem on the planet.
It was therefore perhaps not surprising that sixteenth-century Europeans at first hailed it as a paradise; and, in their struggles with Rome, Protestant reformers cited its native inhabitants as an example of an ordered society that got along without institutionalised religion. From then on, the Amazon was treated not on