ATAHUALPA, Ecuador — Like the waters cascading from the Andes Mountains, problems and hopes are pouring downstream into the Amazon jungle basin from the highlands that give life to the world's mightiest river.
All along an immense crescent from Venezuela through Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, covering a distance of more than 3,000 miles, the Amazon finds its strength. Nearly one-third of the Amazon Basin lies in the rim of Latin American countries surrounding Brazil.
While world concern homes in on Brazil's struggles over the development and conservation of its rain forests, the countries whose waters feed the river are attempting, more quietly, to cope with equally daunting dilemmas.
Indeed, in several ways the array of problems facing the headwaters of the Amazon is more complex, and more threatening, than in Brazil itself.
While the Brazilian settler's trek westward from the Atlantic can mean a 2,000-mile journey, the reverse migration from the Pacific side of the continent rarely is longer than a few hundred miles. With limited open space and exploding populations, these poor, indebted nations see their Amazon interior as an escape valve and a potential economic salvation.
But the Andes plunge down into jungle so suddenly--with elevation changes of 12,000 feet or more within a few dozen miles--that problems like erosion and river-silting from deforestation take on frightening proportions.
Conversations with dozens of officials, scientists and residents in the region underscore a web of crises at the headwaters: The rush to develop oil reserves has opened up hundreds of miles of roads, bringing a crush of settlers and land speculation; illegal coca fields on steep hillside jungles in Peru and Bolivia feed erosion, and cocaine processing pollutes rivers with tons of illegal chemicals; restive native Indians are chafing over relentless encroachment, and deforestation is proceeding at a dizzying pace.
The conflicts result in part from the delicate landscape in the countries where the Amazon is born. Tiny highland brooks form the river's most tender veins. The headwaters then plummet down jagged canyons through fragile cloud forests that are among the world's wettest climates and richest ecosystems.
The waters already have swelled into powerful rivers by the time they descend from the eastern Andes slopes into tropical rain forest--as much as 1,000 miles before joining the Amazon's main artery in the relatively flat jungle across the border in Brazil.
The mountains feed the rivers a rich diet of minerals, which leach into the soils downstream on the lowland river banks during flooding. That makes the land relatively attractive for farmer-settlers, in contrast to the often poorer jungle soils in Brazil. The geography also has left deposits of oil, gold and other riches in the jungles at the foot of the mountains--all magnets for development.
With a hodgepodge of sometimes conflicting and often ill-enforced policies in hand, governments surrounding Brazil are attempting to control the rapid colonization and exploitation of their Amazon regions. At the same time, their awareness of ecological hazards is haltingly taking hold.
Environmentalists, a growing force in these countries, are waving danger flags. They are also moderating their anti-development stance into a more realistic approach of sensible, controlled development.
"The crises in the economy and the environment are closely linked here, and people are beginning to realize it," said Antonio Brack Egg, a leading Peruvian ecologist. "We have abused, looted our resources to a terrible degree. We have cleared 8.5 million hectares (21 million acres) of the Amazon in Peru, and 6 million hectares are abandoned. We must make that land productive instead of clearing more. What we desperately lack is planning."
Peru and Ecuador face the gravest threats. Peru has 16% of the basin, the largest outside Brazil, and the basin makes up 60% of Peru's territory. Roughly 10% of the 300,000 square miles of the Peruvian basin has been cleared of forest.
Ecuador, though far smaller than Peru and containing just 2% of the basin, confronts a comparatively greater array of pressures, in part because its population density and growth rate are the highest in the region. In search of space and a future, its people eye the vast expanse of green below the mountains. Only about half of the Ecuadorean basin remains forested.
Road Was Lacking
Five years ago, there was no road along the south bank of the Napo River, one of Ecuador's major Amazon tributaries. Jungle native families of the Huarani and the Quijos Quichua tribes hunted and farmed a few acres, and colonists--usually poor Indians themselves from the Andes highlands--pushed downriver from Puerto Napo, their progress slowed by the lack of transport other than outboard-powered dugout canoes.