The Tapajos River

Hope for Sustainable Development

If there’s one thing to understand about the Amazon Rainforest, it’s that rivers rule.

The rivers of the rainforest are HUGE. They shape the land, determine where communities are established—or not—and help businesses decide where to set up shop. Development decisions are all determined by access to, navigation through and resources provided by the rivers.

The Tapajos River—one of the largest tributaries of the Amazon—is certainly a river that is shaping development in Brazil. At 1,200 miles long, the Tapajos touches three Brazilian states (Mato Grasso, Para and Amazonas) and runs through 65 municipalities.

With the river itself spanning such a distance, you can imagine the size of its basin. The basin is 193,000 square miles, which is about three times the size of Florida or roughly the size of France. Its lands are home to rich and diverse habitats, with two-thirds rainforest and one-third cerrado, or savanna. And, wildlife abounds. There are 324 identified fish species, and the region ranks within the top 25 percent for global importance of rare land and water species.

Another important species to mention is humans. There are 1.4 million people living in the Tapajos River basin, including 10 indigenous tribes. All of these people rely on the river for food, water, energy and jobs.

The Tapajos River is important to not only its surrounding lands, wildlife and people, but also to the entire Brazilian population and to the world.

One-third of our world’s soy is produced in the Tapajos River basin. And, the Tapajos is central to Brazil’s energy plan. There are 44 large dams and 80 small dams slotted for development on the river. These dams would produce 29 GW of new energy, which would increase Brazil’s current supply by 25 percent.

It’s inevitable that with the demand for agricultural and energy development comes threats—threats to wildlife, habitat and indigenous tribes. However, The Nature Conservancy believes that development can and should also provide benefits to people and the environment.

The Conservancy is working in the Tapajos River basin with local communities, indigenous tribes, businesses and government to ensure the river and its surrounding lands are developed with as little impact as possible.

This work includes ensuring soy farmers are compliant with the Forest Code, a law that states only 20 percent of land can be developed while the remaining 80 percent stays forested. It includes creating plans that avoid development in biologically diverse areas, mitigate impacts with smart infrastructure and compensate for habitat loss by protecting habitat elsewhere.

In a natural environment as pristine as the Tapajos River basin, it’s difficult to imagine altering anything that would threaten this beauty. But, people are a part of this system too. And, human populations are growing, along with their need for food and reliable energy.

With its work in the Tapajos basin, the Conservancy hopes to use transformative science that establishes a place where people and nature thrive together.


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