The various Amazons

There are different territories recognized as “the Amazon”, which differ among each other in extension, geo-ecological and cultural characteristics, and socio-political and economic history. This occurs because the recognition of these territories is founded upon different principles: The Amazon River Watershed Basin, for example, integrates geohydromorphological processes millions of years old, currently encompassing seven countries. In addition to these spaces with specific physical characteristics, many countries define their Amazon regions, for goals of planning and action.  It is the case of the Brazilian Legal Amazon, an administrative region defined in 1966 for the application of development subsidies. In order to better understand these territories and what the diverse related themes and information represent in each of these contexts, we present here a synthesis of each one of them.

Amazon Basin  – The Amazon River Basin is constituted by the tributaries of and rivers that form the Amazon River – the largest river in the world – and all of its draining surface, which is the most extensive watershed network on Earth, occupying a total area on the order of more than 6 million km2, from its headwaters in the Peruvian Andes to its mouth at the Atlantic Ocean.

  / Araquém Alcântara -

 This continental basin extends over several countries in South America Brazil (63%), Peru (17%), Bolivia (11%), Colombia (5.8%), Ecuador (2.2%), Venezuela (0.7%) and Guyana (0.2%), with the average contribution to volume of water of the basin in Brazilian territory being at around 73% of the total of the Country1. The Amazon River Basin corresponds to nearly 40% of South America and 5% of the Earth’s surface, being the largest surface share of fresh water on the planet, with nearly 15% of the total available for this resource2.

Amazon Watershed Region
-  Resources, it is a Brazilian territory artificially created3 in consideration of the need to establish an organizational base that contemplated watershed basins. This Region is constituted by the Brazilian portion of the watershed basin of the Amazon River and by the watershed basins of the rivers situated on the Island of Marajó and in the State of Amapá, totaling 3,870,000 km(1). The population of the Amazon Watershed Region, in 2000, was 7,609,424 inhabitants (4.5% of the population of Brazil) and the population density was only 2.01 inhabitants/km2. The capitals Manaus, Rio Branco, Porto Velho, Boa Vista, and Macapá, as well as the municipalities of Santarém (PA) and Sinop (MT) are the urban centers that most stand out among the 304 municipalities of the Amazon Watershed Basin1.

Amazon Biome –  The Amazon Biome is the Brazilian biome of greatest extension, occupying nearly 50% of the country and being distributed entirely over five states of the federation (Acre, Amapá, Amazonas, Pará, and Roraima, in addition to part of Maranhão (34%) and Tocantins (9%). The Amazon Biome if defined by the dominant hot and humid climate, the predominance of the forest physiognomy, the geographic continuity, the peri-equatorial condition, and the context of the Amazon watershed basin itself, and is characterized as the largest depository of biological diversity on the planet4. A national territory unit, the Biome integrates the Amazon Biogeographical Domain, which extends for nearly7 million km2 and is shared by nine countries: Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, French Guiana, Peru, Suriname, and Venezuela, with more than 60% of it (4,212,923 km2) located in Brazil5(Amazon Socioenvironmental Geo-referenced Information Network). 

  / Araquém Alcântara -

Although it is the second Brazilian biome with the greatest degree of collection of examples of biota, below only the Atlantic Forest6, bringing together more than 30 thousand species of plants, 1.8 thousand species of continental fish, 1.3 thousand species of birds, 311 species of mammals, and 164 species of amphibians7, the degree of knowledge over taxonomic groups is still considered unsatisfactory. 

Tucano no PARNA Pantanal Matogrossense (MT) 1994  / ROBERTO LINSKER/

The explanations for this formidable multiplicity of species and ecosystems point to the climatic (past and present), geological, and geographic variations of the forms of occupation and use of the existing natural resources in the biome8. The diversity and complexity of the Amazon Biome is part of the ecological processes of nine types of units of forest coverage and extensive areas in contact (transition zones) among the same, with different habitats and variations in the composition and interactions of species, structure of natural communities, and patterns of nutrient cycling. Due to its great extension in continuous forests, the Amazon is very important to the stability of the regional climate. It pushes large quantities of water vapor originating in the Atlantic Ocean and transports them throughout South America, which ensures the regulation of the rains in places such as Argentina, Paraguay, and south-central Brazil. It is estimated that evaporation and transpiration of the Amazon vegetation, composed of trees of up to 50 meters in height, liberate approximately seven trillion tones of water per year into the atmosphere9.   

  / Araquém Alcântara -

Legal Amazon – The administrative unit known as the Brazilian Legal Amazon encompasses the states of Acre, Amapá, Amazonas, Pará, Rondônia, Roraima, Tocantins, Mato Grosso, and part of Maranhão (west of the 44oW Meridian), having been established initially by Federal Law No. 5.173 (Art. 2)10, with later alterations. Mato Grosso came to integrate this territory in the act of its creation, with Art. 45 of the Complementary Federal Law No. 3111 and the state of Tocantins, created through the Transitory Dispositions of the Federal Constitution (Art. 13)12, in October of 1988. Previously the limit of the Legal Amazon in this stretch was the 13oS Parallel, where the state of Goiás was approximately divided and the state of Tocantins was created. Its creation and administrative differentiation are related to the process of development, occupation and integration of this region to the networks and flows that guided the developmentalist policy of the time, mainly by means of the concession of industrial and political fiscal incentives for rural settlement.

  / Araquém Alcântara -

Composed of an area of more than 5 million km2 (two thirds of Brazil), the Legal Amazon covers all the Amazon Biome, 37% of the Cerrado, and 40% of the Pantanal Biome13, and is characterized by a mosaic of ecosystems with significant differences both in terms of infrastructure and community interactions, natural populations, and the occurrence and abundance of species of flora, fauna, fungi, and micro biota.

Representing 59% of Brazilian territory and 775 municipalities, the Legal Amazon brings together approximately 24.7 million inhabitants14, among whom more than 300 thousand Indians belonging to more than 170 ethnicities (read more about the Indigenous Peoples of Brazil) and diverse traditional extractive communities, such as latex harvesters, Brazil nut harvesters, tropical fish harvesters, and harvesters of babassu coconut, among others. More than 350 communities remaining from the Quilombos (maroon communities)9 also live there. Next to the original indigenous populations, characterized by an intimate and specific relation with the environment, and the traditional communities that arrived in this territory in different periods and moved by different needs, the small rural producers and large agro-business companies are added to these populations today, who have recently come to occupy the region.


  1. Agência Nacional de Águas. Acesso ao site em 21/02/2010.
  2. CARNEIRO FILHO, A., TOMASELLA, J., Trancoso, R. "Amazônia, desflorestamento e água". In Ciência Hoje. Vol. 40 no 239. Julho de 2007. Pg. 30-37.
  3. Resolução CNRH n° 32, de 15 de outubro de 2003
  4. IBGE. 2004. Mapa de Biomas do Brasil – Primeira Aproximação.
  5. INSTITUTO SOCIOAMBIENTAL (ISA). Laboratório de Geoprocessamento com dados RAISG (Red Amazônica de Información Socioambiental Georreferenciada). 2010.
  6. LEWINSOHN, T. M. (coord). 2006. Avaliação do Estado do Conhecimento da Biodiversidade Brasileira. Ministério do Meio Ambiente – MMA, Brasília. Vol I. 550p.
  7. CARNEIRO FILHO, A. & SOUZA, O. B. 2009 Atlas de Pressões e Ameaças às Terras Indígenas na Amazônia Brasileira. Série Cartô Brasil Socioambiental. Instituto Socioambiental. 47p.
  8. Amazônia 2009. Áreas Protegidas e Territórios Indígenas. Rede amazônica de informação Socioambiental Georreferenciada (RAISG). 2009.
  9. PINTO, L.F. "Amazônia". 2007. In: Beto Ricardo e Maura Campanili (Ed.). Almanaque Brasil Socioambiental 2008. Instituto Socioambiental. P. 83-106.
  10. Federal Law No. 5173 of 27 October 1996. Legislates on the Amazon Economic Valorization Plan, extinguishes the Amazon Economic Valorization Plan Superintendency (SPVEA, Portuguese acronym), creates the Amazon Development Superintendency (SUDAM, Portuguese acronym), and makes other provisions. Federal Senate, Information Sector. Access on 8 June 2010. Available here.
  11. Supplementary Federal Law No. 31 of 11 October 1977. Creates the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, and makes other provisions. Presidency of the Republic of Brazil, Legal Matters Department – Access on 8 June 2010.
  12. Brasil. 1988. Constitutional Transitory Provisions Act (ADCT, Portuguese acronym) enacted on 5 October 1988. Coletânia de Legislaçao Ambiental e Constituição Federal. Organização: Odete Medauar. 7ª ed. São Paulo: Editora Revista dos Tribunais. 2008. Coleção RT Mini Códigos. 1117p.
  13. INSTITUTO SOCIOAMBIENTAL (ISA). Laboratório de Geoprocessamento. 2009. Amazônia Brasileira 2009 (mapa). Edição especial Programa Áreas Protegidas da Amazônia (ARPA).
  14. INSTITUTO BRASILEIRO DE GEOGRAFIA E ESTATÍSTICA (IBGE). 2000. Estimativas populacionais dos municípios em 2009. Acesso em 08/06/2010.