Hope Along the Rio Negro Part 4: The Hobby That Gives

Author: Randy Carey

In the latest installment of his eye-opening series on the tropical fish trade along the Rio Negro, the inquiring traveler discusses crucial issues facing the people and places behind some of our most popular aquarium fishes.

The Line

For several miles the water of the Rio Negro flows along the north bank of the Amazon, forming a virtually straight line of black against the white of the Amazon. The two colors do not mix. Like oil and water, they do not mix because they contrast so greatly. The sun-baked black water of the Rio Negro is much warmer, quite acidic, and full of organic tannins. The suspended sediment that makes the Amazon’s water white also makes it much denser and relatively neutral in pH.

The contrasting black and white is readily observable, but the most important contrast is the “give” of white water versus the “take” of black water. While whitewater rivers slowly deposit their sediments, blackwater rivers leach out organics and carry them away. The blackwater forests are poorer because of this. Similarly, this contrast of give vs. take has colored the economics of the Rio Negro area over the past 150 years. It has been the aquarium hobby that has played the contrasting and welcomed role of giver along this river, making both people and the rainforest better off.

Going Shopping

The people of the tropics take a siesta in the early afternoon due to the intense sun and heat. We in the expedition would use this time to nap, play chess, or share stories—activities within the shaded interior of the boat. On day four, our siesta time ended with the captain’s humorous announcement, “Gather your money. We are approaching the local 7-Eleven.”

Ahead and off to the left bank was a floating platform with two buildings. This is the main supply store that draws pause from the river traffic between Manaus and Barcelos. Several boats lined the docks, and ours joined them.

As the crew selected and loaded supplies, the rest of us explored this one-room supply store. The selection didn’t expand much beyond the basics: eggs, canned food, candy, alcohol, pots and pans, and cleaners. A pet cat slept on one bag of supplies.

Dr. Labbish Chao’s son, Don, had grown up along the river and he knew where to go and what to do. He borrowed a piece of fishing line, wrapped one end around his hand, baited the other end with some creamy substance, and began to fish off the side dock. With each drop of the line he never had to wait more than 30 seconds before the hit. Often the fish would steal the bait, avoiding the hook. But often enough Don was the victor. On the north dock he pulled up 8- to 12-inch Leporinus. On the store’s south side he pulled up a few silver dollars. Don placed one Leporinus in a shallow container on the dock. I admired the beauty of this sizable aquarium fish that had just been pulled out of the Rio Negro. Then I watched in frustration as the once-sleeping cat snagged the live fish with his claws and ran off with a meal.

Walking around the back side, I caught sight of a very young girl staring at all the visitors. As she stood from the gate of her home on the bank, my camera captured her from many angles, often with a pig or chicken wandering by.

The Effects of Deforestation

As the Victoria Amazonica pulled away from the dock to resume our course toward Barcelos, my roommate Ryan drew my attention to the shoreline. “See the eroded banks? That is the effect of deforestation.”

I had totally missed this. The store extended from a small family ranch notched along the riverside. Where the trees had been long removed the erosion was steep. Farther out where one could see the burned tree stumps of a recent clearing, the erosion was in its early stages. In contrast, the shoreline beyond the ranch was gracefully edged with trees and vegetation, with no unnatural sign of erosion. Ryan was right—I was witnessing the effects of deforestation.

For the rest of the trip I was observant of this phenomenon. From time to time I would see a small ranch or farm along the river. Each time I would see a steep bank of earth dropping into the river. But the reality is that along the Rio Negro such a ranch or field was always a small family plot, apparently providing just enough for that family. Considering the expanse of rainforest, these plots exist relatively sparsely along the rivers.

My mind returned to the young girl I photographed with the wandering pig or chicken. That small ranch sustained her and her family. Should I condemn her family for rainforest destruction? Once you encounter the face of a child in this setting, the issue of deforestation is no longer a simple one.

The “White River”

The store was situated near the mouth of the Rio Branco, which means “white river.” The Branco originates in northern mountains from which it carries the sediments that saturate the water with a cloudy whiteness.

On our return trip Captain Mo took us a ways up the Rio Branco. As we prepared for our late afternoon exploration in the canoes, Mo instructed us to wear long sleeves, long pants, and to put on a full-coverage of insect repellent. In the blackwater regions we freely explored in shorts and without repellent because the insects were few. Mosquitoes, which are dependent upon the water for breeding, do not fare well in the acidic black water. In contrast, white water is relatively neutral, and as a result the insects reproduce quite well here. Despite the tropical heat, within whitewater areas one must wear long sleeves, long pants, and repellent.

Our whitewater canoe trip led us to a patch of the large Amazonian lily pads–the ones that reach 4 feet in diameter. The captain used his machete to cut one free so we could see the spiked veins underneath. Then he discussed its flower, which spans roughly 8 inches. In all of our travels along black water, we never saw these large lily pads; we found them only in the whitewater streams off the Rio Branco and the Amazon.

Black Water vs. White Water

As I review my photos I realize how greatly the plant and animal life varies between whitewater and blackwater areas. In whitewater areas the birds I saw were much larger and typically more exotic. For instance, I saw toucans only near white water. I observed orchids more frequently here. And of course, the insects were larger, more colorful, and more abundant.

In contrast, the trees of the blackwater area were not nearly as tall as what I was expecting from the Amazon rainforest. A year earlier I marveled at the tall canopy of the Australian rainforest, but the height of the Rio Negro forest is dwarfed in comparison. Around black water everything seems to be smaller, even the fish. The reason lies in the difference between black water and white water. As blackwater systems flood the forests, they have no minerals or nutrients to leave. All they do is leach out and carry away the tannins of decaying vegetation. Because the acidic levels of black water combat the insect population, the food source is sparser here. However, white water deposits minerals and fosters the insect populations. White water “gives” while black water “takes.” The difference is deeper than the color of the water.

Because black waters provide only low levels of nutrition and food, the fish that adapt the best in these rivers are the smaller species. And because the water is dark and harbors fewer large predators, these smaller species can afford to be more colorful. Black waters like the Rio Negro are accommodating to the species suitable and desirable for the home aquarium. Ironically, the “taking” nature of black water results in its giving to the aquarium hobby.

The Habitat: Past and Present

Several times we beached the canoes and followed Captain Mo along dirt trails that wound into the forest. Frequently the captain would stop to point out marvels of nature that, if left to ourselves, we would just pass by.

Inside a nut shell was a coiled spider, camouflaged as the meat of a nut. Off to the side was a network of finely woven spiderwebs maintained by micro-sized spiders working together as a colony. When he found a tarantula nest, Mo demonstrated that, like the piranha, it is a misunderstood species that does not attack humans. Several in our party let the wooly creature crawl on their shirts or arms. We drank the water from a water vine, tasted the sweetness of a cocoa bean, and watched a demonstration on the harvesting of Brazil nuts.

At one point Mo stopped, and the expedition gathered around. With a swift whack of his machete he notched the slender tree next to him, and white sap oozed out of the fresh cut. “This is a rubber tree,” and from that initial comment the captain unfolded the significance of the rubber industry within the recent history of Brazil and its rainforest. The effects of this history reach forward, touching today’s aquarium hobby.

The Effects of Rubber on Manaus

The discovery of rubber, with its firm-yet-elastic characteristic, was well timed. The Industrial Revolution drove high demand for this new firm substance. Controlling the rubber supply then was like controlling the oil supply today, and Manaus benefited greatly. The rubber tree was found only in the Amazon rainforest, and the only feasible way to export it was down the Amazon, from or through Manaus. This rainforest city owned the monopoly for what the world demanded.


Prosperity came quickly. In the late 1800s the city built an electrical grid for a million people even though its population numbered just 40,000. This grid powered a trolley system and public street lighting. The city’s infrastructure included water and gas systems. The eloquence of the newly constructed buildings and parks defied the fact that Manaus sits in the center of the jungle.

Economic and Physical Ruin

While the rubber boom brought prosperity to Manaus, it was a “taking” force against the people of the rainforest. It was not the extraction of rubber that was harmful, for that is a renewable resource; the detriment came to the people, economically and physically.

Indigenous people, who had never developed economic savvy, were tricked into working for goods plus debt, not for money. The more they worked, the greater their debt and the more enslaved they were to the rubber barons. These were the lucky ones. Some Indians were physically enslaved, their families abused, and many died.

Meanwhile, the governor commissioned the building of a world-class opera house in Manaus. It was built by craftsmen with materials imported from Europe and other parts of the world. Beginning in 1897, European troupes were boated into the heart of the Amazon to perform for the privileged recipients of the rubber boom’s wealth. As they flaunted their opulence, however, the Manaus crowd did not realize that the seeds of their undoing were literally sprouting on the other side of the world.

From the Amazon to Asia

In 1876 an English botanist “smuggled” 70,000 seeds of the rubber tree out of Brazil. Fewer than 3000 of these sprouted, but this was enough to seed rubber plantations in the Southeast Asian colonies of Britain. For various reasons, the production and exportation of rubber from Asia was much more economical than from the Amazonian rainforest. Asia became a supplier of rubber after the turn of the century, and in just a few years it had seized half of the world’s demand.

The Boom Goes Bust

By the end of World War I the rubber boom in Brazil had turned into a bust. The Manaus economy collapsed, but the opera house—the very opera house our expedition visited in Manaus (see “Hope Along the Rio Negro, Part 1: The View from Manaus” TFH March 2007)—still stands, serving as a reminder of what had been.


Brazilians today refer to the undoing of the rubber boom as the “seed snatch.” The opera house mockingly reminds them of what they once had, but let slip away. They now have a name for the unauthorized extraction of animals and plants: “biopiracy.” Of all the countries in South America, none are as strict with anti-biopiracy laws as Brazil. Fish exporters are restricted to fewer than 200 species that they may export, and the hobby is poorer for this. Foreigners are forbidden to collect fish for personal use. Because we were working for Project Piaba and this Brazilian organization kept the fish, our expedition collected legally. But several hobbyists who have collected on their own have been imprisoned, fined as much as $20,000, and forbidden to ever return to Brazil.

The Brazilian concern of biopiracy is hurting not just aquarists, but ichthyologists as well. Typically, scientists exchange biological samples between countries, but recent Brazilian laws have severely restricted this ability. Even the country’s own ichthyologists have publicly expressed frustration when these laws have stymied their research.

Fortunately, the current bite of anti-biopiracy laws did not come together until the 1990s. Had the preceding decades not allowed open exploration and uncensored exportation, the aquarium fish trade of the Rio Negro might never have developed. But exploration was open and the trade did develop, and both aquarists and those living along the river are better off.

The Rise of a Fish-Collecting Economy

In the mid-1950s a young aquarist traveled up the Rio Negro in search of the new fish that was referred to as a bigger and more colorful form of the neon tetra. This species had the potential to capture the passion of the aquarium hobby.

The aquarist arrived in Barcelos. Two hundred years earlier the city was established as the capital of Amazonas. Between 50 and 100 years earlier, during the rubber boom, it was a significant trading post along the Rio Negro. During the year of his visit, with no industry to sustain a vibrant city, the town’s population had dropped below 1000.

It was here in Barcelos that the traveler found someone who could lead him to waters that teemed with this colorful new fish. Young boys could easily collect them by the thousands. The young entrepreneur recognized his opportunity and established a new business in Barcelos.

A year later this new fish was described in Tropical Fish Hobbyist as the cardinal tetra. It proved to be an instant hit with aquarists. By 1960 the entrepreneur was paying over 200 fishermen to collect the cardinal tetra along with other aquarium-suited species. Barcelos was building a fish-collecting economy.

History turned favorably for this new economy. Plastic bags greatly reduced the mortality of fish exported to the United States and Europe. The proliferation of commercial flights expanded the exporting opportunities. Printed literature like Tropical Fish Hobbyist increased the awareness of and the demand for the new species being introduced into the hobby.

In stark contrast to the rubber years when the people of the rainforest were indebted or enslaved to those controlling that industry, the aquarium trade pays the fishermen. This money supports families and injects revenue into the local economy, supporting shop owners, teachers, and other community roles. With a steady income the fishermen are able to acquire loans for boats and thus become self-supporting.

Fifty years later, the city of Barcelos has grown to more than 14,000 people. Roughly two-thirds of its economy comes from collecting fish for the aquarium trade. As with black and white waters, the “give” of the aquarium trade contrasts with the “take” of the rubber boom. It gives the community a strong economy. It gives the fishermen the opportunity to be independent and to raise their standard of living. It gives hope along the Rio Negro.

Looking Ahead

The sun had recently set on day six. Far ahead, the lights of Barcelos had just come into view. Mo shut down the engines, and we paused as if we were involved in a sacred moment. The expedition gathered to share a meal and talk about the city, the people, and the celebration that lay ahead. For six days we had explored the Rio Negro, its side streams, and its fish. On this particular night we docked in Barcelos, looking forward to the next day, when we would meet the people who live and work in what has been called the “ornamental fish capital of the world.”

See the full article on TFH Digital http://www.tfhdigital.com/tfh/200709/#pg100