Why Roosevelt Nearly Died in the Amazon (and why sustainable exploration is the key to saving it)

Amazon river in Pantanal

On a fitful day in December 1913 former president Theodore Roosevelt landed in Cáceres, Brazil, a settlement close to the Bolivian border. On his itinerary was the exploration of the River of Doubt. Chaperoned by Brazilian explorer Cândido Rondon, the ex-president headed up to Tapirapoan then took a two-month overland trek to the River of Doubt. This was a voyage of a lifetime to chart an unexplored tributary in the middle of the Amazon.

The tropical rainforest had some objections though. During the 4 months it took to emerge out the other side the party took a devastating beating.

Mosquitos relentlessly pursued them. Rapids claimed lives, canoes and precious days spent carving out paths through the jungle to bypass treacherous currents. The murky waters yielded little fish to offset the dwindling supplies. And on top of that, they were pursued by an uncontacted tribe called the Cinta Larga. The indigenous people left a hostile message to the group in the form of Rondon’s dead hunting dog, pierced with a display of arrows. 

They reached the River of Doubt on February 27, 1914. The 1000 mile journey took them a further 59 days, reaching the end on April 26th, 1914.

Rondon the Hero

When they were picked up near Manaus, Roosevelt could barely stand. He’d lost a quarter of his body weight and malaria plagued him for the rest of his life, which ended within just 5 years of the expedition. But sturdy Rondon carried with him a new map with the twists and turns of the river, now christened Rio Roosevelt.

Before the Roosevelt expedition, Rondon spent years placing telephone cables through 1,650 km of Brazilian hinterlands and 1,980 km of unexplored Amazon forests to reach the remote state of Acre. On the assignment he encountered numerous uncontacted indigenous tribes, as well as witnessing their exploitation. He began to petition for their protection, becoming president of National Council for Protection for Indigenous and helped establish the Xingu Reserve.

Rondon’s opinion changed the more he learnt of the abuses against indigenous. While he began defending the integration of the people into western culture, he later flipped his position to keep the native people isolated. The only way he saw to protect the indigenous was to create the indigenous reservations, allowing preservation of their land and way of life.

But it’s too late. The rumours of wealth buried in the treacherous Amazon has whispered its way to the cities. It’s the El Dorado of Portuguese speaking new world.

Illegal Diamond Mining in the Roosevelt Indigenous Reserve

The traditional territory of the Cinta Larga group covers an area of 2.7 million hectors, including the Roosevelt Indigenous Reserve. In 1969 there were 2000 Cinta Larga and by 1981 there were no more than 500. The most recent census in 2003, estimated about 1300 individuals are left in the Cinta Larga people.

In 1999 diamonds were discovered in the area. In 2001, a thousand illegal prospectors were evicted from Cinta Larga reservations and the following year another 2000. Mining in indigenous reserves is illegal, but the deep isolation of the area makes formal round-the-clock policing near impossible.

Roosevelt’s close encounter with the doors of death is a symbol of the Amazon’s.

100 years since the exhibition up the River of Doubt (Rio Roosevelt) and the area only has one hotel, accessible via small airplane. The Cinta Larga were left as Rondon wished, secluded, but once diamonds were discovered the outside world flooded in regardless. Mining at any time is violent on mother earth. When it takes place illegally even more so. Bands of prospectors still bring drugs, violence, prostitution to the indigenous populations.

If President Roosevelt nearly perished in the Amazon, the Cinta Larga and their land may too.

So, what are the sustainable exploration options and why are they key to saving this forest?

The survival of the Brazilian jaguar hangs on sustainable tourism in the Pantanal. Where cattle farmers used to slaughter jaguars that killed livestock, just the possibility of sighting a jaguar now generates an income from tourism that is 10x greater than cattle farming profits. In this case, the jaguar has saved millions of hectors of native vegetation.

The survival of the Amazon relies on the development of a sustainable exploration and no longer on the complete protection of it. In that sense the indigenous population want the mining made legal. This will allow regulation, income and force prospectors to sustainably extract diamonds.  

There’s no better way to save the forest than by allowing those who have coexisted with it for millennia, manage it, protect it and prosper from it.

Because if no one was there to save Roosevelt, no one is there to save the rain forest or the Cinta Larga indigenous population, unless we hand them the means to do it themselves.


The Cinta Larga and the curse of the diamonds in BBC.

Brazil illegal extraction of diamonds continues in Roosevelt reserve in Cultural Survival.

Facts on the Cinta Larga indigenous people.

Into the Amazon, documentary on the Roosevelt River and Expedition.

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