Madeira River

Madeira River
The river in the outskirts of Porto Velho
Name origin: Portuguese, "wood river"
Countries Bolivia, Brazil
Part of Amazon Basin
 - left Beni River
 - right Mamoré River, Ji-Paraná River, Dos Marmelos River, Manicoré River, Mataurá River, Mariepauá River, Aripuanã River
Cities Nova Olinda do Norte, Borba, Novo Aripuanã, Manicoré, Humaitá, Porto Velho
Source Confluence of Beni and Mamoré
 - location Near Guayaramerín, Bolivia & Brazil
 - elevation 180 m (591 ft)
 - coordinates 10°38′19″S 65°39′20″W / 10.63861°S 65.65556°W / -10.63861; -65.65556
Mouth Amazon River
 - location Amazonas, Brazil
 - elevation 40 m (131 ft)
 - coordinates 3°22′32″S 58°46′23″W / 3.37556°S 58.77306°W / -3.37556; -58.77306Coordinates: 3°22′32″S 58°46′23″W / 3.37556°S 58.77306°W / -3.37556; -58.77306
Length 3,380 km (2,100 mi) [1]
Basin 850,000 km2 (328,187 sq mi)
Discharge for near mouth
 - average 31,200 m3/s (1,101,818 cu ft/s)
 - max 52,804 m3/s (1,864,756 cu ft/s)
 - min 2,346 m3/s (82,848 cu ft/s)
Map of the Madeira River watershed
Map of the Amazon Basin with the Madeira River highlighted

The Madeira River (Portuguese: Rio Madeira, [ˈʁi.u mɐˈdejɾɐ]) is a major waterway in South America, approximately 3,250 km (2,020 mi) long.[2] The Madeira is one of the biggest tributaries of the Amazon. A map from Emanuel Bowen in 1747, held by the David Rumsey Map Collection, refers to the Madeira by the pre-colonial, indigenous name Cuyari:[3]

The River of Cuyari, called by the Portuguese Madeira or the Wood River, is formed by two great rivers, which join near its mouth. It was by this River, that the Nation of Topinambes passed into the River Amazon.


The mean inter-annual precipitations on the great basins vary from 750 to 3,000 millimetres (30 to 118 in), the entire upper Madeira basin receiving 1,705 millimetres (67.1 in). The greatest extremes of rainfall are between 490 to 7,000 millimetres (19 to 276 in). At its head, the Madeira on its own is still one of the largest rivers of the world, with a mean inter-annual discharge of 18,000 cubic metres per second (640,000 cu ft/s), i.e. 536 cubic kilometres (129 cu mi)/yr, approximately half the discharge of the Congo River. The mean inter-annual contribution of the Bolivian Andes is 4,170 cubic metres per second (147,000 cu ft/s), i.e. 132 cubic kilometres (32 cu mi)yr, representing 25% of the discharge of the entire upper Madeira basin. On the further course towards the Amazon, the mean discharge of the Madeira increases up to 31,200 cubic metres per second (1,100,000 cu ft/s).[4]


Rapids of Teotônio before 2012

Between Guajará-Mirim and the falls of Teotônio, the Madeira receives the drainage of the north-eastern slopes of the Andes from Santa Cruz de la Sierra to Cuzco, the whole of the south-western slope of Brazilian Mato Grosso and the northern slope of the Chiquitos sierras. In total, the catchment area is 850,000 km2,[5] almost equal in area to France and Spain combined. The waters flow into the Madeira from many large rivers, the principal of which, (from east to west), are the Guaporé or Itenez, the Baures and Blanco, the Itonama or San Miguel, the Mamoré, Beni, and Mayutata or Madre de Dios, all of which are reinforced by numerous secondary but powerful affluents. The climate of the upper catchment area varies from humid in the western edge with the origin of the river's main stem by volume (Río Madre de Dios, Río Beni) to semi arid in the southernmost part with the andine headwaters of the main stem by length (Río Caine, Río Rocha, Río Grande, Mamoré).

All of the upper branches of the river Madeira find their way to the falls across the open, almost level Mojos and Beni plains, 90,000 km2 (35,000 sq mi) of which are yearly flooded to an average depth of about 3 feet (0.91 m) for a period of from three to four months.

From its source in the confluence of Beni and Mamoré rivers and downstream to Abuna river the Madeira flows northward forming border between Bolivia and Brazil. Below its confluence with the latter tributary the flow of river changes to north-eastward direction, inland of Rondônia state of Brazil. The section of the river from the border to Porto Velho has notable drop of bed and was not navigable. Before 2012 the falls of Teotônio and of San Antonio existed here, they had higher flow rate and bigger level drop than more famous Boyoma Falls in Africa. Currently these rapids are submerged by the reservoir of Santo Antônio Dam. Below Porto Velho the Madeira meanders north-eastward through the Rondônia and Amazonas states of north west Brazil to its junction with the Amazon.

The 283,117 hectares (699,600 acres) Rio Madeira Sustainable Development Reserve, created in 2006, extends along the north bank of the river opposite the town of Novo Aripuanã.[6] At its mouth is Ilha Tupinambaranas, an extensive marshy region formed by the Madeira’s distributaries.

The Madeira river rises more than 15 m (50 ft) during the rainy season, and ocean vessels may ascend it to the Falls of San Antonio, near Porto Velho, Brazil, 1,070 km (660 mi) above its mouth; but in the dry months, from June to November, it is only navigable for the same distance for craft drawing about 2 m (from 5 to 6 feet) of water. The Madeira-Mamoré Railroad runs in a 365 km (227 mi) loop around the unnavigable section to Guajará-Mirim on the Mamoré River, but is not functional, limiting shipping from the Atlantic at Porto Velho.

Today, it is also one of the Amazon Basin's most active waterways, and helps export close to 4 million tons of grains, which are loaded onto barges in Porto Velho, where both Cargill and Amaggi have loading facilities, and then shipped down the Madeira to the ports of Itacoatiara, near the mouth of the Madeira, just upstream on the left bank of the Amazon, or further down the Amazon, to the port of Santarem, at the mouth of the Tapajos River. From these two ports, Panamax type ships then export the grains - mainly soy and corn - to Europe and Asia. The Madeira waterway is also used to take fuel from the REMAN refinery (Petrobras) in Manaus, state capital of Amazonas, to Porto Velho, from where the states of Acre, Rondonia and parts of Mato Grosso are supplied mainly with gasoline (petrol) refined in Manaus. Cargo barges also use the Madeira on the route between Manaus and Porto Velho, which is 1,225 km[7] along the Rio Negro, Amazon and Madeira, connecting Manaus' industrial district with the rest of Brazil, as Manaus is land-locked as far as logistics with the rest of the country are concerned, to bring in part of its raw materials, and export its produce to the major consumer centres of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. In 2012, the cargo amounted to 287,835 tons[7] (both directions). The total tonnage shipped in 2012 on the Madeira accounted to 5,076,014.[7]

Two large dams (see below) are under construction as part of the IIRSA regional integration project. The dam projects include large ship-locks capable of moving oceangoing vessels between the impounded reservoir and the downstream river. If the project is completed, "more than 4,000 km of waterways upstream from the dams in Brazil, Bolivia, and Peru would become navigable.".[8]


The confluence of the Madeira River (brown) and Aripuanã River (dark) near the town of Novo Aripuanã.

As typical of Amazonian rivers with the primary headwaters in the Andes, the Madeira River is turbid because of high sediment levels and it is whitewater, but some of its tributaries are clearwater (e.g., Aripuanã and Ji-Paraná) or blackwater (e.g., Manicoré).[9]

A subspecies of boto (Amazon river dolphin) inhabits the Madeira River system. It has been estimated that there are more than 900 fish species in the Madeira River Basin,[10] making it one of the freshwater systems in the world with the highest species richness.[11]

The river is the fifth title of the album Aguas da Amazonia.


In July 2007, plans have been approved by the Brazilian Government to construct two hydroelectric dams on the Madeira River, the Santo Antonio Dam near Porto Velho and the Jirau Dam about 100 km upstream. Both the Jirau and Santo Antonio dams are run-of-the-river projects that do not impound a large reservoir. Both dams also feature some environmental re-mediation efforts (such as fish ladders). As a consequence, it has been suggested that there has not been strong environmental opposition to the implementation of the Madeira river complex.[12] Yet, if the fish ladders fail, "several valuable migratory fish species could suffer near-extinction as a result of the Madeira dams."[13] [14] There are also concerns with deforestation and pressure on conservation areas and indigenous peoples' territories.[15][16] The Worldwatch institute has also criticized the fast-track approval process for "kindler, gentler dams with smaller reservoirs, designed to lessen social and environmental impacts", claiming that no project should "fast-track the licensing of new dams in Amazonia and allow projects to circumvent Brazil's tough environmental laws".[13]


  1. Ziesler, R.; Ardizzone, G.D. (1979). "Amazon River System". The Inland waters of Latin America. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. ISBN 92-5-000780-9. Archived from the original on 8 November 2014.
  2. "Madeira (river)". (encyclopedia). Accessed May 2011.
  4. Seyler, Patrick; Laurence Maurice-Bourgoin; Jean Loup Guyot. "Hydrological Control on the Temporal Variability of Trace Element Concentration in the Amazon River and its Main Tributaries". Geological Survey of Brazil (CPRM). Retrieved 16 July 2013.
  5. Water and Salt Balances of the Bolivian Amazon, UNESCO
  6. RDS do Rio Madeira (in Portuguese), ISA: Instituto Socioambiental, retrieved 2016-09-01
  7. 1 2 3 "Hidrovias Brasileiras" (PDF). Agencia Nacional de Transportes Aquaviarios (ANTAQ). Retrieved 15 January 2015.
  8. Maria del Carmen Vera-Diaz (2009). Effects of Energy and Transportation Projects on Soybean Expansion in the Madeira River Basin (PDF) (Report). Conservation Strategy Fund. Retrieved July 7, 2011.
  9. Fraser; Cardoso; Junqueira; Falcão; and Clement (2009). Historical ecology and dark earths in whitewater and blackwater landscapes: comparing the Middle Madeira and Lower Negro rivers. pp. 229-264 in: Woods; Teixeira; Lehmann; Steiner; WinklerPrins; and Rebellato, eds. Amazonian Dark Earths: Wim Sombroek's Vision. ISBN 978-1-4020-9031-8
  10. de Queiroz, L.J.; Torrente-Vilara, G.; Vieira, F.G.; Ohara, W.M.; Zuanon, J.; and Doria, C.R.C. (2013). Fishes of Cuniã Lake, Madeira River Basin, Brazil. Check List 9(3): 540–548
  11. Ekström, J. (23 December 2007) Hydroelectric dam constructions in Amazonas. Retrieved 6 February 2013.
  12. "Brazil Engineers a Critic-Proof Dam". Wall Street Journal. October 6, 2010. Retrieved 2 April 2011.
  13. 1 2 "Greenwashing Hydropower". World Watch. Worldwatch Institute. 23 (1): 8–18. 2010.
  14. "Madeira River Basin: Hydropower dams in the heart of the Amazon". World Wildlife Fund Global. Retrieved 7 July 2011.
  15. BBC News Online. 2007. Brazil gives Amazon dams go-ahead. 10 July. Available from: Accessed 16 July 2007.
  16. Survival International, Madeira River
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