Taking Care of the Amazon Rainforest

Forests and oceans, provide a valuable environmental service, by absorbing huge quantities of the carbon dioxide that circulate in the Earth’s atmosphere. The largest rainforest on the planet is located in the Amazon basin, which some people refer to as the lungs of the Earth. The Amazon rainforest is where native groups and other people reliant on forests are provided with food and other necessities, just as they have been for thousands of years. Rainforest products, such as Brazil nuts, palm fruits, and rubber all originate in the Amazon. There have also been many numerous medicines collected from the rainforest.

The Amazon rainforest’s massive size extends across the countries of Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana (an overseas French territory), Peru, Suriname, and Venezuela.2 In order to better understand just how big the Amazon rainforest is, imagine a map of the contiguous United States, then imagine a map of the Amazon rainforest transposed over that map. This should give a better understanding of the Amazon rainforest’s size because it is basically equal in size to the United States minus Alaska and Hawaii.

Some amazing statistics regarding the Amazon rainforest include the following: it contains “1 in 10 known species on Earth, 1.4 billion acres of dense forests, half of the planet’s remaining tropical forests, 4,100 miles of winding rivers, 2.6 million square miles in the Amazon basin, about 40% of South America”.

Most of the Amazon’s rainforest holds millions of species. It is one of the last natural habitats for pink dolphins, harpy eagles, jaguars, and is the home for thousands of butterfly and bird species, and more. There are more than 370 types of reptiles, 40,000 plant species, and 3,000 freshwater fish species in the Amazon.

To say that the Amazon rainforest is necessary to the Earth’s ecosystem would be an understatement. Within the last few hundred years, timber removal and the harvesting of rubber has taken a terrible toll on the rainforest by pushing into more and more remote areas by means of the Amazon and Xingu Rivers. Deforestation in the 1970s and 1980s ran rampant and the growing demand for rubber and more exotic tree species such as Spanish cedar and mahogany have led to the Trans-Amazonas in Para and the soy highway (BR-163) in Mato Grosso being built. These highways enabled even more untouched and remote areas of the rainforest to be permanently settled.

Today, cattle ranching and soy plantations are the main driving forces behind deforestation of the Amazon, with developers of hydropower, palm oil plantations and mining enterprises also bringing new pressures to bear. Additionally, many scientists believe that an equivalent area of the rainforest is also vulnerable, through unsustainable and unlawful logging practices, climate change, and drought, leading to even more destruction of the rainforest.

In the past, Brazil has been applauded for its advanced environmental policies, including, but not limited to, protected area management and forest inventory and monitoring.6 However, on November 18, 2019, the Brazilian government released new information showing that the degree of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest had increased by 29.5% from the year 2018, reaching its highest rate of loss in 11 years.

Also causing problems for the rainforest are the massive wildfires that are currently burning, which have also coincidently increased in the same time period since 2018. Fires are not a usual natural occurrence in the Amazon, so most of the time they are the result of man’s interference in some way. The surge in fires and the deforestation rate overlap with the October 2018 election of Brazilian President, Jair Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro based his campaign on promises of utilizing the Amazon rainforest in order to benefit the Brazilian economy and its people. Bolsonaro’s critics claim he and his government have been negligent in their enforcement of environmental regulations, and by doing so, have essentially given a green light for the destruction of the rainforest.

The unsustainably high demand for the natural resources of the Amazon and weak enforcement of the environmental policies in place has led to unscrupulous behavior. Fires are intentionally set to drive people that are native to the area, away from their land, making it easier for the illegal loggers and miners to move in and takeover. Other fires are set to aid in the clearing of land to make way for grazing pastures for cattle and farming. Fires and deforestation have caused the rainforest’s vegetation and soil (an immense reservoir of carbon), to become a major cause of emissions that threaten area precipitation patterns and the overall global climate.

The fires burning the rainforest, especially in 2019, have started a worldwide uproar. In September of this year, Bolsonaro told the United Nations General Assembly that the global attention to the matter was a danger to his country’s sovereignty, and with roughly 60% of the rainforest falling within Brazil’s borders, it was a mistake to say that the Amazon rainforest was the legacy of the human race. In other words, he was telling the world to mind its own business when it came to the Amazon, especially the rainforests in Brazil.

During the G7 summit this year in France, President Bolsonaro even rejected the offer of $20 million in foreign aid to combat the fires raging in the Amazon. Cristiane Mazzetti, an Amazon activist for Greenpeace, said in a statement, “ Even in the face of an alarming scenario for the Amazon, with increased fires, deforestation, invasions of protected areas, and violence against Indigenous Peoples, the government hasn’t presented any consistent policy to protect the forest and its peoples; on the contrary, the government is taking the side of environmental crime”.

Scientists fear that the Amazon rainforest is steadily creeping towards a dieback, which is where trees and other vegetation begin to die because of an unfavorable environment. There has already been a loss of between 15% and 17% of the Amazon rainforest and if the deforestation continues and 25% becomes lost, the rainforest will lose its ability to cycle moisture and will eventually dry out and turn into a grassy plain, which would be disastrous for the plant and animal life living there.

Every two days in the Amazon rainforest, a previously unknown species of plant, insect or animal is discovered. Unfortunately, at the rate the rainforest is being destroyed, some species may become extinct before they are even discovered.

If the rainforest is completely destroyed, then its full bounty will never be discovered. It only takes one event like an election, in Brazil’s case, to undo positive environmental policies and cause a snowball effect that will catastrophically direct the outcome of the planet. If the worlds’ governments do not band together to properly take care of our natural resources, such as the Amazon rainforest, the future of the Earth looks bleak indeed.

However, not all is lost. The Amazon rainforest as a whole, still has some of the greatest untouched and healthy tropical forests on the planet. Conservationists continue to use essential preservation tools such as forest restoration, timber legality and forest certification, indigenous reserves, and the promotion of other products besides timber that can be harvested in the rainforest without cutting down the trees, to push positive change towards revitalization.

To this end, a study was done in Peru, in five forests of the Madre de Dios area. Trees were harvested trees (logged) using Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) standards. FSC standards lay out how logging is to be done so as to diminish any adverse effect it may otherwise cause to the local people, local economy, and more importantly, the environment. An example of FSC standards is to limit the use of chemicals while logging. The Madre de Dios study is an example of how good preservation tools can work. The study came to the conclusion that the jaguar and puma populations, as well as, the populations of other medium and large-sized animals in the rainforest, were the same or higher than other areas where no logging had been done.

Another recent study also done in the Madre de Dios area of the Peruvian Amazon, which the World Wildlife Fund-supported, was done to try and calculate the number and variation of animals that lived there. The WWF-backed study used 72 cell phones and camera traps that were concealed in several forests, to record “hundreds of sounds of birds, insects, amphibians, and monkeys”.

Smaller animals are usually more sensitive to changes in habitats caused by low-intensity logging, which makes this newest study more hopeful than it appears on the surface. This study proves that logging done in accordance with the FSC standards helps protect the plant and animal diversity in those areas to the extent that it is like those areas weren’t logged at all.

Studies using monitoring to determine the variety of plants and animals in an area with sounds and images is more important than ever, especially since the demand for forest products is anticipated to triple by 2050. Larger scale monitoring has been made possible thanks to advancements in technology. Results from monitoring studies can aid in getting the important message out that the if the Earth’s forests are managed in a more responsible manner, then progress is not always a bad thing.

While there is no quick and easy solution to protecting the Amazon rainforest, there are still things that can be done to move conservation efforts in the right direction. Soy farmers can be taught to farm in a sustainable manner and to use farming methods that lessen the impact on the Amazon rainforest’s flora and fauna. Cattle ranchers can be shone how to improve their productivity and increase their profits without destroying more forests for pastureland.

Continued oversight by FSC and logging using the FSC standards can and does play an essential role in sustaining forward progress in protected forest areas. If those same standards are applied in all of the planet’s forest areas, it will ensure the continuation of Earth’s wonderful natural resources, guaranteeing that plant and animal life will continue to flourish, and the planet will remain viable for future generations to come.

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