The Amazon is earth’s largest rainforest, measuring approximately 2.7 million square miles spanning across nine nations (Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru, Suriname, and Venezuela) – 71% the size of the United States. It contains an estimated 390 billion trees inside 1.4 billion acres of tropical forest biomes, making up more than half of the planet’s remaining tropical and subtropical forests. It was formed during the Eocene Epoch roughly 55 million years ago after the Atlantic concluded its systematic retreat from the emerging continent.
The Amazon is famed for its biodiversity, both flora and fauna. It is home to about 450,000 species of plants, 16,000 species of trees, 2.5 million species of insects, 2,300 species of fishes and 1,300 species of birds. These numbers will continue to rise as more species are discovered and cataloged by the scientific community.
Aerial view of the massive deforestation (brown patches) in Amazon near Porto Velho, Brazil. Image courtesy of Planet Labs
Amazon: The Lungs of the Planet
The Amazonian rainforest is frequently referred to as the lungs of the planet due to its importance to the global climate and the very air that we breathe. It is a global carbon sink that filters a huge percentage of greenhouse gasses emissions (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and fluorinated gasses) from vehicles, planes, factories, power stations, and the earth’s natural discharges.
The impact of deforestation has also increasingly led to the destabilization of global weather cycles. Closer to home, a 2013 Princeton study demonstrated how Amazon deforestation has led to a 10-20% reduction in coastal northwest precipitation, which effectively translates to longer droughts. In Brazil, climate changes are already apparent through drops in precipitation and extended dry seasons.
Continued deforestation of the Amazon, at the present rate of approximately 50 soccer fields a minute, presents a clear and present danger to the health of the world.
The Deforestation of Amazon
Over the last fifty years, the timber industry, slash-and-burn farming practices, and livestock producers have cumulatively contributed to the illegal deforestation of 292,700 square miles (758,092 km2) of virgin Amazon forest – roughly the size of Turkey, or almost three times the size of Florida. Despite government legislation and pressure from foreign countries and NGOs, the pace of deforestation is barely slowing down – it is just too lucrative. Slash-and-burn farmers, livestock owners seeking cheap pastoral grounds, and logging companies conducting hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of trade annually are evolving to constantly stay ahead of lawmakers’ enforcement innovations.
In recent years, housing developers and manufacturers have also become involved, as they succumbed to the temptation of cheap land for development. This, in turn, has led to the exploitation and persecution of indigenous communities living on the fringes of the rainforest.
The ribeirinhos (river-dwellers) tribes of Pará state along Iriri and Xingu rivers are systematically being driven out of their ancestral homeland through a campaign of intimidation, violence and economic coercion. Various reports allege even officials from the Brazilian Ministry of the Environment are involved in the ‘grilagem’, a local term for the forced appropriation of land through forged deeds to facilitate the exploitation of the Amazon for lumber or to pave the way for the building of hydroelectric dams, factories, ranches, and homes. There are even incidences where houses were set on fire to compel families to leave their homes. Armed mercenaries are also frequently seen in illegal logging camps inside the Amazon as a deterrent against low-level enforcements.
Legislative protections for the Amazon rainforest
Despite the Brazilian government’s attempts to arrest the tide of deforestation, they too are facing pressures from those who depend on these illegal activities as a source of income. During a United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) summit in 2011, former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva famously tried to barter a concession in return for protecting the Amazon.
“I don’t want any gringo asking us to let an Amazon resident die of hunger under a tree. We want to preserve, but they will have to pay the price for this preservation because we never destroyed our forest like they mowed theirs down a century ago.”
The lukewarm reception to his idea has been cited by some as the reason behind the revised 2012 Forest Code pushed by President Dilma Rousseff’s administration, considered a more lenient version of the previous one. Two of the most controversial changes include provisions allowing small landowners to clear forested areas near riverbanks and the amnesty of illegal loggers in return for an assurance to replant felled trees.
The fight against Amazonian deforestation increasingly appears unwinnable, and that spells bad news for Brazil and the rest of the world. Beyond climate threats, uncontrolled deforestation will also lead to the extinction of an untold number of plants and animal species, including undiscovered ones. Earth’s last remaining Eden is facing a very bleak future.
Song of the day: Radiohead – Fake Plastic Trees