Two interesting facts:
- The Amazon Rainforest is the largest forest in the world.
- The Amazon River has by far the largest discharge in the world (a whopping 209.000m3/s).
I get it, it’s a big place; but the most outstanding facts about this vast region are yet to come, so keep reading to find out 😉
First of all, an outline of this ecoregion:
The Amazon biome as defined by the WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature) covers an area of 5.500.000km2 which mostly (but not exactly) overlaps the Amazon River basin.
As to the Amazon River, it’s important to point out how enormously wide this river is; no bridge spans the entire width of its course. The surface of the Amazon River basin has a total area of 7.050.000km2 which also includes the Andes biomes in its upper course. The length of the course, however, is somewhat disputed. I have come across figures ranging from 6275km to 7062km. The question of which is the furthermost source of the river is unresolved: while some argue the headwater is upstream of the Apurímac River in Mismi (5597m), others argue that the source is located upstream of the Mantaro River.
However, I’d like to focus more on this aspect of the forest:
The ecology of the Amazon Rainforest:
It is a known fact that wet tropical forests are the best-suited biomes for having a large biodiversity, and the Amazon Rainforest is particularly species-rich—more than its African and Asian counterparts. Something very cool about this rainforest is that during the wet season, the rivers overflow several metres and flood the surrounding areas. This flooded forest is known as várzea, and it’s by far the largest of its kind. What’s peculiar about the várzea is that its floodwater is rich in sediments and with a near-neutral pH, so it’s among the most productive forests in the world.
An important source of nutrients for these plants is the dust which is blown by the wind from the Saharan desert, mainly from the Bodélé Depression in Chad, at a rate of 182 million tons a year according to NASA measurements. Some of that dust lands in the Amazon Basin, while another portion of it falls in the Caribbean Sea or flies to other places. The Amazon Rainforest is quite phosphorous-deficient, so the inflow of Saharan dust ensures that the plants here are sufficiently fertilised.
I won’t go into details, but as a result of this fertility, the amount of living matter this rainforest has is very outstanding. I could also spend absolutely all day talking about a large variety of animal species, each with its own quirks, if I bothered to carry out all the research that would require.
Tens of thousands of plant species have been classified in the Amazon Rainforest, and many more are awaiting classification. Bear in mind that many of these plants may contain toxic or hallucinogenic substances or, conversely, might contain active ingredients of medicines. As a result, the indigenous peoples of the Amazon Rainfores, who have been living there for millennia have come to know very, very well their surroundings, including the characteristics of many plants.
However, many other species here might pose a hazard: predators, disease vectors and poison dart frogs. Those animals sound very terrifying, right? But nevertheless, the greatest threat to be found in this forest is the Homo sapiens.
Since 1970, 20% of the forest has been destroyed. That deforested area is very large! Only last year, from August 2019 to July 2020, 11.088km2 of the forest were destroyed. Imagine destroying a forest with an area equivalent to Murcia in just one year! I cannot highlight enough the importance of this ecosystem.
These are the main causes to blame for this problem:
This is reported to account for 80% of the deforestation in the Amazon Rainforest. Cattle here is usually raised by means of grazing in areas of low productivity, which means that they need to use a lot of land for only a few cows. The reason why livestock farming has been so popular since the mid-1960s in this region is that the soil is quite poor, which means that while it’s generally not suitable for growing crops, it’s OK for grazing, which is a very profitable activity.
People all across the world love beef, and as the Brazilian beef market became more competitive, the forest started to be destroyed at faster and faster rates. I don’t understand economics at all, but it appears that when there’s high inflation (that problem has happened a lot of times in Latin America), the prices of products such as beef go up very fast; faster than the interest earned on money left on the bank, which incentivises the production of beef. That coincided with the construction of the Trans-Amazonian Highway (1972), so they now had infrastructure to easily transport the beef.
Those were the ideal conditions for the development of ridiculous amounts of land, and the carnage has been going on for 50 years. Literal carnage: indigenous peoples have lost land due to this and it’s probably contributed to the extinction of several species through habitat loss. Not to mention the fact that cows are a major source of methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas.
Do you know what the worst part is? It’s extremely unsustainable. Not just for the environment as a whole, but also from a selfish perspective: without its plant cover, the soil quickly (in a few years) becomes unsuitable even for grazing, and farmers are forced to push further into the rainforest. Land formerly used for grazing can be used by soybean producers, but they’d need insane amounts of fertiliser in this nutrient-poor soil.
Something which is also very terrible in my opinion is that the majority of this beef is then exported to other places such as the United States, the European Union and China, which means that quite often we’re eating meat coming from these deforested areas, and that the meat tycoons of the Amazon Rainforest (mainly Brazil) are profiting insanely off that.
Despite having terrible soils and inaccessible regions, Brazil is the second largest producer of soybeans, and it’s mostly used for livestock feed. This is also a major problem, because companies such as McDonalds might want to boast that they are using meat from livestock raised in the same country while feeding them with soy-based feeds coming from the Amazon region and its surroundings.
A lot of the soybeans grown in this region come from the Bolivian Amazon and the Brazilian Cerrado, which is a savanna southeast of the rainforest, and anti-deforestation activists are adamant about saying no to these greedy practices of destroying forests for profit.
Infrastructure and development:
This is simple: basically, that the existence of infrastructure makes some previously inaccessible areas suitable for development. Along roads and rivers you will find towns, crop fields, mines, logging grounds and pastures obtained by means of slash and burn.
While it is illegal to sell unprocessed wood native to the Amazon, in practice a lot of the furniture sold in areas including Europe are made of these woods. Many areas are selectively logged for certain species such as mahogany and jacaranda, and selective logging does inflict a lot of damage to the rainforest. In first place, other trees need to be cut down so that the desired tree can be transported back to the camp, and in second place, when a tree falls, it greatly damages the trees around it, especially those closer to ground level.
The problem is that restrictions on logging are very poorly enforced in this region, and all countries here struggle to some extent (normally a great extent) to try stop it. In fact, in some countries here the current government doesn’t seem to care about logging and has drastically reduced the funding used for preservation efforts and institutions in charge of stopping logging.
There’s also an unsettling amount of illegal charcoal ovens all across the Amazon, and they just keep popping up. That illegal charcoal can be used for fuel at homes, but most of it is used to fuel pig iron plants, which brings us to the next section:
In some areas of the Amazon Basin, there is an abundance of certain minerals. For many, the greed is too much, and they decide to destroy a section of the forest for some money. The garimpeiros are gold prospectors who set up small operations all over the region and who have sometimes clashed brutally with indigenous people with the objective of stealing land from them.
Moreover, the chemical most commonly used for gold extraction is mercury, which is extremely toxic. Very often, villages downstream of mining areas find that the concentration of mercury in the fish they eat is very high, so even in the short run this is harming humans. Another method of extracting gold from ore is using cyanide, which makes the situation be even worse, since it might lead to a large ecological disaster such as the 2000 Baia Mare spill; downstream, in the Tisza and Danube rivers, most of the fish died.
Some claim that when the garimpeiros find an important amount of gold, multinational mining companies join in and try to buy that land for profit… I think the claim makes sense.
The indigenous peoples:
This ruthless expansion into the rainforest is threatening very seriously the lifestyle and the livelihoods of the indigenous peoples of the Amazon Basin.
As more land is being converted to pastures, mines, roads, towns and crop fields, they are losing the land they need for resources, and thus the point where their nomadic lifestyle is no longer viable is reached in the case of many. In the past, they used to stay in an area only for a few years, only to move out to another place and let the previous one regrow. But nowadays there’s no such other area, and more and more indigenous peoples are being constrained to diminishing portions of land.
Some even have to abandon their lands and go to the city, where they find it hard to be integrated in society. For starters, they often don’t speak Spanish or Portuguese, and as Amnesty International puts it, in many places of the world they face marginalisation and discrimination. Their lifestyle is so different to that of modern society that the city simply isn’t their place.
To make matters worse, those who still inhabit the rainforest are under the threat of clashes with ranchers, loggers and miners. It may be true that some tribes are very territorial, but that’s just logical, since their land should always be respected. Moreover, I believe that blowguns and bows are almost nothing against guns and rifles, which makes any aggression doubly inhumane.
Something even more shameful is that so often we find that governments also kind of condone that, and that they definitely participate in the appropriation and plundering of lands, quite often by means of providing permits to large companies when they shouldn’t. So incredibly often an environmental activist is killed in Colombia, and many of these activists are either indigenous peoples or peasants.
An example of what’s going on with the indigenous peoples here is the story of “the Man of the Hole”, called o índio do buraco in Portuguese:
Since 1996, the authorities have noticed that in an area of Rondôndia there was a lonely man in the middle of the rainforest. They believe that the remainder of his tribe was massacred by rancher gunmen in the late 80’s or early 90’s. Ever since he was spotted, he’s been monitored by the FUNAI (Fundação Nacional do Índio) and some time later, an area of 110km2 around him has been declared protected so that ranchers are kept away from him and to ensure he is still OK. Despite all that caution, in 2009 some cruel ranchers managed to injure him. To put it simply, he’s the survivor of a genocide.
Another example of this genocide is the massacre of the Akuntsu, also in the state of Rondônia. Ever since a highway was built close to their ancestral lands in the 1970s, the then uncontacted tribe suffered violent confrontations with white colonists. It all culminated when sometime around 1990 all but seven of the tribe members were killed, and when the survivors were contacted in 1995, scars and lodged bullets could be found in their bodies. In the last 26 years, three members of the tribe have died due to natural causes, so now only four remain; it’s most likely that their lineage will go extinct quite soon.
Yet another example: in February I read in the news that the last man of the juma tribe had died due to covid-19 at an age of about 86-90.
I’m translating a small fragment of a news article about Araká Juma’s death:
“As Bolsonaro promised in his campaign, he’s not granted legal protection to a single square inch of indigenous land since the start of his presidency.”
On the one hand, at a collective level there are numerous demonstrations all over the world whose aim is to improve indigenous peoples’ rights. Additionally, there are many other demonstrations against governments which are doing a terrible job at protecting their rights or which outspokenly denigrate them. Many organisations all over the world are interested in fighting for their rights and for the preservation of their lands. Some of those organisations are WWF, Amnesty International and many, many others.
On the other hand, if you want to do something about it at an individual level, the best thing you can do to start is getting well aware of the situation informed by reliable sources, and in turn raising awareness among the people you know.
Another step is not supporting the business of Brazilian beef and that of beef fed with Brazilian soy. That’s a little bit harder though, because for that you’d need to know at all times where the produce comes from. In order for this measure to be effective, there’d probably need to be legislation about this, which is something much harder to achieve.
Referring to legislation, we have the typical argument against such measures which claims that it would harm the economy of those countries. I personally don’t agree with that because I only want stuff which is sustainable in the long run. Instead of endorsing them and buying their products, I want them to stop those practices by means of boycotts and legislation until they shift to others which aren’t so harmful. And once they’ve shifted to something good, they’ll be able to do business with no objection. Therefore, until a sustainable solution is reached, what you can so is reducing your meat intake.
As to logging and mining… well, to be honest I don’t know what to do about that 🙁
All in all, I’d say I’d rather look after the future than getting ridiculously rich in the present. The ecosystem of the Amazon Rainforest is close to its tipping point especially in the south and east, so let’s push for action in order to save the rainforest and the species and people living in it!