The Amazon Rainforest is the largest rainforest on Earth, covering almost all of northwestern Brazil and eight neighboring countries in South America. It’s also the planet’s biggest lungs, capable of storing huge volumes of greenhouse gases below- and aboveground and converting them into oxygen.
Millions of species of plants, animals, and insects, and over 24 million people, thrive in the canopy’s warm, humid embrace. A migthy river cuts through the basin and floods into over 1,100 tributaries, which were, and still are, home to complex and large-scale indigenous societies. These tributaries not only house a remarkable diversity of flora and fauna, but hold the region’s cultural and ethnic diversity together.
The Amazon, alone, produces 20 percent of the world’s oxygen. It is also the world’s largest carbon sinks.
But with abundant natural resources and environmental services come opportunities for exploitation. For centuries, tribal and colonial wars broke out to gain power over the region’s priceless treasures. Today, the region faces a growing list of environmental problems, from massive deforestation and destructive large-scale agriculture, to the alteration of its river’s flow for an upcoming hyrdoelectric dam complex.
While these problems are not news to South Americans, many scientists and organizations fear that if left unchecked, Amazon deforestation will threaten human existence.
What’s the Beef?
For most of human history, the Amazon basin was home to indigenous and ethnic tribes that subsisted on the region’s abundant fish and wildlife. They cut down trees to build homes, canoes, and fire, cleared plots of land to grow crops for their families and communities. While these activities made an impact on river ecosystems, it’s northing compared to the destruction brought about by industrial activities and large-scale agriculture from the later part of 20th century to the present day.
But what’s chewing up the rainforest the most is Brazil’s cattle industry, which produces the largest commercial herds in the world. Nearly 80 percent of the region’s deforestetd areas are used for pasture. The impact this is having on the forest and the world’s climate is huge. While the industry gives Brazil’s economy a huge bump, it’s also responsible for making the country one of the largest polluters of the atmosphere.
Though deforestation in the Amazon had a period of decline between 2004 and 2011, surveys of satellite images by Brazilian space agency INPE reveal a 63 percent increase. Likewise, the Amazon watchdog group IMAZON reports a 215 percent increase from a year ago. And this backwards step Brazil is taking is largely due to the growing demand for beef from a growing middle class throughout the world. Tree-cutting might continue to increase due to market pressures and the country’s new, less eco-friendly policies.
Not suprisingly, only 2 percent of indigenous territories has been deforested in the past few decades.
However, many fear that this will change in the coming years. To sustain Brazil’s rapid progress, indigenous territories will be opened to mining and more trees will be felled to grow soy and raise cattle.
The effects of this can be catastrophic. In the Amazon, the canopy is so thick that some trees are able to generate their own clouds and rain. This phenomenon keeps the rainforest moist two to three months before the seasonal winds bring in moisture from the ocean.
This ocean of low-lying clouds and vapour travels to the centre and south of Brazil, bringing volumes of rain with it and flooding the river tributaries.
Fewer trees mean fewer rainclouds. But in recent years, this ocean of cloud is getting thinner and thinner, evidenced by the absence of rain during the expected periods. Months go without rain, and the forests and rivers are drying up fast. And scientists point to deforestation and human activity as the main culprits.
Who Gives a Dam?
While vast portions of the Amazon were cleared for pasture and soy farms, others are being drowned for dams. The, which would be the world’s third-largest hydroelectric project, has been under construction since 2001. The project was met with controversy and legal battles from public and private organizations, the international community, and the indigenous and ethnic groups that depend on the river.
The project would divert the flow of the Xingu, one of the biggest bends in the Amazon. Not only will this alteration devastate a vast expanse of rainforest, it will also flood nearby communities and displace over 20,000 people. For the indigenous tribes, this could mean the end of their way of life and culture that’s so deeply intertwined with the river. With 60 more dams scheduled to be built over the next 20 years, the environmental and cultural damage could reach devastating proportions.
While the government has halted the construction of the 60 dams, there’s already one set to start operating by 2019. And when its turbines start, the river communities in the Xingu, along with their way of life and cultures, will be flooded.
While some progress has been made to curb further deforestation in the Amazon, it would take years to reverse the damage that’s been made. The roads build to access the mines, dams, and pastures have opened previously inaccessible forests to settlement by poor farmers, land speculators, and illegal loggers.
A Global Concern
In other countries that share the Amazon, deforestation and destruction caused by mining and large-scale agriculture are truly devastating. The alluvial plains near the Tambopata River alone have been carved open by illegal gold miners, leaving the area desolate, soggy, and stagnant.
Countless mega-projects have been in the works, many of which promise jobs and a better life for the rest of Brazil. But many scientists and critics say these projects are massive investments with very little gain. They are also a death sentence for the environment and indigenous cultures in the region.
If the surge in cattle farming and tree-cutting continues, it would not only affect the rainforest, but also the rest of the world.
Brazil’s cattle industry will continue to spew out metric tonnes of carbon and methane into the atmosphere, and only a few of these gases will be sequestered by its already thinning forest.
But hope may be on the horizon in Ecuador, the first country to recognize and adopt Rights of Nature in Constitution. This ruling is a major step towards a change of paradigm, that nature, too, has the rights to existence, regeneration, and restoration. We can only hope that the other eight countries that depend on the Amazon Rainforest will follow suit.