The Amazon Rainforest, an Integral Component of the Environment

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Topic: Environment
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The Amazon rainforest, the largest rainforest on Earth, encompasses an area roughly the size of the United States (the 48 contiguous states), contains most of the plant and animal species found on the planet and contributes to weather patterns on a global scale.

This natural wonder is disappearing at an alarming rate due to deforestation and with it the animals, plants and eventually humans will disappear as well. This applies to all plants, animals and humans, not just those who inhabit this region of South America.

If the Amazon rainforest disappears, the entire human race will likely suffer the same fate resulting from the climatic changes that would result. This disturbing scenario has been well documented by environmental organizations, governmental studies, independent agency reviews and scientific journals spanning the past three decades from which this discussion will draw.

The Amazon rainforest represents close to half of the world’s rainforest regions. Estimates of its size vary but the general consensus is that the Amazon rainforest covers approximately seven million square kilometers. It represents 40 per cent of the South American continent encroaching on nine of its countries including Brazil, Suriname, Bolivia, Guyana, French Guyana, Ecuador, Peru, Colombia and Venezuela.

The greatest portion (62 per cent) lies within the boundaries of Brazil. This massive area, if a single country, would rank sixth largest in the world and is at least half the size of the entire European continent. (Amazon Life, 1998)

The seemingly boundless rainforest is shrinking at a rapid pace due to deforestation, however, which will soon result in grave consequences for both the region and the planet. “Land-use conversion is occurring at unprecedented scales and in a complex manner.

As in other humid tropical forest regions worldwide, negative consequences include losses of biological and cultural diversity, changes in the regional and potentially global climate, and an increase in social conflicts.” (Kommers, 2007)

Deforestation describes the removal of trees along with other types of vegetation. Since 1970, at least 20 per cent of Amazon rainforest has been lost from deforestation. This figure could be under-representative because it does not include trees that have been felled by selective logging techniques which are less noticeable than clear-cutting yet causes considerable harm.

Ecologists and scientists warn that another 20 per cent will be lost within the next 20 years. If this were to occur, the ecological system that sustains the forest and thus the planet’s weather patterns will start to disintegrate. At present, the Amazon rainforest generates half of the rainfall it consumes but the removal of an additional 20 per cent will impede this phenomenon to the point where much of the remaining forest will die from lack of moisture.

The rising temperature of the Earth, due to global warming, will exacerbate the situation and cause droughts which will lead to massive wildfires in the region. Instead of life-giving oxygen which is now furnished by the lush rainforests, the fires will expel great amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Given this very real and impending scenario, it is difficult to imagine how the human race along with all other life on earth could continue to live. Today, the greenhouse gases emitted from Brazil ranks near the world’s top polluter, the U.S., because of the slash-and-burn techniques used to clear the rainforest. “The danger signs are undeniable.” (Wallace, 2006)

Simply stated, if immediate action is not taken to reverse the present trend of deforestation, the immense Amazon rainforest will soon become a desert region not unlike the Sahara in Africa. Once this process is underway, the effects are irreversible. Some scientists believe the transformation from forest to desert could begin as early as this year.

Studies have determined that the Amazon rainforest, even in its current state, could not withstand three years of drought conditions without beginning the irrevocable path to becoming the Amazon desert.

This result, in and of itself, is tragic enough but the repercussions to the rest of the world would be as catastrophic. “Scientists say that this would spread drought into the northern hemisphere, including Britain, and could massively accelerate global warming with incalculable consequences, spinning out of control, a process that might end in the world becoming uninhabitable.” (Lean, Pearce, 2006)

The Amazon rainforest has been characterized as the ‘lungs of the world.’ It is astonishing that though people know that without trees, they are without oxygen, the trees keep falling at increasingly larger rates. Trees are a resource that can be replenished if cutting is managed properly yet this has been anything but the case in the Amazon.

The collective rainforests of the world act as a climatic sponge storing much of the world’s rainwater, of which the Amazon rainforest accounts for more than half. Trees in the rainforest recycle water drawn from the forest ground.

This, combined with the moisture that evaporates from the leaves is released into the atmosphere from whence it came. If not for this enormous amount of rainwater supplied by rainforests, rivers, lakes and land masses would essentially dry-up spawning droughts of epic proportions. Irrigation farming would be greatly curtailed. Disease, starvation and famine on a worldwide scale will be the direct result of deforestation.

Trees cleanse the atmosphere by absorbing carbon dioxide and providing oxygen. Burning trees in the rainforest increases the amount of carbon in the atmosphere and at the same time reduces the amount of trees needed to absorb it. This contributes to global warming, a phenomenon which is already threatening the survival of the planet. (“Why” 2007)

There are further, often less publicized, repercussions of the Amazon rainforest’s deforestation. As trees are removed from the rainforest, soil erosion becomes an increasing concern. The nutrients needed for the tree’s roots to thrive are contained in a rainforest soil that is surprisingly lacking in nutrients.

The bulk of the nutrients are stored within the massive number of trees whose collective canopies protect the rainforest soil from the torrential downpours that would otherwise wash the soil away eventually allowing the rivers to flood low lying areas. The mass clearing of trees is the obvious threat to soil erosion but selective cutting is too.

The soil does need some nutrients in order to hold the tree’s roots firmly which it gains when trees die and decay on the ground. Fewer numbers of trees to feed the soil will lead to lower quality soil thus fewer trees still, a process that is essentially irreversible. The rain forest is also home to indigenous tribes, many who have become extinct in the past three decades.

Some have estimated that more than 100 entire tribes have been lost in recent years. After living harmoniously with nature for untold thousands of years, deforestation has deprived these indigenous peoples of the land which provided them housing, food and medications. Many were killed by the diseases brought in by the loggers or outright while attempting to protect their homes.

Medicines that originate from rainforest plants are not only important to the indigenous tribes but to the rest of the world population as well. More than a quarter of contemporary medications were derived from rainforest plants but only one percent of these plants have been tapped for their medicinal value.

Therefore, the potential for life-saving medicines yet discovered is tremendous. “Rainforests and the native populations who discovered these medicines could hold the cure of many more diseases if we would only nurture the forests and allow their people to show us.” (“Why” 2007)

Loggers do not wish for the rainforests to vanish, if for no other reason, because their livelihoods depends on it. They claim the world would have to stop using wood for the demand to diminish. The demand, not the supply is destroying the rainforest. In addition, if this unlikely scenario were to happen, commercial ranchers, tribesmen and miners would continue to clear trees at an enormous rate.

The ever-expansive soybean farms and wealth of precious metals in the region assure the continued deforestation with or without the presence of loggers. The various South American governments’ position is similar to the loggers in that they do not wish the rainforest to be destroyed because of the financial hardship it would cause.

This stance is eerily similar to the U.S. position on global warming, that to tackle the problem would not be economically feasible. Both seem to be quite content to sacrifice the future of the planet’s inhabitants for short-term political or economic gains. Environmentalists cite previously mentioned catastrophic global concerns and the tribes’ people lament the destruction of their beautiful and exotic homeland. (Taylor, 2004)

The proliferation of soy bean farming has negatively impacted the Amazon rainforest. The soy farmers hold much influence in South American countries’ governments. Beyond the massive clearing of trees to provide more farmland, the soy farmers continually persuade government officials to expand roadways which allow more of those with both legitimate and illegal commercial concerns access to increasing larger amounts of rainforest areas.

As in logging, the blame can largely be pointed at the demand-side. For example, multinational food chains Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonalds have been criticized for “underwriting deforestation in the Amazon through its purchase of soy-based animal derived from soybeans grown in the Amazon Basin.” (Deforestation rate, 2006)

Environment Secretary David Miliband proposed offering sections of the Amazon rainforest to be sold to private individuals, associations and businesses for strictly preservation purposes. This would compensate the governments and stop the deforestation, at least in those regions. The Brazilian government quickly dismissed the proposal citing the possible undermining of its autonomy.

Brazil is implementing a monitoring scheme to track illegal logging which it contends will slow the destruction of forests. However, these 150 new government employees will be greatly susceptible to corruptive tactics used by logging companies. (Kage, 2007)

Though selective logging is damaging to the rainforest, this technique is less damaging than clear-cutting. “If the forest is not too heavily disturbed during the logging, rates of re-growth and carbon accumulation can be quite rapid following a clearing.” (Wolfe, 2003) However, this can only be a temporary solution because partially cleared forests are no substitute for untouched forests, ecologically speaking.

Local governments of the Amazon region have been less than helpful in curbing the destruction of the rainforests. In fact, not only has few, if any, resolutions to the problem emanated from local authorities, many have actively thwarted attempts to save it.

Local authorities often act in conjunction with drug cartels (gangs) and ranchers who profit from the clearing of rainforests. Because of the impoverished conditions which rampant throughout the region, corruption also runs rampant. The governments of the region cannot be counted on to improve conditions now or in the future. The only viable method of preserving the rainforests is to appeal to the economic realities of the region.

More prosperous countries should, one, stop buying from companies that exploit the rainforest’s resources and two, employ Miliband’s privatization plan. Saving the Amazon rainforest is a good idea whether or not its destruction would also likely kill most everything on earth.

Even if all the scientists, environmentalists, government and scholarly studies were proved 100 percent wrong and nothing outside a few desolate tribes, some frogs, snakes and birds would notice if the rainforest was transformed into desert, it would still be worth saving at any cost due to its beauty, uniqueness and numbers of species and medicinal potential. Much as the global warming issue, whose destiny is tied to deforestation, even if climate change due to carbon monoxide emissions were proved a myth, reducing air pollution still makes sense.

References

“Amazon deforestation rate plunges 41 percent.” (October 26, 2006). Mongabay.com.

Kage, Ben. (January 19, 2007). “Brazilian government authorizes controlled logging in Amazon rain forest.” News Target.com.

Kommers, Nate. (2007). “Maps Show Diverse, Widespread Human Pressures on Brazilian Amazon Forests.” Press Release. World Resources Institute.

Lean, Geoffrey & Pearce, Fred. (July 23, 2006). “Amazon rainforest could become a desert.” The Independent.

Taylor, Elizabeth. (June 10, 2004). “Why are the Rainforests being destroyed? Are loggers the real problem?”

ThinkQuest Team. (1998). Amazon Life.

Wallace, Scott. (December 15, 2006). “Brazil’s Dilemma: Allow widespread – and profitable – destruction of the rain forest to continue, or intensify conservation efforts.” National Geographic.

“Why are the Rainforests Important?” (2007). Rain Forest Concern.

Wolfe, Jason. (January 21, 2003). “The Road to Recovery.” Oak Ridge National Laboratory.