2011 International Year of Forests – the Amazon

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Amazon taken from the air (source: NASA)

Amazon, ‘sexy’ forests

There is no tropical rainforest in the world as famous as the Amazon forest, an area of ​​approximately 7 million square kilometers where more than half of all rainforest in the world resides. This tropical jungle is spread out over nine different countries. The main part is in Brazil with 60% of the total area but it also extends to Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, Guyana, Venezuela, Suriname, Ecuador and French Guyana.
The great diversity of flora and fauna and other organisms is partly due to the Amazon River, one of the longest rivers in the world, containing at least a fifth of all naturally occurring fresh water on earth. This river with its more than 1000 branches gives life to the famous rainforest, which is often the symbol of conservation work in the world. It is a rainforest that knows many problems, though.

Incredible biodiversity

The species diversity in the Amazon goes beyond our imagination: at least 2.5 million insect species, tens of thousands of plant species and nearly 2000 species of birds and mammals. ,, In the period between 1999 and 2009 alone, scientists discovered a total of 1220 new species of flora and fauna in the area, of which 637 species of plants, 257 fish, 216 amphibians, 55 reptiles, 16 birds and 39 mammals”, reports the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in a publication that was presented in 2010. It is the tip of the iceberg, for no one has any idea of the numbers of species that have not been discovered or described by science yet. In addition, the report does not even address the invertebrate species like insects, by far the most common animal group in the world.

Amazon forest along the Suriname River

Huge economic benefits

The almost endless possibilities of discovering new species of animals and plants, along with the mysterious character of the virtually impenetrable forests gives the Amazon the power of attraction. The dream of explorers to find something that nobody has ever seen or described, is the fuel behind the many expeditions that are organized to map out the area. That, together with the fact that scientists are eagerly looking for new species with uncommon features or characteristics, which may be a key in the discovery of new compounds to combat the diseases that plague mankind, such as HIV and cancer. The beauty is that such discoveries often happen, which allows for new drugs to be developed and put on the market. In the past, for example, anti-malarial drugs were developed from the bark of the tree species Cinchona officinalis, laxatives from castor beans (on the island known as the seeds of the plant Karpata) and much more. Not only plants play a role in the discovery of new resources, also animals sometimes have certain properties that facilitate discovery. Certain components of the poison of certain frogs species are, for example, used in painkillers.
Besides medications there are also other valuable products coming from the Amazon, including delicacies such as the Brazil nut, nowadays an essential ingredient in nut mixes, and the acai berry with its many health-giving qualities, timber including various hardwood species, and many other products such as diamonds and metals, including gold and aluminum.

The three-toed sloth, inhabitant of the Amazon forest

The Amazon in peril

The Amazon forest is under heavy pressure. With the promise of immeasurable wealth, large areas of forest are cut down in search of new treasures such as oil, bauxite (aluminum ore), gold, diamonds and other precious materials. Illegal logging for timber sales causes even more destruction, as does the burning of large areas of forest for agriculture and livestock production. This destruction of the forest results not only in a significant loss of biodiversity but also in an increase of CO2 in the atmosphere (see the article ‘forests and climate’). Additionally, the industries that settle in the Amazon region are responsible for considerable pollution. Many parts of the river system are heavily polluted with oil from leaking pipelines or mercury used in gold mining. This, while the water is used for drinking by the locals.
The large plantations that constantly turn additional forest areas into new agricultural plots nowadays do not do that so much for food crops, but to grow raw materials for so-called biofuels, which are used internationally under the name: “green” fuel. Produced in this way this fuel definitely does not deserve that name. Increased livestock production also translates into an increasing demand for land, while most of the meat is exported to Western countries. Over there the consumers like a thick steak for little money on their plates.

The search for sustainable solutions

There are no simple solutions to the problems in the Amazon forest. Only by working together might all stakeholders be able to stop the alarming destruction of these forests. There are several local initiatives, supported on a regional and international level. One of those is the campaign against the use of biofuels. Also, projects are being devised with the aim to assist farmers in exploiting their land for longer periods, rather than having to resort to the destructive slash and burn strategy after only two years. Also, work is being done on regulating and controlling the pollution of the rivers and the forest. Some organizations even buy large tracts of forest that are then being managed as protected areas. Unfortunately, all these initiatives are still not resulting in a lasting solution to the problem.

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