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The Amazon Rainforest: What You Need to Know

Everyone knows that the Amazon rainforest is threatened by climate change. But what exactly is it? How important is it? Well, that’s me here in Brazil to study. I’m in the Atlantic Rainforest with my peers from Columbia University. We are hosted by the Instituto de Pesquisas Ecological (IPE), which studies forest ecology and field research methods. Our goal is to identify the best and most sustainable ways to tackle some of the biggest problems facing not just Brazil, but the entire planet.

Walking through the forests here, one cannot help but be in awe of breathing the air where there is the greatest concentration of LIFE. It is so heartbreaking to think then that these beautiful creatures are losing their homes for just minutes of our pleasure! They are very impressive and valuable, the loss very great.

Spoiler alert: the effects of Amazon deforestation will reach EVERYONE, and our lives too. But, read carefully because you can make a difference.

Yes you!

Quick facts about the Amazon Rainforest:

  • At 1.4 billion acres, the Amazon is the largest stretch of rainforest in the world. It accounts for more than half of the entire natural rainforest on Earth

  • It is about 55 million years old

  • The Amazon rainforest consists of four layers. Each has a unique ecosystem to which plants and animals have adapted:

  • The highest is the emergent layer. Its trees reach 200 feet in height.

  • The second layer is a dome. Smooth leaves with pointed edges help water flow easily and prevent the growth of moss and fungi.

  • The layer below it can only get 5% of the sunlight. The plants here are uniquely adapted to survive.

  • The lowest layer is the forest. Only 2% of sunlight reaches here

Characteristic fauna:

  • 1/5 of the world’s fresh water is found in the Amazon basin alone. This makes it a biodiversity hotspot

  • 1/10 known species on Earth are found in the Amazon. In addition, there are still millions that have yet to be described

  • The Amazon rainforest is the richest and most diverse biological reservoir in the world. It contains several million species of insects, plants, birds and other life forms:

  • 40,000 species of plants

  • 5,600 species of fish

  • 1,300 species of birds

  • 430 + species of mammals

  • 1,000+ species of amphibians

  • 400+ species of reptiles

  • An estimated 2.5 million species of insects.

The Amazon is home to jaguars, harpy eagles, pink dolphins, koalas, tapirs, red deer, capybaras, sloths, several types of monkeys and other rodent species. However, around 137 species of plants, animals and insects are lost every day due to rainforest destruction – or 50,000/year

Terrain:

  • About 45% is dark, 30% is clay, and 25% is water

  • The top soil is about 2.5 – 5 cm deep

  • Over 100 million years of exposure to the elements acidified the soil and leached it of its nutrients

  • Plants are able to thrive despite poor quality soil because they recycle nutrients from dead flora and fauna (instead of taking them from the soil)

  • Terra preta is a dark, fertile man-made (man-made) soil found in the Amazon basin. The indigenous peoples created this “Amazonian black earth” or “Indian black earth” between 450 BC. and 950 BC They would mix the barren soil of the Amazon with bones, dung and charcoal. Charcoal, which gives the soil its color, is very stable and stays in the soil for millennia, helping it retain minerals and nutrients. Terra preta zones are usually surrounded by common ground. Deforested lands are productive for only 1-2 years. After that, farmers move to new areas and clear more land. However, terra preta is less susceptible to nutrient leaching caused by flooding due to its high concentration of carbon, microbial life and organic matter

Dominant vegetation:

  • 16,000 tree species and 390 billion individual trees live in the Amazon rainforest

  • The lush vegetation includes a variety of tree species. These include myrtle, laurel, palm, acacia, rosewood, Brazil nut, rubber, mahogany and Amazonian cedar

  • Foods found in the Amazon rainforest include bread, nuts, bananas, cacao, guava, mango, berries, kola nut and plantains

Climate:

The Amazon is in the ‘Rainforest Climate’ or ‘Equator Climate’. It’s hot and humid. The average temperature is about 79 degrees Fahrenheit during the day. The temperature difference between night and day is greater than that between seasons.

The vast extent and great continuity of this rainforest is a result of the high rainfall, high humidity and high temperatures prevailing in the region

Disturbance regimes (aka what natural threats does it face?):

Like most tropical and subtropical broadleaf forests, the Amazon is particularly susceptible to plowing, overgrazing and excessive burning due to vulnerable soils and climatic conditions. Anthropogenic (human-caused) fires threaten habitat loss as well as air and water quality. Considering the full range of natural disturbances, anthropogenic turnover creates significant biomass growth and greater carbon imbalance. Warmer temperatures and less rainfall have caused droughts of historic proportions. Long periods of drought increase the likelihood of wildfires. These incidents have profound effects on other aspects of the ecosystem as well

Main human use:

For most of human history, deforestation in the Amazon occurred primarily from subsistence farmers producing crops for their families and local consumption. But in the 20th century, industrial activities and large-scale agriculture sharply increased the rate of deforestation. Large-scale mining operations disrupt natural ecosystems and require massive amounts of wood from the Amazon’s red-eye rainforest

The Amazon basin contains deposits of nickel, copper, tin, manganese, iron ore, gold and other valuable minerals. Along with deforestation, secondary impacts of mining include the dispersal of mercury (used in gold mining) into the local environment. Mercury poisons indigenous communities, as well as water supplies, plants and animals.

Oil drilling in the Amazon is causing deforestation. Additionally, it leads to widespread soil and air pollution, indigenous conflicts, biodiversity loss and displacement of local populations.

Livestock:

  • 1-2 hectares of rainforest are cleared every second. This is mainly for industry

  • 70% of deforestation in the Amazon is to make way for cattle ranches

  • Meat companies are systematically clearing vast tracts of land of native forestry and replacing it with soy crops for animal feed. They use the land until it is completely degraded. At this point they repeat the process elsewhere.

  • Livestock farming is responsible for 91% of deforestation in the Amazon
  • The construction of hydroelectric dams disrupts the ecosystem. Studies predict that this could submerge a significant portion of the rainforest underwater

  • Timber companies also remove valuable wood from the rest of the forest

  • 136 million acres have been cleared for livestock

  • 26 million hectares of rainforest have been cleared for palm oil production. However, palm oil receives much more attention from the media and consumers. Let’s be honest, it’s easier to get passionate about causes that don’t require you to change your lifestyle. No one wants to hear that the real problem is the beef on their plates!

Conservation issues:

30 million people live in the area. Increased industrial activity has affected many indigenous tribes. They suffer from displacement and exposure to disease. For example, death rates increase among many races that have had little contact with the industrial world and have not developed certain immunities.

  • Amazon forest loss accounts for 5-8% of global greenhouse gas emissions

  • 1,100 activists have been killed in Brazil in the last 20 years. 150 since 2012. Recently, a rancher shot 73-year-old American nun and activist Dorothy Stang. He had fought for 30 years to save the Amazon and its indigenous farmers from the interests of wealthy landowners. The verdict initially found the perpetrator “not guilty,” but recently ordered his arrest and retrial. Fewer than 100 of these men have gone to court. About 80 convicted suspects were hired gunmen for powerful ranchers and loggers. The legal system found only about 15 of the killers guilty. None of them are serving sentences

Thank you for staying with me!

Furthermore, thank you for being an aware, considerate and engaged citizen. I hope this piqued your interest. If you want to learn more about the connections between environmental issues and food, I recommend watching “Cowspiracy” on Netflix. Additionally, you can view this information page, which provides an overview of how our diet affects the environment. I will be posting more of my own work over the summer as I conduct research.

On another note, I’m not sure what the most interesting format would be for you all. If you have a minute, let me know in the comments below if you prefer academic research essays, bullet point newsletters like the one above, or more personal posts. Ultimately, I feel very passionate about this topic. Subscribe to be updated and share this post with your friends.

This is happening at an alarming rate. Consequently, every person and every effort counts!

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