The mighty Amazon rainforest is a vast tropical jungle that dominates much of South America’s northern regions. When you think of a rainforest, the chances are you probably think of the Amazon. The largest rainforest on Earth by far, the Amazon is a diverse, eclectic, and vital ecosphere for thousands of species of animals and plants.
But the Amazon is facing several challenges and impacts that threaten it’s very existence. Land clearance, fires, and climate change are all damaging the great rainforest. While this might not seem too relevant in our everyday, often urban lives, the truth is that all life on Earth depends on the health of the Amazon and other similar forest systems.
In this article, we’ll take a look at what exactly the Amazon rainforest is and why it’s so vital to the overall picture of life on Earth. We’ll break down the impacts threatening the Amazon, and we’ll take a look at what we can all do to help preserve this incredibly vital ecosystem.
What is the Amazon Rainforest?
The immense Amazon rainforest covers over three million square miles of land in the Amazon Basin in South America. This vast region covers parts of Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and several other countries on the continent. What’s even wilder, is that over half of the Earth’s rainforest area is contained within the Amazon, perhaps numbering as many as 400 billion trees in total.
This area of the planet has a warm, humid tropical climate, which creates ideal conditions for the growth of plants and the development of life. Rainstorms often lash the forest without warning due to the immense levels of evaporated water released by the trees. To put this into context, it’s estimated that up to 75% of the rainfall in the Amazon originates from the forest itself.
The Amazon is incredibly rich in terms of biodiversity and is literally teeming with life. Almost 60,000 different species of plants and trees grow in the Amazon, along with 2.5 million types of insects, thousands of species of amphibians and birds, as well as hundreds of different species of mammals and reptiles.
Bisecting the rainforest is the majestic Amazon River, one of the longest in the world. Of all the freshwater that reaches the world’s oceans, 20% comes from the Amazon River alone. This in turn affects ocean currents around the globe. It’s little wonder therefore, that the Amazon River is one of the most diverse water systems on the planet, inhabited by over 3000 species of fish.
Millions of people depend on the Amazon River and its thousands of tributaries to irrigate their crops. The river is also an important method of transportation for the industries on which many local economies depend. Over 400 indigenous tribes, totalling approximately one million people, also call the Amazon their home with many of these tribes dating back for several centuries at least.
The rich variety of life held in the Amazon represents more than just ecological diversity. Hidden beneath the canopy are hundreds of vital ingredients used in medicine. Of all the plants in the world that are known to have cancer-fighting properties, 70% are found in the Amazon.
But perhaps the most important function of the Amazon rainforest is its carbon dioxide absorption. The Amazon is often referred to as “the lungs of the Earth” because it helps absorb vast amounts of CO2. Some studies indicate that the Amazon contains approximately 85 billion tons of carbon dioxide stored within its trees.
This means that the Amazon also releases huge amounts of oxygen into the air, which, of course, we and all life then breathe ourselves. Up to 20% of all the breathable oxygen in our atmosphere comes from the Amazon. It is not an exaggeration to say that if we didn’t have the Amazon rainforest, it would be catastrophic for all life on Earth.
What issues is the Amazon facing?
The issues facing the Amazon rainforest have often been publicized but not always fully understood, and it’s little wonder given some of the numbers we’ve already heard.
It’s probably impossible to get to the root of every major issue facing the Amazon and other major rainforests feeling similar pressures, however four main issues can be identified as having a detrimental impact on the rainforest; deforestation, land-use changes, biodiversity and habitat loss, and climate change. If these major issues facing the Amazon are not addressed, up to 55% of the rainforest could be irrevocably damaged by the time we reach 2030.
Probably the most widely-known issue facing the Amazon is deforestation. This overarching problem feeds into the issues discussed below. In a nutshell, the Amazon is being cut down at an alarming rate to make room for new agricultural pastures or to provide timber for the logging industry.
The majority of this deforestation is occurring in Brazil, which contains around 60% of the Amazon rainforest. In the last half-century, the Amazon rainforest has lost 17% of its trees to deforestation. Although the rate of destruction had been falling since 2008, it has increased in the past couple of years.
This is largely believed to have been caused by Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, rising to office. The president seems eager to increase development in the Amazon and has come under fire for his nonchalant stance on environmental issues.
The numbers are staggering. An area of rainforest the size of a football pitch is cut down every minute. As the forest is thinned, other issues become more prevalent, such as wildfires. Whilst these fires are natural to an extent, the dry vegetation that grows in deforested areas makes blazes even more intense.
In 2019, over 85,000 forest fires were recorded in the Brazilian region of the Amazon. In August of that year, a massive blaze ripped through the forest and became international news. The cause was believed to be linked to increased deforestation. In 2019, the rate of deforestation in Brazil increased by a staggering 80%.
Areas of deforestation produce huge amounts of carbon dioxide, as trees are cut down and burnt and wildfires break out. The more of the Amazon that is cut down, the fewer trees there are to store carbon dioxide. This can have widespread effects on climate change.
Land use changes
As more and more land is converted into agricultural pasture, the rate of deforestation will continue to rise. This land is usually used for either cows raised for beef, or for soybean plantations. Both of these are major components of the Brazilian economy, which drives demand for more usable land.
Illegal deforestation becoming an increasing problem. Although the culprits are few, their impact is huge. Only 2% of farms are believed to be engaged in illegal deforestation, but they account for over 60% of the rate of the forbidden industry. All the while there is money to be had in land clearance, this will continue to be a problem.
Some observers believe that up to a fifth of the soya that is produced in Brazil and exported to the EU is a result of illegal deforestation, around 500,000 tons. This soya is mainly used as animal feed for cows and other agricultural animals across the world. Through this feed, deforestation in the Amazon is directly connected to our lives and diets.
Biodiversity and habitat degradation
As more and more of the Amazon is cut down or destroyed, the effects felt by native wildlife become even more abhorrent. With hundreds of thousands of species dependent on the Amazon for their habitat, the risk of losing species to extinction is becoming increasingly high.
With such a rapid rate of habitat loss, many species are finding it difficult or impossible to adapt. Some species may depend on certain plants that only grow in specific regions of the Amazon. Specialized micro-climates within the Amazon, such as the cloud forests, contain animals only found in those areas.
Species such as the beautiful Blue Macaw parrot are most at risk of the increasing demand for agricultural land. Several species of plants that could be critical to fighting widespread diseases such as cancer may also be lost due to the effects of deforestation.
The environmental impacts wreaking havoc on the Amazon are also disrupting relationships between species who dwell there. Recent studies have shown a reduction in flocks of mixed species of birds, who would usually gather together for safety or to complement each other with their different specialties.
With the delicate balance of biodiversity disrupted in the Amazon, some species are placed at a disadvantage. In areas of deforestation, fruit trees that grow back are noticeably smaller. This means that they can no longer support larger animals adequately, forcing them to move on or suffer extinction.
Because of the Amazon’s importance to several nearby regions, as well as the wider world, any negative impacts on the rainforest may come back to haunt us.
With less forest able to produce the vital rains needed to feed the Amazon river, global ocean current may be affected. Less rainfall will also have detrimental effects on swathes of agricultural land in Central and South America, which could impact global food reserves.
Fewer trees also provide fewer carbon sinks to soak up CO2, which also exacerbates the growing problem of global warming. Not only does deforestation deprive the rainforest of vital trees, but the industries that the land clearances feed also produce more CO2, such as pasture herds of cattle for the beef industry.
Wildfires may also become more common, which also increased the number of greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. This is because the only vegetation that seems to thrive in deforested areas is very dry savannah and scrubland, which catches fire a lot more easily in dry, hot seasons.
Some models predict that by 2050 the Amazon rainforest’s ambient temperature will have risen by 2 to 3 degrees Celsius, which will have drastic effects that could be felt across the entire world.
How is consumer demand driving these negative impacts?
The Amazon is a rich ecosystem, but it is also an untapped reservoir of vital resources. It also provides an easy target for certain industries that require large tracts of agricultural land. These are the biggest culprits that are driving the negative impacts being felt across the Amazon.
These are the two main culprits responsible for the increasing levels of deforestation afflicting the Amazon. Both are two of Brazil’s most important and lucrative exports, and both require large amounts of farmland.
Cows raised in Brazil consume grass, which means that the rainforest is being cut down to provide grazing pastures for these cattle. Around 215 million cattle are reared in Brazil’s Amazon region, destined for the slaughterhouses and then on to export to various meat suppliers around the globe.
The beef industry in Brazil has increased illegal deforestation, as operations are notoriously difficult to trace.
Soy farming also plays a role in the illegal felling of the Amazon rainforest. Soybeans are used across the world mainly as agricultural feed, and this ever-growing industry is one of Brazil’s most profitable. Soy farms in the Amazon region now cover over eight million hectares of land. 75% of these crops are destined for the gullets of farm animals across the globe.
Very little of the soy that is grown in deforested areas reach the vegetarian or vegan consumer. The majority of soy production is focused on animal feed and is also used as a filler ingredient to make some food products more affordable, like meat products.
One of the most infamous culprits of deforestation across the world is the harvesting of palm oil, and unfortunately this also extends to the Amazon. This pervasive ingredient is widespread across the food and hygiene industries and forms the basis of certain biofuels, making its cultivation a lucrative practice.
The pesticides used to protect palm crops from destruction are having adverse effects on local flora as well as leeching into the river systems. Palm oil production is a large industry in both Brazil and Ecuador.
The deforestation which precedes palm oil plantations releases gluts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This also destroys vital habitats for vulnerable species as well as causing damage and harm to the lifestyles of indigenous Amazon tribes.
Although not as damaging as the other culprits on this list, even cocoa farms have been using illegal deforestation to cash in on the Amazon. While the cocoa industry is making efforts to be more sustainable, some renegades are still causing damage.
Cocoa can be grown within the rainforest itself, allowing us to use the land of the Amazon without damaging the forest. The cacao tree, which is the source of cocoa, can only be cultivated in the tropical band on either side of the equator. This makes the Amazon a prime target for producing cocoa.
What is currently being done to mitigate damage?
While deforestation and the other threats facing the Amazon continue to be under-sold by some companies, several initiatives and actions are being taken to try and limit the damage.
At the local level, some positive changes are happening. Landowners whose herds have used up the bounty of pastoral lands are now turning to crops like cocoa to continue to earn a living. The more landowners that choose this route, the more greenery is being returned to the Amazon. Environmental groups with international standing are providing incentives for landowners to make the change.
Several conservation organizations are also attempting to halt the devastation of the Amazon. The Rainforest Alliance, the Amazon Conservation Association, and the Rainforest Action Network are three of the main activists. Organizations such as Greenpeace are also attempting to uncover practices of illegal deforestation in the rainforest.
Following a 2006 campaign by Greenpeace against deforestation for the soybean industry in Brazil, several regional soy producers pledged an agreement to take away some of the appeal of deforestation by refusing to buy land or crops from cleared areas. Several years later, studies have shown that the initiative significantly reduced further deforestation in the area without affecting growth.
Some high-profile companies are putting pressure on governments around the world to take a harder stance against deforestation. This includes both legal and illegal forest clearances. In the UK, these companies include big names such as McDonald’s, Tesco, and Unilever.
The UK government is also considering bringing in initiatives to help stop products that have been cultivated on illegally deforested land from reaching consumers. While it would only concern illegal deforestation areas initially, it’s a step in the right direction.
What can individuals do to help?
Even as international organizations and local landowners begin to try and turn back the tide, we can all take some steps to help reduce our reliance on the destruction of the Amazon.
One major way of helping to preserve the Amazon is to donate to organizations that try and buy land in the Amazon to safeguard it or ones that work to spearhead more sustainable industry practices. The Rainforest Action Network and the Rainforest Trust are two of the main organizations attempting to do this. Some charities also help to safeguard and empower indigenous people who live in the Amazon and who are directly threatened by the devastation.
Reducing our consumption of products fed by deforested land, such as beef and soy, can be a great way to help negate some of the impacts being felt by the Amazon. You don’t have to completely change your diet and lifestyle, but making small adjustments can have a huge impact if we all band together.
This idea also extends to things like cocoa and paper. We can educate ourselves on how the companies that we buy from source their products. Looking for products that have a seal of approval from organizations such as the Rainforest Alliance can be small changes that could make a difference.
But small actions will only go so far. Communicating our horror and disgust at the damage being done to the Amazon helps put pressure on global governments to do something. Participate in pressure groups and sign petitions. Making our voices heard will dictate action.
The Amazon rainforest is a vital ecosystem not just for local flora and fauna, but for the world as we know it. Between storing carbon and expelling oxygen and rains that help feed millions, the Amazon plays a huge role in our daily lives.
But the Amazon is being destroyed by practices such as deforestation, changing land use, and climate change, which is impacting the biodiversity and habitats of the biosphere. However, if we all take a stand and do what we can, we can help protect and preserve the Amazon.