The Amazon Rainforest
For centuries the Amazon rainforest has been cleared of plants as soon as humans come in contact with it, be it because of slash-and-burn farming, oil drilling, mining or cutting exotic trees for furniture. The Amazon rainforest represents more than 50% of the total rainforest left in the planet and more than 20% of the oxygen is produced here where trees recycle carbon dioxide into oxygen. The Amazon is referred as the “lungs of the planet”. The Amazon jungle is also home to more animals and plants living in a number of ecosystems unmatched in the planet. The ecosystems are so diverse and they range from natural savanna to swamps, soil and flora diversity are highly variable. It is believed that 30% of the world’s species of fauna and flora are found here.
The Amazon rainforest is the largest tropical rainforest in the world, followed by the Congo Basin in Africa and the Indonesian Archipelago in Southeast Asia. Tropical rainforests are located between the Tropic of Capricorn and Tropic of Cancer on the Equator. Here days last 12 hours throughout the year as sun rays hit the earth at a 90 degree angle to provide energy necessary for plant growth. Temperatures are consistent all year round at an average of 70-95F (21-35C).
Tropical rainforests are located along the Equator. Click on map to enlarge.
The Amazon rainforest is also known as Amazonia or Amazon Jungle and covers an area 53,820,000 sq feet (5,500,000 km²), about 82% of the Amazon basin. This territory covers forty percent of the South American continent and includes the nations of Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Bolivia, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana. Sixty percent of the rainforest is in Brazilian territory while thirteen percent belongs to Peru and ten percent to Colombia.
The first settlers were Native American peoples who lived in the region before the Europeans conquered South America. It is believed that they came from Asia more than 10,000 years ago through the Bering Strait. Some settled in the Andes creating a highly developed civilization, Inca Civilization. Those who settled in the forest lived simpler lives creating individual tribes and living in peace rather than expanding.
Why is the Amazon called “Amazon”?
In 1541-42 Spanish conquistador and explorer Francisco de Orellana embarked on an adventure to explore the eastern part of the newly conquered Inca Empire. He was the first European to travel the length of the Amazon River. While in the jungle Orellana encountered a tribe where women fought side by side the men. The women were strong, as strong as men and Orellana thought they looked like Amazons, female warriors from Greek mythology. Orellana named the river “Amazonas” after this encounter and the forest surrounding it was named as an extension of the river.
The Amazon rainforest has been a victim of deforestation ever since men came in contact with it. There are many reasons for deforestation. Economic development is the main drive as governments try to maximize the exploration of natural resources to pay for social services and infrastructure.
Acres of land are constantly cleared to drill for oil and gas exploration which not only causes deforestation but pollutes the rivers of the Amazon basin as they release harmful chemical by products affecting the quality of drinking water and the food chain. A network of roads and pipes has to be built in order to support production of the commodity further risking the rainforest and its rivers of oil spills. Populations of native people are being displaced and thousands of species of plants and animals destroyed. With oil and gas at historically high prices, the incentive to big oil firms and governments to explore and develop the Amazon has never been greater.
Drilling in the Amazon rainforest
Mining production from the Amazon includes gold, emeralds, coal, iron, silver, copper, silver, tin, bauxite, lead, manganese and zinc among others. Revenue from mining represents a large percentage of a country’s income in South America. It is an important source of future income that gets reinvested in infrastructure and public projects. In order to get to the mineral deposits underground plants and animal life have to be removed from the surface causing deforestation and the loss of an ecosystem.
Gold in the Amazon is found in the rivers and on the floodplains. Even though it does not cause as much deforestation as other industries it heavily pollutes the waters of the rivers. Gold mining is further expanding as international prices for the commodity stays high. Small scale gold mining provides employment to thousands of people in the Amazon since it is labor intensive but also causes high levels of pollution. As people sift for gold dust and particles in the muddy waters of the rivers silver mercury is added to make the gold flakes and dust adhere. The mercury is then released into the river system affecting its ecosystem and the food chain. Large scale industrial gold mining companies use heavy machinery to clear floodplain forest adding to the deforestation and erosion of the land. They are more efficient in their use of mercury than small scale miners as it is not released into the water but reused or burned. Other toxic compounds that make its way to water bodies are buried metal sulfides and cyanide.
Gold mining from a floating dredge on the Madre de Dios River, one of the Amazon River tributaries.
Subsistence agriculture has led people to resource to a technique called slash-and-burn farming. The soil of the Amazon has been eroded by rains and rivers removing almost all nutrients for the growth of agricultural crops. The soil is composed mostly of inert clay. The slash-and-burn technique involves cutting trees and burning them creating a flatter surface where to grow crops, the ashes serve as fertilizer. This technique is not sustainable as the land becomes too poor to keep growing crops and farmers have to repeat the process in new untouched forest.
Slash and burn agriculture destroys the rainforest to create temporary farmland which is not sustainable.
Development and prosperity brings new settlements in the rainforest which also contribute to deforestation. Humans cut the trees to be used in the construction of houses, furniture or to be used as fuel. Exotic trees such as mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla) and cedar (Cedrela odorata) are in high demand in industrialized countries and are used for high quality furniture.
Prosperity increases demand for electricity. Construction of dams in the rivers of the Amazon basin to produce hydroelectricity has caused massive flooding, loss of forest and displacement of native population.
The consequence of deforestation, without a reforestation policy, is an irreversible damage to the biodiversity and the habitat of the rainforest. The effort to protect rainforests should be global as it is in the interest of every citizen to reduce the impact of global warming.