According to Dr Toby Gardner, a conservation scientist at the University of Cambridge, the Amazon stands at a crossroads. “We need to understand how everything is connected,” he says. “In an ideal world, the forest would be celebrated not only through protected parks but through incentives such as compensation and market premiums for farmers, with the foresters and farmers acting as proud stewards of one of the earth’s greatest natural resources.”
People are a major factor. “People who live in the Amazon are among the poorest in Latin America,” says Damian Fleming, head of programmes, Brazil and Amazon, at WWF-UK. “They need support and incentives to do the right thing. But long-term, sustained government support is crucial, otherwise you just get a collection of well-meaning projects.”
And there’s an element of realism that needs to be acknowledged. No one cuts down the rainforests for fun, says Dr John Hemming, anthropologist and author, but deforestation is driven by demand for beef, soya and timber, and exports are bound to continue. “We can’t keep every last bit of rainforest intact but I’d like to see some serious respect for the indigenous and environmental reserves which exist now. Brazil and other countries have done very well in creating these.”
That’s something which Dr Jos Barlow, an ecologist at Lancaster University, agrees with. “In some areas, charities and local government have collaborated to clarify the law and stop deforestation,” he says. “Our next challenge is to expand this throughout the entire Amazon and defend protected areas.”
The twin threats of cattle farming, one of the greatest causes of deforestation, and badly planned or illegal dams risk upsetting the Amazon’s ecosystem and its related services. “It’s a delicate balance,” says Cláudio Maretti, Living Amazon Initiative leader, WWF. “We need to consider biodiversity when planning energy policy, and we need a longer-term view from the nine countries of the Amazon, with a united approach to sustainable development.”
“I’d see climate and water funds and pollution management systems in place,” concludes Dr Gardner, “with payments from national and international beneficiaries of the services the Amazon provides now for free. I hope the Amazon will retain the greatest expanse of rainforest on the planet and be supported by innovative organisations that can unite people, governments and the private sector.”
Amazon fact finder: share these stats with students
The Amazon biome – or ecosystem – covers 6.7m sq km (around 28 times the size of the UK) and is shared by eight countries: Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana and Suriname, as well as the overseas territory of French Guiana.
It consists mostly of dense moist tropical forest, but also includes savannas, floodplain forests, grasslands, swamps, bamboos and palm forests.
Temperatures usually average 27.9°C in the dry season and 25.8°C in the rainy season. Not only does the Amazon encompass the single largest remaining tropical rainforest in the world, but one in 10 of the known species on Earth lives there.
The Amazon is home to more than 30 million people, about 9% (2.7 million) of who are indigenous people (including 350 different ethnic groups).
It is one of the most biodiverse places on Earth. In the 10 years from 1999 to 2009, more than 1,200 species of plants and vertebrates were identified for the first time, including 637 plants, 257 fish, 216 amphibians, 55 reptiles, 16 birds and 39 mammals. Discoveries ranged from a coin-sized pink ringed frog to a four-metre-long anaconda.
The Amazon river flows for more than 6,600km, contains the largest number of freshwater fish species in the world and accounts for around 15% of the world’s total river discharge into the oceans.
During the last 50 years, humankind has caused the destruction of at least 17% of the Amazon rainforest, an area twice the size of Spain.
Every year, the Amazon rainforest receives torrential rainfall, between 1,500mm and 3,000mm, either blown from the Atlantic Ocean or from evapotranspiration – the loss of water from the soil by evaporation and through transpiration from plants.
The Amazon contains 90-140 billion metric tonnes of carbon, the release of which, if not controlled, could accelerate global warming significantly (currently land conversion and deforestation in the Amazon release up to 0.5 billion metric tonnes of carbon per year). It is therefore an important factor in regulating global climate.
How can I help?
Register your schools for I Love Amazon Schools and use the free primary school resources to explore the rainforest across the curriculum, suitable for five- to 11-year-olds.
Recycle your phones, gadgets and computers and don’t renew them so often – they contain metals and minerals mined at the cost of deforestation.
Ask your school to use only paper and wood furniture from legal and well-managed forests – look for the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) label.
Save energy. Walk or cycle rather than drive, turn off lights, don’t leave devices on standby, don’t overheat rooms – greenhouse gases are one of the greatest threats to the Amazon.
Cut waste. Bring packed lunches in reusable containers and ask to recycle plastics, tins and paper at school and home. Teachers could print handouts on both sides and pupils could share teaching resources.
Eat well and eat less meat. Ask your school to use local food or look for Fairtrade or Rainforest Alliance symbols. Choose products with “sustainable palm oil” to avoid palm oil from land that was once rainforest.