20 products you might not know are from the Amazon rainforest
Rainforests exist on every continent except Antarctica, but none is bigger, more diverse, more significant, and more threatened than the Amazon rainforest. Around 60% of the rainforest is located in Brazil, with most of the rest spread between Peru and Colombia, and much smaller sections distributed among six other South American countries. The largest tropical jungle on Earth, the Amazon accounts for more than half of all the remaining rainforest habitats left on the planet.
Scientists first coined the term “biodiversity” there—and for good reason. About 10% of all known plant and animal species live in the Amazon, but only one of those species can be blamed for the predicament currently facing the most biodiverse region on Earth. About 24 million people live in the Amazon, including hundreds of thousands of indigenous people. Until the 1960s, centuries after the European conquest of South America, most of the Amazon’s interior was inaccessible and cut off to human activity. Over the past 40 years, however, nearly 20% of the Amazon has disappeared because of logging, agriculture, ranching, and mining.
Right now, fire is the Amazon’s most visible enemy—literally. The 9,500 new fires that have started there since Aug. 15 alone can be seen from space. So far in 2019, over 2.5 million acres of Amazon rainforest land has burned, an increase of 45% over the prior year. While summer has been the naturally occurring fire season for millennia, there is nothing natural about the fires destroying the Amazon today. A direct result of land-clearing tactics long used by farmers and cattle ranchers, the 2019 fires have been aggravated by the response—or lack thereof—of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. A retired military official and longtime opponent of environmental conservationists, Bolsonaro is a vocal global warming denier who has dedicated his tenure in office to opening the Amazon to logging, ranching, mining, and agriculture interests.
Beyond the extraordinary diversity of life, the Amazon sources the raw materials for all kinds of products that people use in their daily lives in the world beyond the jungle. Stacker used a variety of sources to compile a list of common products largely sourced from the Amazon rainforest—or from former rainforest land that was cleared for commercial use.
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The fires currently devouring the Amazon started with a hasty rush to plant a massive cash crop in the form of a tiny bean that’s native to the Far East on the other side of the world. Soybean farming has long been a blight on the Amazon, with farmers destroying massive swaths of pristine jungle—often with fire—to make room for soybeans, which are used in everything from alternative milk and cooking oil to tofu and soy sauce. The vast majority of soybeans, however, don’t end up on dinner plates in vegan and vegetarian restaurants.
Agricultural deforestation causes most of the Amazon’s destruction, mainly from clear-cutting and burning for cattle ranching and soybean farming, two industries that are directly linked—about 80% of the world’s soybean crop goes into livestock feed. Brazil exports more beef than any country in the world and only three countries produce more beef than China. The current tariff-driven trade war compelled China to cut its U.S. soybean imports in half and instead place massive new soybean orders with Brazil, sparking a frenzied land grab by soy farmers who start hundreds of new fires every day to cash in on the boom.
Decades of cattle ranching have left the Amazon rainforest with a treeless dead zone the size of Spain, but some of those used up former grazing pastures are being reclaimed by the main ingredient in chocolate. Cocoa, which indigenous people were already stirring into drinks when the first Europeans arrived in the 1500s, is a far less-destructive crop because it enjoys shade and therefore doesn’t require clear-cutting. New re-foresting laws combined with a strong effort from conservationists have led to a massive cocoa-planting initiative that is poised to make the popular bean one of the Amazon’s most important exports.
Of the world’s 35,000 orchid species, vanilla comes from the only one that grows an edible fruit. The vining plant is native to Mexico, but Madagascar has been the vanilla capital of the world since a 12-year-old slave discovered how to hand-pollinate the flower on a Madagascar plantation in 1841. The vast majority of common “vanilla” products contain either no or almost no actual vanilla and instead use synthetic flavoring. The real stuff, however, comes not only from Madagascar—it grows and is cultivated in rainforest habitats like those in parts of Mexico, Costa Rica, and the Amazon.
When Charles Goodyear accidentally discovered the process of vulcanization by combining sulfur with heated rubber in 1839, an obscure milky substance called latex became one of the most valuable products on Earth. The new demand was met with a brutal system of colonial forced labor that enslaved and killed millions of indigenous people and decimated huge swaths of rainforest, most notably in the African Congo and the Brazilian Amazon. Although synthetics largely replaced natural rubber in the post-colonial period, tapping rubber trees is now an important vocation for local people—many of whom are descended from rubber slaves—living in the Amazon.
Aerial photos of the Peruvian Amazon reveal tens of thousands of acres of dead, poisoned wastelands where lush rainforests once stood. The earliest European explorers entered the Amazon chasing rumors of gold, and today, thousands of illicit mines prop up Peru’s multibillion-dollar illegal gold-mining industry. Besides clear-cutting and deforestation, mining uses toxic chemicals like liquid mercury that contaminate local rivers and streams, making the effects of mining-based destruction especially hard to reverse.
With a little poking around on sites like eBay, it’s still possible to track down golf balls made with balata covers, but no known manufacturers still produce them today. From the turn of the 20th century until the 1990s, however, the best golfers in the world prized balata golf balls for their soft, but durable casings, which allowed golfers to put much greater spin on their shots. Those covers were produced from a rubber-like sap tapped from balata trees, which are native to the Amazon.
Achiote is a spice that’s common in many Mexican and Caribbean dishes, but in the United States, achiote is used mostly as a dye in food coloring. Made from the seeds of the evergreen Bixa orellana shrub, achiote-based food coloring is used to add a yellow hue to such foodstuffs as margarine, butter, smoked fish, chorizo, and cheese.
Indigenous people knew for thousands of years that the Amazon was bursting with both deadly poisons and healing medicines, and the modern pharmaceutical industry has tapped into the rainforest’s medicinal offerings. Common treatments for Hodgkin’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and lymphocytic leukemia are derived from Amazon-based plants, as are active ingredients in anti-tumor medications and birth-control pills.
One of the most pristine sections of the Amazon is located in a remote section of Brazil that’s home to a tribe that wasn’t even discovered until 1969, but like the rubber slaves from colonial times, the tribe found itself in the unfortunate position of living on land that contained something valuable. In 2015, a massive untapped diamond reserve was discovered in the tribe’s jungle reserve, and within just one year, the region experienced a deforestation rate 256% higher than the law allows. Today, the tribe’s ancestral home is the #7 most deforested indigenous area out of 419 that exist in the Brazilian Amazon.2018 All rights reserved.