10 biggest dangers to the Amazon rainforest
As the Amazon rainforest enters its third month of extraordinary wildfires, the world is looking on with concern. Sometimes called the “lungs of the Earth,” the Amazon is a hotbed of biodiversity, containing 10% of the world’s known species. It is home to several million plants, animals, insects, and single-cell organisms, many of which we have yet to discover. It also stores a lot of carbon, which is important for slowing down climate change. The forest is 6 million square kilometers, with areas in Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana—but the majority is in Brazil, where it accounts for 40% of the country’s total landmass. The rainforest is home to roughly 400 indigenous tribes.
The rampant fires taking place in the Amazon threaten these things, from the plants and animals to the forest’s ability to keep carbon and, of course, the people who call the Amazon home. But while the wildfires are currently getting the most media coverage, several other activities and phenomena also threaten the Amazon. The fires result from a larger pattern of exploitation and degradation that has been taking place in the Amazon for years and which has ramped up since the election of Brazil’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, in January 2019.
Meanwhile, groups like the Rainforest Alliance are working to convince Brazilian government officials to reinstate rules that would protect the Amazon from damaging agricultural practices, illegal logging, and other dangers, while also supporting organizations with boots on the ground in Brazil in their efforts to protect this valuable resource.
Stacker referred to various recent news reports and studies to authoritatively determine 10 of the greatest threats to one of our most important and biodiverse pieces of the planet. Keep reading to see what—and who—is responsible for putting the Amazon most at risk.
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There are a record number of wildfires burning in the Amazon rainforest. Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) has reported 74,155 fires in the rainforest in 2019 to date. That is an 85% increase over the same period in 2018. These fires threaten biodiversity, as certain species cannot escape the fires. And as the Amazon burns, it releases carbon into the atmosphere, further accelerating climate change.
It’s impossible to talk about current threats to the Amazon rainforest without discussing Jair Bolsonaro. Inaugurated as Brazil’s president in January 2019, Bolsonaro is a climate change denier who supports opening up the Amazon to increased deforestation and mining. He recently fired the head of Brazil’s INPE for sharing deforestation data that Bolsonaro did not approve of and has threatened indigenous communities living in the Amazon.
Deforestation has accelerated in the Amazon since Bolsonaro took office, with the rate reaching nearly 4,000 square kilometers in July, according to the INPE. The INPE further found that deforestation in June 2019 was 88% higher than in June 2018. Bolsonaro supports the industries, such as logging and agriculture, which are cutting down or burning the rainforest’s trees. Under the Paris Climate Accord (which the country is still signed on to), Brazil has committed to reforesting 12 million hectares by 2030.
One of the main drivers of deforestation is agriculture. For example, swaths of the Amazon are being razed to make room for cattle grazing. Brazil provides nearly 20% of the world’s beef, and all the cows need pasture—not a forest. Roughly 450,000 square kilometers of deforested Amazon in Brazil are currently pasture for cattle. To make that kind of space, agribusiness burns large swaths of land to clear it. Soy is also a culprit: Brazil has devoted nearly 25 million hectares to soy production and is the world’s second-largest producer of the crop. The fires have sparked international conversations about how meat consumption is partially responsible for agribusiness slashing and burning the forest.
Another business venture tearing through the rainforest is illegally mining for gold. Gold isn’t just for jewelry; it’s used in iPhones, speakers, laptops and many more everyday technological items—and a lot of it comes from the Amazon. Since the 1980s, over 101,000 hectares of rainforest in the Madre de Dios region of Peru has been razed or poisoned because of gold mining, and nearly 170,000 hectares in rainforests throughout all of South America. Mercury is used for much of this gold mining, and the toxic metal then seeps into the water and soil.
Over 75% of Brazil’s electricity comes from hydropower, and the country is the second-largest hydroelectric producer in the world. While advocates of hydroelectric dam projects in Brazil say that they are essential for the country’s development, many of them are built on the Amazon River, with major impacts. A 2018 study found that these dams can adversely affect fish reproduction, nutrient distribution in soil, and can cause flooding in some areas.
Small-scale fishing has historically been an important food source for many communities living along the Amazon River. But as small fishing operations have morphed into larger ones, overfishing has been endangering populations of species. Researchers found that Amazon river dolphins are being hunted for food and for use as bait. Another study has shown that the Arapaima has been fished nearly to extinction.
While the legal wildlife trade in the Amazon is a $128 million industry, illegal trafficking also occurs which, while harder to quantify monetarily, has a large impact on the local ecosystem. Some trafficked items include plants like orchids, animal skins, and the eggs of exotic birds, such as the hyacinth macaw. Along with habitat loss, egg poaching is threatening the hyacinth macaw’s numbers, which are estimated today at around 4,300 individuals.
The construction of roads and highways in the Amazon allows for previously hard-to-reach places to become deforested. According to Peru’s Environmental Investigation Agency, 95% of deforestation happens less than four miles from a road. Brazil’s Trans-Amazonian highway, built in 1972, has allowed loggers, miners, and colonizers to destroy large areas of forest. A new road in the Peruvian Amazon, approved in 2017, could cause the deforestation of 680,000 acres, according to satellite mapping by Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project.
Violence against indigenous communities
Bolsonaro’s administration has been openly hostile to the Amazon’s many indigenous communities, which has prompted violence against indigenous people. Emyra Wajãpi, an indigenous leader, was murdered by miners in northern Brazil and more recently, a Brazilian government official who advocated for indigenous protections, Maxciel Pereira dos Santos, was murdered. In addition, their protected communities in the Amazon are being encroached upon as miners and farmers go further into the forest and they are currently experiencing disastrous impacts from the Amazon’s many wildfires. Besides the loss of land and outright violence, more isolated indigenous communities could be in danger of epidemics if exposed to diseases to which they have no immunity.
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