Dear EarthTalk: It seems like the Amazon rainforest is not in the news nearly as much as it used to be. Have the environmental problems there been resolved?
—Justin Tucker, Oakland, CA
Just because the Amazon is not in the headlines today as much as when the media first covered its widespread destruction in the 1980s does not mean that environmental problems there have been solved. In fact, the non-profit Rainforest Action Network (RAN) estimates that more than 20 percent of the original rainforest is already gone and that, without stricter environmental laws and more sustainable development practices, as much as half of what remains could disappear within a few decades.
Researchers like Britaldo Soares-Filho of Brazil’s Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG) concur with such findings. Soares-Filho and his team of international researchers recently reported in the journal Nature that, without further protections more than 770,000 additional square miles of Amazon rainforest would be lost, and at least 100 native species would be profoundly threatened by the resulting loss in habitat.
One of the driving forces behind the destruction is the poverty in the region. Looking for ways to make ends meet, poor inhabitants clear tracts of rainforest for its timber value, often with government permission, and then further despoil the cleared land through destructive farming and ranching practices. And in some cases corporate conglomerates such as Mitsubishi, Georgia Pacific and Unocal are underwriting the conversion of Amazon rainforest into corporate-sponsored farms and ranches.
In an effort to provide solutions, Soares-Filho and his associates plotted different scenarios to show how policy changes could have dramatic effects across the vast Amazon River basin. “For the first time,” he told reporters, “we can examine how individual policies ranging from the paving of highways to the requirement for forest reserves on private properties” could determine the future of the Amazon.
With new checks in place, UFMG researchers believe that nearly 75 percent of the original forest could be saved by 2050. They also point out that, since trees absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide, industrialized countries like the U.S. should have a keen interest in forest protection so as to combat global warming.
Stemming the tide of destruction in the Amazon is a complicated task, but some concerned government officials, international policy makers and environmentalists are making strides. Groups like RAN and the like-minded Rainforest Alliance have mobilized thousands of activists around the world to put pressure on corporations and governments in the region (Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Brazil and Venezuela all have Amazonian regions) to clean up their acts. Only if they do will we preserve the rainforest for its own sake as well as for its important contribution to medicine and other applications.
Meanwhile, Brazil recently announced plans to expand protections of its portion of the Amazon, telling reporters in March that it would declare 84,000 square miles of the rainforest a protected area within the next three years. But whether leaders there have the clout to enforce such protections remains to be seen.