Welcome to Julia’s Amazon Journal! I’m Julia, an artist and a scientist. Recently, I’ve been researching the Amazon Rainforest and the challenges it’s currently facing due to climate change, deforestation, and other harmful activities like gold mining. Before getting involved with Amazon Aid Foundation, I had no idea how serious the situation in the Amazon really is. Nearly 20% of the Amazon Rainforest has been lost to deforestation, and estimates indicate that going above the 20% mark could cause irreversible damage. This is a huge problem, and not just for people who live in or near the Amazon. As the largest tropical rainforest in the world, the Amazon is a very important player in global climate conditions. The trees in this vibrant rainforest take up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and use it for growth. Considering the amount of carbon dioxide we produce from the burning of fossil fuels, this is a crucial service.
It’s easy to think about these issues as abstract and distant. For most of us, the Amazon is far away, and rainforest loss isn’t something we encounter on a day-to-day basis. As I learn about the problems, and about the incredible place that is the Amazon Rainforest, I hope to make these tangible so that we can start to understand and appreciate this amazing piece of our earth.
I’ll begin by considering a single tree.
Nearly every day, I take a walk in a wooded area behind my house. There are trails that local people in the neighborhood use to walk their dogs, to go bird-watching, or simply to enjoy being surrounded by the forest. On the fringes of this haven, rapid development is taking place. The land is being cleared of vibrant life: trees, grasses flowers, and the habitat for all sorts of animals and insects. New neighborhoods- rows and rows of nearly identical houses and carefully spaced saplings- are constantly being planned and built. Some days I take a walk and notice that a big tree that used to shade the path has been cut down, leaving a giant gap in the tree cover and a scar of raw earth. I’ll notice the stump on the ground, and piles of sawdust lining the path. On another day, I might pass by a former meadow, once buzzing with insects and full of wildflowers, and see a great expanse of dirt and bulldozer trails. This destruction pains me. It’s in my own backyard, and this immediacy forces me to confront it regularly on my walks.
It’s also miniscule compared to the ravaging of the land that is happening in the Amazon Rainforest. Great swaths of land are being cleared without a moment’s hesitation for gold mining, cattle ranching, timber harvest, and all sorts of other profitable activities. As I look at the numbers available, I find that they are startlingly large. In 2013, 5,891 square kilometers of rainforest were lost to all causes, according to the National Institute of Space Research.[i] Between 1999 and 2012, 50,000 hectares of rainforest were cleared for mining in the Madre de Dios region of Peru, one of the areas with the most biodiversity on Earth.[ii] These numbers are so huge, however, that they are difficult to comprehend. I can’t really picture thousands of hectares or square kilometers. I keep digging to see if there’s something that’s a bit more tangible out there, so I can really feel it the way it pains me to see a tree fall where I live.
Photographs of the destruction, like this one by Ron Haviv, are incredibly eye-opening. Viewers can place themselves in images like this- I imagine sitting on one of the tree trunks with those boys, and the despair I would feel towards the gutted earth. It starts to feel more personal, the way it does when I see another tree uprooted on my walks in Virginia.
As I continue to research, I discover that some of the best data comes from satellites. I find a platform called Global Forest Watch (http://www.globalforestwatch.org/), which compiles satellite data from many sources and provides interactive maps with many layers of information. You can see on the map the areas of forest that have been lost, and play through the changes over several years—for any place on Earth. I zoom in to my home town and see the tiny pink dots symbolizing forest loss multiply over the years. At the same resolution on a spot in the Amazon, huge chunks of pink spread over the area on the map as I play through the years. This helps me feel like I have a better sense of the scale of the destruction that’s happening in the Amazon Rainforest. For every single tree that is cut down near my home, many multitudes are felled in the Amazon.
This is a difficult subject to deal with. Often, it feels like we are too far away from the problem. It’s easier to let someone else take care of it. However, as citizens of this earth, the loss of forest in the Amazon is everyone’s problem. One of the most important steps you can take is to educate yourself about the issues.
[i] Butler, Rhett A. “Calculating Deforestation Figures for the Amazon.” Mongabay.com. San Francisco. June 2015. http://rainforests.mongabay.com/amazon/deforestation_calculations.html
[ii] Asner et al. “Elevated rates of gold mining in the Amazon revealed through high-resolution monitoring.” PNAS 46 (110): 2013. http://www.pnas.org/content/110/46/18454.full.pdf