Why Should You Care?
The Amazon is the world’s largest rainforest and a treasure unlike any other. Teeming with life, it is home to more creatures than any other terrestrial ecosystem on earth.
If you love animals and plants, caring about the Amazon rainforest is a no-brainer. But did you know that the Amazon rainforest also keeps our entire planet healthy, even you and me?
Here are five big reasons why the Amazon matters to everybody:
With at least 10% of the world’s known biodiversity, there are more plants and animals in the Amazon than any other terrestrial ecosystem1.
As many as 16,000 tree species grow in the Amazon, with over 390 billion individual trees 2. That’s more trees than there are stars in the milky way galaxy! Amazon rivers contain more fish species than any other river system 3 and the forests host up to 30% of the world’s insect species 4.
Did you know that any one of these amazing creatures has the potential to save a human life? Every species is an answer to a unique set of biological problems, problems that people might need the answer to one day. Consider the Fer de Lance, a tropical viper found in the Amazon whose venom has helped hundreds of millions of people with high blood pressure stay healthy 3.
- The Hercules beetle, found in the Amazon, is the strongest creature on earth, capable of carrying 850 times its own body weight.
- In a 60 acre plot in the Amazon scientists found 1,104 different species of trees, just under what is found in Asia, Europe, and North America combined.
- Peru’s Manu national park contains at least 1,307 species of butterfly, twice the number found in the United States.
- There are believed to be 15,000 jaguars alive in the wild today.
- Over 120 prescription drugs worldwide today are derived directly from rainforest plants.
Water and the Hydrological Cycle
The Amazon River is the second longest on earth, moves the largest volume of water, and carries 20% of the earth’s freshwater to sea 5. Flowing through Peru, Colombia, and Brazil, it is over 4,000 miles long, covers 2,720,000 square miles and includes over 1,100 tributaries.
While the Amazon river is born in the Andes and flows east, a second, equally magnificent river flows above it in the opposite direction. This is the so-called “River in the Sky,” a huge current of moisture in the atmosphere that moves from the Atlantic to the Andes. This sky river nourishes the forest with rain and then the water evaporates off plants through evapotranspiration, replenishing the clouds with moisture.
This incredible cycle means that the Amazon generates at least half of its own rainfall 6 and regulates rainfall in agricultural breadbaskets halfway across the world, including Britain and the American Midwest 7.
- The length of the Amazon River is equivalent to the distance between New York City to Rome.
- The Amazon River flows from west to east and begins in the high Andes, at an elevation of 5,598 m.
- The Amazon river delivers approximately 55 million gallons of water onto the Atlantic Ocean every second.
- The brown waters of the Amazon River can be seen as far as 100 km out to sea from the mainland, well before the continent is in sight.
- Anacondas live in the shallow waters of the Amazon. They are one of the biggest snakes in the world and occasionally attack animals larger than themselves.
People Live There
Did you know that the Amazon basin is also a hotspot of cultural diversity? The Brazilian Amazon alone is home to about 195 native languages 8. In total, around 30 million people from nine different countries live in the Amazon, including Amerindians, Afro-descendants, Europeans and everything in between.
Indigenous groups play an especially crucial role in managing the Amazon. With about 400 different tribes, indigenous reserves occupy over 15% of the Amazon basin 9. Drawing on millennia of experience, indigenous cultures are libraries of knowledge about forest ecology and stewardship.
- Of the indigenous groups that were known to exist in 1900, one-third of these groups are now extinct.
- There are 195 known languages spoken within the Amazon Basin.
- Of the 160 societies that live within the Amazon rainforest, nearly 50% have no contact with the outside world.
- The Amazon is the home to uncontacted Indians that have no metal.
- The number of indigenous people within Brazil was estimated to be over 6 million in the 15th century. Today there are roughly 310,000. Brazil is home to more uncontacted peoples than anywhere on the planet.
As the world’s largest rainforest, the Amazon is one of the best natural buffers to climate change. The 390 billion trees and countless plants growing in the Amazon basin hold vast stores of carbon in their roots, trunks and leaves. Amazon forests contain 90-140 billion tons of carbon, roughly equal to a century of human carbon emissions 10.
Tragically, we might be unwittingly destroying one of our best defenses against climate change. Drought, rising temperatures, and deforestation are mitigating the Amazon’s capacity to absorb carbon dioxide and increasing its net carbon emissions 11. This has to change!
- The Amazon rainforest serves as one of Earth’s largest reservoirs of carbon dioxide, helping regulate global climate patterns through the sequestration and storage of carbon dioxide in above-ground bio mass and soil.
- Human-induced climate change, if left unchecked, may soon cause the Amazon to emit more carbon into the atmosphere than it absorbs.
- As global temperatures rise, the Amazon could become caught in a potentially calamitous feedback loop. Warmer oceanic waters could continue to dry out the basin, which in turn will release more carbon into the atmosphere. Warmer temperatures and a dryer forest will also increase forest fires, emitting more carbon and driving the process.
New infectious diseases like Covid-19 have quadrupled in the last fifty years 12. The culprits? Deforestation and wildlife trade in rainforests, among others. When we encroach into natural habitats, we come into contact with pathogens from wild animals. As a biodiverse region with increasing deforestation, the Amazon could become the world’s next disease hotspot.
But keeping the Amazon rainforest standing not only prevents the spread of pathogens, it also provides modern medicine with cures for disease. About one quarter of all modern drugs directly use plant compounds 13. The Amazon rainforest contains over 10% of the world’s plant diversity, making it a global medicine cabinet 14.
- Deforestation and other land-use changes are responsible for up to 31% of emerging diseases 15
- One study found that increasing deforestation in the Amazon by 10% increased malaria cases by 3%, causing tens of thousands of cases 16.
- Indigenous people on the upper Negro River in the Brazilian Amazon utilize fifty-five different plant species for malaria alone 17.
- H Ter Steege, NCA Pitman, D Sabatier, C Baraloto, RP Salomão, et al. “Hyperdominance in the Amazonian tree flora.” Science 342 (6156), 1243092
- World Wide Fund for Nature. “Inside the Amazon.” wwf.panda.org/knowledge_hub/where_we_work/amazon/about_the_amazon/. Accessed : 06/15/2020
- The World Bank (2019, May 22). “Why the Amazon’s Biodiversity is Critical for the Globe: An Interview with Thomas Lovejoy.” https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/feature/2019/05/22/why-the-amazons-biodiversity-is-critical-for-the-globe. Accessed : 06/15/2020
- Perry, J.; Lojka, B.; Quinones Ruiz, L.G.; Van Damme, P.; Houška, J.; Fernandez Cusimamani, E. How natural Forest Conversion Affects Insect Biodiversity in the Peruvian Amazon: Can Agroforestry Help? Forests 2016, 7, 82.
- Smith, Nigel J.H(2002). Amazon Sweet Sea: Land, Life, and Water at the River’s Mouth(s.I.): University of Texas Press.pp1-2
- E. Salati, A. Dall ‘Ollio, E. Matsui, J. R. Gat, Recycling of Water in the Amazon, Brazil: an isotopic study. Water Resour. Res. 15, 1250–1258 (1979).
- Fred Pearce (July 24, 2018). Rivers in the Sky: How Deforestation Is Affecting Global Water Cycles. https://e360.yale.edu/features/how-deforestation-affecting-global-water-cycles-climate-change.
- Carneiro da Cunha C, de Almeida WB (2000) Indigenous People, Traditional People, and Conservation in the Amazon. Daedalus, 129 (2), 315-338.
- James MacDonald (December 3, 2018). Indigenous Reserves and the Future of the Amazon. https://daily.jstor.org/indigenous-reserves-and-the-future-of-the-amazon/
- Yale School of Forestry. “Climate Change and Tropical Forests.” https://globalforestatlas.yale.edu/climate-change/climate-change-and-tropical-forests. Accessed : 06/16/2020
- Hubau, W., Lewis, S.L., Phillips, O.L. et al. Asynchronous carbon sink saturation in African and Amazonian tropical forests. Nature 579, 80–87 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-020-2035-0
- Robbins, J. (2012, July 14). The Ecology of Disease. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/15/sunday-review/the-ecology-of-disease.html
- Bodeker, Gerard, ed. “Medicinal plants for forest conservation and health care.” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 1997. http://www.fao.org/3/a-w7261e.pdf
- CHRISTENHUSZ, M., & BYNG, J. (2016).The number of known plants species in the world and its annual increase. Phytotaxa, 261(3), 201–217. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.11646/phytotaxa.261.3.1
- Robert Kessler (EcoHealth Alliance). Outbreak: Modern Parallels.
- Andrew J. MacDonald, Erin A. Mordecai. (2019). Amazon deforestation drives malaria transmission, and malaria burden reduces forest clearing. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Oct 2019, 116 (44) 22212-22218; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1905315116
- Frausin G, Hidalgo Ade F, Lima RB, et al. An ethnobotanical study of anti-malarial plants among indigenous people on the upper Negro River in the Brazilian Amazon. J Ethnopharmacol. 2015;174:238‐252. doi:10.1016/j.jep.2015.07.033