The Amazon: A struggle to protect life over profit  

By John McEachern, Austin Newby, and Zach Carnegie

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Slash and burn deforestation in Brazil.

The Amazon rainforest is being deforested at the highest rate in the past 11 years (Elassar, 2019). This rapid and unprecedented loss of some of the most diverse plant and animal life on the planet is caused by many actors such as loggers, miners, and various types of agriculture. Some of this activity is even illegal, overlooked due to the corruption within the systems that govern this beautiful landscape or simply too widespread to be effectively controlled by smaller governments.

Massive and powerful companies call on the native people of this region in the form of cheap labor to clear away large, wildly diverse, swaths of trees to make room for the unsustainable harvesting of any resources they may find. The native people of the region have little choice in how they feed their families, or even just themselves. A growing native population and a severe lack of access to alternative employment opportunities drives these native communities to make a terrible choice. The native population is faced with the choice of either living off of the land and barely surviving or earning enough money to sustain themselves and their loved ones by destroying the place they call home.

So why should you care? Take a second to think about that, and while you’re thinking, you are breathing. This automatic process consumes oxygen and produces CO2. We all rely on oxygen to survive and the rainforests of the Amazon are excellent producers of it. While producing oxygen, the trees and plants also take in and store carbon in their tissue, roots and soil around them. This carbon sequestration is essential in the fight against climate change. These forests are considered the lungs of the world due to the vast amounts of oxygen produced and we should ensure their survival, for our own survival.

While humans around the world rely on the ecological processes of the Amazon, there are many rare and endangered wildlife species who call these forest home, totaling about 30% of the world’s species! (Butler, 2019). Many of these rely on large, undisturbed and intact forests.

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Lowland Tapir and its calf feeding on aquatic vegetation

Intact forests reduce pressure on animals by limiting human access. With less human presence, less hunting, trapping and harassment occurs. Intact forests are also healthier forests. They provide vast areas of connected wilderness with reduced edge effects. Edge effects can include drier soils due to exposure to the winds and sun as well as different tree and plant composition (for the same reasons). Both of these edge effects, and many more, disrupt the microclimate of dense forests and limit the habitable area for many species. It is important that we protect the habitat for these species not only for their own intrinsic value but for their contributions to humans. Indigenous tribes rely on many plants and animals for survival and traditional medicine. Even modern medicine can be improved by species that have yet to be discovered in the Amazon as over 25% of current modern medicine directly uses plant compounds (Loman, 2016). These are only a few of the many reasons we need to make every effort to protect the portions of the Amazon rainforest that are still intact.

Currently, the Amazon is not yet all clear cuts and mining pits. Vast areas of relatively pristine rainforest still remain, providing habitat for rare, unique and beautiful species and important ecosystem services for human beings locally and all of the world. The future of other areas, on the frontiers of this still intact jungle, are being decided right now. One such region whose future is still not quite visible through the trees is the Las Piedras River in the Department of Madre de Dios in Peru. This region, which contains some of the Amazon’s last intact rainforest, was opened up to a wave of settlement and resource exploitation with the construction of the interoceanic highway between 2006 and 2011. Since then, the Las Piedras has entered into a state of flux, with a number of government concessions being given out, along with permission to manage them for certain land uses.

At the river’s headwaters, reserves for native peoples living in voluntary isolation butt up against logging concessions, with workers on these concessions reporting frequent violations of the reserve’s overwise protected status to cut trees. Further downstream, concessions granted for the harvesting of Brazil nuts offer the potential for a sustainable alternative to more destructive uses of forest. Good harvests require intact forests, but as things currently stand, little money can be made from this industry and concession owners still must cut trees at times to make ends meet. Finally, there is the land owned by conservation groups, such as ArcAmazon. These groups envision a future for the region in which intact forests and the biodiversity they support are protected and local people make their livings off of ecotourism and sustainable use of the forest’s resources.

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Map of Arc Amazon Project Land in Peru.

Each of these land uses represents a glimpse at a possible future for the Las Piedras region and it is into this patchwork of possibilities that we will be entering when we visit in January. As we explore the region with our class, the forest protection group will try to learn about the driver’s deforestation in the region, how and why local people use the forest in a  sustainable or unsustainable way, and what can be done to protect these forests for generations to come. The story of the Las Piedras rainforests is happening right now, so stay tuned…

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