Threats to the Amazon

10th November 2011 - by Fr Sean McDonagh

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I recently spent a week in Iquitos on the Peruvian Amazon attending the Second Franciscan Seminar on the Amazon. The theme of this year´s seminar was “Defending the territory and the waters of the Amazon.” The day before the seminar began, I had the privilege of spending four hours with Jose Alvarez Alonso, who is a researcher at the Institute for Investigation (Research) into the Peruvian Amazon and is based in Iquitos.


Jose´s area of specialization is butterflies. It is estimated that there are 3,700 species of butterflies in the Peruvian Amazon alone. I spent more than four hours being captivated by exotic butterflies such as the blue morpho while Jose pointed out plants on which the different species of butterflies lay their eggs. Some of the butterflies are plant specific, meaning that they only lay eggs on one plant. Jose made the point which I have often heard before, which is if one of these plants became extinct, for any reason, then that species of butterfly would also become extinct.

After looking at the butterflies, Jose brought me through a forested area where his institute is growing medicinal plants. There is a wide range of cures locked up in these plants, from treating bronchitis, cancer, diabetes and many others. Jose and his colleagues at the Institute are hoping that if people can appreciate the real value of the Amazon in terms of its biodiversity and its medicinal plants and fruits, it could help people use it in a more sustainable way. If this way of living with the Amazon was widely promoted then destructive activities such as logging, cattle ranching and soya production would fade away.

As I watched Jose talk about the trees, plants and other creatures in the forest, I was touched by his extraordinary knowledge of and love for the forest. I was also touched by his willingness to share this knowledge and love with a stranger who had literally walked in off the road on the previous day and had said that I would like to visit some area of the rainforest in the vicinity of Iquitos. As we drove back to Iquitos he told me that their Centre does not receive any grants from the Peruvian government, but is dependent on donations from foundations, individuals and the sale of sustainable products from the forest. I could not help thinking that, if the Catholic Church, which claims to be pro-life could value and support the work of thousands of researchers like Jose, then we could really believe that the Church was serious about ecology, and especially biodiversity.

In the 30 years during which I have been writing on ecological and theological matters I have often written about the Amazon. So it was like a dream come true to invited to the Franciscan Seminar on the Amazon. The Amazon is an extraordinary place. The river basin alone has a surface area of around 6.2 million km2. While the Amazon is clearly identified with Brazil, the Amazon Basin includes part of eight countries. The major share is dived between Brazil which accounts for 67 percent of the Amazon, Peru for 12 percent, Bolivia 12 percent. Other countries in the Amazon Basin are Venezuela, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Suriname and Guyana. Pastoral workers from six of these countries attended the seminar.

Amazon River is the largest river in the world river in the world in terms of the volume of water which it discharges and it has more than 100 tributaries. The Amazon rises in the Peruvian Andes. From this point until it reaches the Atlantic Ocean in north east Brazil, it is 6,500 km long. The width of the main river oscillates from 1.5 km to 10 km in various places and at various times of the year. During the rainy season, the river can be 40 km wide. In places the Amazon can reach a depth of depth of 40 m. The water flow in the Amazon River represents 20% of the available freshwater in the world.

The Amazon Basin is one of the most biologically diverse places on planet earth. At the moment it is the largest intact rainforest on the planet. While many may think of the Amazon Basin as primarily a tropical forest, there are many different ecosystems from tropical, deciduous, flooded and Alpine forests to savannas. There is no accurate figure for the various species in the Amazon Basin. Figures from the Amazon region of Brazil estimate that there are 2,000 species of fish, 550 species of reptiles, more than 950 species of birds, 550 species of mammals and 57 species of primates. It is estimated that the Andean portion of the Amazon Basin is even richer in biodiversity. It is estimated to contain 50,000 species of vascular plants of which 40 percent is endemic. Bird species number 1,666 of which 41 percent are endemic and non-fish vertebrates number 3,389 species. Of these 1567 are endemic. There are more than 3,700 species of butterflies in Peru alone. Hundreds of thousands of rural families depend on food, fibres, fuel and medicinal plants which are harvested from the Amazon Basin. This means that what happens to the Amazon Basin is critical not just to people living in the area now, but to everyone living on the globe at present and to all future generations. There is also significant cultural diversity in the Amazon Basin. Approximately 349 different ethnic groups live in the forest with 300 different languages.

While the Amazon basin could be developed in a sustainable way, in recent decades it has been threatened on many fronts. Unfortunately, there is no accurate data on deforestation in the Amazon Basin but it is thought that an area at least the size of New Jersey is cut or degraded each year. The logging and subsequent activity is similar to what I experienced in the Philippines in the 1980s. Once the forest is cleared, the remaining trees are burned. The newly cleared lands are occupied by small farmers who come from other regions or older frontier regions. The access roads which logging companies have built provide a pathway for settlers to eke out a living from growing corn until the land is exhausted and converted to small-scale pastures. Fire has become much more serious in recent decades in the rainforest. Fires are relatively rare in intact rainforests. When an area is logged and much timber litter left on the ground, then fire can range over wide areas and do huge damage.

The pathway for destruction is as follows. Deforestation breaks up the rainforest into smaller fragments. These in turn begin to lead to a drying out at the edges of the forests. The more fragmentation there is, the more dry edges there are and therefore the forest becomes even more vulnerable to drought and fire. Drought and fire then further fragment the forest, increasing its vulnerability even further – in a vicious cycle that weakens the forest’s ability to withstand the impact of climate change. This scenario transforms the rainforest from being a significant carbon sink to becoming a source of carbon emissions and thereby speeding up climate change. The key then to increasing the strength of forests to withstand drought and other climate impacts, is to maintain and protect intact areas of forest. This means stopping deforestation, which makes the impacts of drought worse.

What is destroying the Amazon?

Cattle Ranches
It is generally agreed that the conversion of different kinds of forests to agriculture is the greatest threat to the continuation of biodiversity in the Amazon Basin. Often the small-scale shifting agriculture and small scale grazing is presented as the major threat. This is not true. The biggest threat is from ranching. In the Brazilian Amazon alone, cattle pastures occupy approximately 75 percent of the total area which is deforested. Much of this area now is pasture land which can be prone to erosion and loss of soil fertility, especially when cattle are allowed to overgraze the land. Ranchers opt for rearing cattle because it provides a steady stream of income, while costs involved in acquiring the land or paying labour are quite low. It is also true that there are many government policy initiatives in Brazil which favour environmentally destructive ranching practices. By 2004, Brazil had become the largest beef producer in the world. Furthermore, Brazil’s beef competitiveness is based on low production costs. Brazil is facing challenges from the international markets to improve the quality of its beef and the social and environmental practices on ranches. Policies which ensure traceability from the farm to the consumer are now common in other beef producing countries such as Ireland. By 2008, it was estimated that there was 200 million head of cattle in Brazil and slaughter houses in the Amazon region accounted for 40 percent of production.

Soya is also a significant threat to the Amazon. Brazil’s soya exports to China increased from one million tons to four million tons between 1999 and 2003. The soya is largely grown in the Cerrado savanagh (itself a threatened region) where it is displacing cattle ranches – which are expanding into the Amazon instead. China is one of the driving forces in increasing the amount of soya grown in Brazil. As recently as 1995, China was essentially self-sufficient in soybeans, producing and consuming roughly 13 million tons of soybeans a year. Then the dam broke as rising incomes enabled many of China’s 1.3 billion people to move up the food chain, consuming more meat, milk, eggs and farmed fish. By 2009 China was consuming 55 million tons of soybeans, of which 41 million tons were imported, accounting for 75% of its soaring consumption.  The worldwide growth in demand for meat, dairy products and poultry is driving the increase in soya production in Brazil with immediate impact on the Amazon. Eating habits in North America, Europe and now China are directly involved in destroying this extraordinary habitat. If we want the Amazon to survive, affluent people will have to eat less meat.
Unfortunately, other more sustainable agricultural regimes such as agroforestry have received very little support. This is reflected in the fact that in Brazil only 2 percent of the lands which have been cleared are devoted to agroforestry. There is a crying need for policies and incentives which aim to promote this more sustainable kind of agriculture, especially because it promotes biodiversity.

Mining is also a major threat to the integrity of the Amazon Basin, especially in Brazil, Peru and Bolivia. In 2009, in Peru, and saw how relatively small scale mining operations can wreak havoc on rivers. The use of mercury or cyanide has contaminated vast areas. Dumping sediment back into rivers has altered the nature and course of the rivers. During the 1980s, it is estimated that one million small-time miners were operating in the Brazilian Amazon alone. In Brazil, since 1980s more than 2,000 tons of this heavy metal has been dumped into the environment by ‘garimpeiros’ (artisanal gold miners).

Petroleum Exploration and Production
Petroleum exploration is a growing threat, especially in the western Amazon Basin. It contributes to deforestation, loss of habitat and soil and water contamination from spills and seepage. In Ecuadorian Amazon, indigenous cultures such as the Cofán and Huaorani are in danger of extinction because the oil road has opened the place for non-indigenous people. Petroleum exploration in the Peruvian Amazon, especially the Camisea project is experiencing intense scrutiny from international conservation non-government organisations.

Fr. Seán McDonagh is a Columban missionary who worked in the Philippines for two decades.