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Living World - Amazon Case Study

The Amazon is the largest tropical rainforest on Earth. It sits within the Amazon River basin, covers some 40% of the South American continent and as you can see on the map below includes parts of eight South American countries: Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, and Suriname. The actual word “Amazon” comes from river.

Map of the Amazon

Amazing Amazon facts;
• It is home to 1000 species of bird and 60,000 species of plants
• 10 million species of insects live in the Amazon
• It is home to 20 million people, who use the wood, cut down trees for farms and for cattle.
• It covers 2.1 million square miles of land
• The Amazon is home to almost 20% of species on Earth
• The UK and Ireland would fit into the Amazon 17 times!

The Amazon caught the public’s attention in the 1980s when a series of shocking news reports said that an area of rainforest the size of Belgium was being cut down and subsequently burnt every year. This deforestation has continued to the present day according to the Sao Paulo Space Research Centre. In 2005 they had lost 17% of Amazon rainforest or 650000 square kilometres. Their satellite data is also showing increased deforestation in parts of the Amazon.
The process of deforestation
The Amazon helps a Newly Emerging Economy(NEE), Brazil, to make money. They build roads into the forest, logging firms then go in and take out valuable hard woods such as mahogany and cedar, worth thousands of pounds in richer economies like Europe. Then farmers, often cattle ranchers from big companies, burn the rest to make way for cattle pasture. 75% of cleared areas are used in this way. This is clearly shown on the map on figure 22 in red. Many of the deforested areas follow roads and branch off from there.  Deforestation is also worse in the South and South East of the Amazon basin, closer to major centres of population in Brazil.

Deforestation in the Amazon

© WWF   Source Used with permission.

The causes of deforestation
1. Subsistence and commercial farming – subsistence farming is where poor farmers occupy plots of the forest to grow food to feed themselves and their families. They clear forest and then burn it, hence the name slash and burn.  They grow crops until the soil is exhausted and then move on.  This contributes to deforestation but not as much as commercial farming (Farming to sell produce for a profit to retailers or food processing companies). The Brazilian region of Mato Grosso was affected by deforestation in the 1980s and 1990s. 43% of rainforest losses were in this region, and area almost ½ the size of France. It has been replaced by fields for grain and cattle. This has allowed Brazil to overtake Australia as the largest exporter of beef in the world. The land is also flat and easy to farm. It also has high temperatures and lots of rainfall.

2. Logging – This involves cutting down trees for sale as timber or pulp.  The timber is used to build homes, furniture, etc. and the pulp is used to make paper and paper products.  Logging can be either selective or clear cutting. Selective logging is selective because loggers choose only wood that is highly valued, such as mahogany. Clear-cutting is not selective.  Loggers are interested in all types of wood and therefore cut all of the trees down, thus clearing the forest, hence the name- clear-cutting.

3. Road building – trees are also clear for roads.  Roads are an essential way for the Brazilian government to allow development of the Amazon rainforest.  However, unless they are paved many of the roads are unusable during the wettest periods of the year.  The Trans Amazonian Highway has already opened up large parts of the forest and now a new road is going to be paved, the BR163 is a road that runs 1700km from Cuiaba to Santarem. The government planned to tarmac it making it a superhighway. This would make the untouched forest along the route more accessible and under threat from development.

4. Mineral extraction – forests are also cleared to make way for huge mines. The Brazilian part of the Amazon has mines that extract iron, manganese, nickel, tin, bauxite, beryllium, copper, lead, tungsten, zinc and gold! 

Construction of the Belo Monte Dam

The Belo Monte dam site under construction, copyright 
Used with the kind permission of Phil Clarke-Hill  - His website is amazing, click here to see it.

5. Energy development – This has focussed mainly on using Hydro Electric Power, and there are 150 new dams planned for the Amazon alone.  The dams create electricity as water is passed through huge pipes within them, where it turns a turbine which helps to generate the electricity.  The power in the Amazon is often used for mining.  Dams displace many people and the reservoirs they create flood large area of land, which would previously have been forest.  They also alter the hydrological cycle and trap huge quantities of sediment behind them. The huge Belo Monte dam started operating in April 2016 and will generate over 11,000 Mw of power.  A new scheme the 8,000-megawatt São Luiz do Tapajós dam has been held up because of the concerns over the impacts on the local Munduruku people.

Chief Raoni in Paris with his petition against Belo Monte Dam.
Chief Raoni in Paris with his petition against Belo Monte Dam.

6. Settlement & population growth – populations are growing within the Amazon forest and along with them settlements.  Many people are migrating to the forest looking for work associated with the natural wealth of this environment. Settlements like Parauapebas, an iron ore mining town, have grown rapidly, destroying forest and replacing it with a swath of shanty towns. The population has grown from 154,000 in 2010 to 220,000 in 2012. The Brazilian Amazon’s population grew by a massive 23% between 2000 and 2010, 11% above the national average.

Impacts of deforestation – economic development, soil erosion, contribution to climate change.
• Every time forest is cleared species are lost – so we lose BIODIVERSITY
Climate Change - Burning the forest releases greenhouse gasses like CO2.  This contributes to the warming of our planet via climate change and global warming.  In addition, the loss of trees prevents CO2 being absorbed, making the problem worse. The Amazon also helps to drive the global atmospheric system. There is a lot of rainfall there and changes to the Amazon could disrupt the global system.
Economic development – Brazil has used the forests as a way to develop their country.  The forest has many natural riches that can be exploited.  In addition, Brazil has huge foreign debt and lots of poor people to feed, so they want to develop the forest. May Brazilians see deforestation as a way to help develop their country and improve people’s standard of living.
Soil erosion - the soils of the Amazon forest are not fertile and are quickly exhausted once the forest is cleared. The farmers now artificially fertilise the soil when in the past the nutrient cycle would have done this naturally.  In addition, the lack of forest cover means that soils are exposed to the rainfall.  This washes huge amounts of soil into rivers in the process of soil erosion.

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