About one-fifth, or 20 percent, of the Amazon rainforest has disappeared in the past 50 years.

Forest has been lost due to farming, building cities, and logging. The loss of forest harms the millions of different plants and animals that live in the Amazon River region. It also affects humans around the world.

Some of the world's best scientists are trying to save the rain forest. National Geographic explorer Dr. Thomas Lovejoy is one of those scientists. We talked to him about the Amazon and why it matters.

NG: You have worked in the Amazon for more than 50 years. How have you seen the region change?

TL: In the 1960s, there was only one highway in the entire Amazon region. That's an area as large as the continental United States, with one highway and 3 million people. Today, there are between 30 million and 40 million people and countless roads. About 20 percent of the forest has disappeared, too.

There has been progress, though. Today, there are many more national parks in the Amazon. More than 50 percent of the Amazon is protected in some way. The real challenge is how to plan and manage the Amazon.

When we talk about protection of the Amazon, it's hard for many people because they don't feel connected to the region. How can we change that?

It's true that we are far away. But our daily lives are very connected to the Amazon.

For example, a snake called the bushmaster lives in the Amazon. This snake kills its prey with a poison that causes the prey's heart to stop. Scientists studied this snake to develop medicine for our hearts. Today, millions of people use these medicines to treat high blood pressure. They now have longer and more productive lives. People have a nasty snake far away in the Amazon to thank for it.

Climate change affects everyone on the planet. It is happening in part because of the extra carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Tropical forests trap a lot of carbon dioxide. The Amazon holds about half of the world's rainforests. Losing the Amazon would release that carbon dioxide and increase climate change.

The Amazon basically makes half of its own rainfall. Some of the rain from the Amazon travels south, which is really important for agriculture in Brazil and Argentina. Brazil is currently in a drought that might be the worst in its history. It is happening partly because the region is getting less rainfall from the Amazon.

What is your vision for the future of the Amazon?

There has been a lot of damage done and forest lost, but nothing is gone until it's gone.

We hope for the Amazon to return to be about 90 percent of what it was originally. We want it to be managed together by the nine Amazon nations: Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Guyana, Suriname, as well as French Guiana. We want to see the people in charge of transportation, energy, agriculture, and the other businesses in the region plan together. We think Amazon cities can have higher quality of life, too. That would keep people in cities, so there is less reason to cut down trees.

 

Ask an Amazon Expert: Why We Can't Afford To Lose the Rainforest
Thomas Lovejoy has been researching biodiversity in the Amazon for more than 20 years.
accomplish
Verb

to succeed or complete a goal.

ACE inhibitor
Noun

(angiotensin-converting-enzyme inhibitor) drug used to combat high blood pressure and heart failure primarily by relaxing blood vessels and decreasing blood volume.

Noun

the art and science of cultivating land for growing crops (farming) or raising livestock (ranching).

Amazon River region
Noun

tributaries and drainage basin of the Amazon River.

angiotensin
Noun

hormone that regulates the constriction (narrowing) of blood vessels.

Noun

layers of gases surrounding a planet or other celestial body.

Noun

a dip or depression in the surface of the land or ocean floor.

Noun

all the different kinds of living organisms within a given area.

blood pressure
Noun

pressure exerted by blood on the walls of arteries.

Noun

series of processes in which carbon (C) atoms circulate through Earth's land, ocean, atmosphere, and interior.

carbon sink
Noun

area or ecosystem that absorbs more carbon dioxide than it releases.

catastrophic
Adjective

very bad.

Noun

gradual changes in all the interconnected weather elements on our planet.

concept
Noun

idea.

Noun

management of a natural resource to prevent exploitation, destruction, or neglect.

continental United States
Noun

U.S. land continuously stretching from the Atlantic to Pacific oceans (not including the states of Alaska and Hawaii.)

convention
Noun

agreement or treaty on a specific matter.

Convention on Biological Diversity
Noun

international treaty to sustain and protect the diversity of life on Earth.

Noun

destruction or removal of forests and their undergrowth.

desertification
Noun

rapid depletion of plant life and topsoil, often associated with drought and human activity.

disperse
Verb

to scatter or spread out widely.

Noun

period of greatly reduced precipitation.

Earth Summit
Noun

(1992) informal name for the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Also called the Rio Summit.

Noun

capacity to do work.

environment
Noun

conditions that surround and influence an organism or community.

evaporate
Verb

to change from a liquid to a gas or vapor.

extent
Noun

degree or space to which a thing extends.

Noun

process of complete disappearance of a species from Earth.

extraordinary
Adjective

unusual or uncommon.

familiar
Adjective

well-known.

highway
Noun

large public road.

illegal
Adjective

forbidden by law.

indigenous reserve
Noun

area of land set aside by the government for exclusive use by an indigenous community.

initial
Adjective

first.

integrate
Verb

to combine, unite, or bring together.

logging
Noun

industry engaged in cutting down trees and moving the wood to sawmills.

Noun

means of mass communication, such as television or the Internet. Singular: medium.

medicine
Noun

substance used for treating illness or disease.

national park
Noun

geographic area protected by the national government of a country.

pharmaceutical
Noun

drug or having to do with drugs and medications.

prey
Noun

animal that is hunted and eaten by other animals.

public
Noun

people of a community.

Noun

area of tall, mostly evergreen trees and a high amount of rainfall.

reserve
Adjective

not habitually used, but quickly available.

river system
Noun

tributaries, mouth, source, delta, and flood plain of a river.

tangible
Adjective

able to be touched or felt.

transportation
Noun

movement of people or goods from one place to another.

Noun

process in which there is an increase in the number of people living and working in a city or metropolitan area.

venom
Noun

poison fluid made in the bodies of some organisms and secreted for hunting or protection.

viper
Noun

snake with fixed fangs that secrete venom.

wildlife trafficking
Noun
poaching or other taking of protected or managed species and the illegal trade in wildlife and their related parts and products.

Funder

Educational resources for this project funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the BIO Program at the Inter-American Development Bank.