• Ask an Amazon Expert: Why We Can't Afford to Lose the Rain Forest
    Thomas Lovejoy has been researching biodiversity in the Amazon for more than 20 years.
    Carbon Contributor?
    While the Amazon is currently a carbon sink—meaning it stores carbon dioxide that would otherwise contribute to climate change—that might be changing. The World Wildlife Fund states that forest loss and reduced rainfall may turn the Amazon into a net source rather than capturer of carbon emissions. 
    The Birthplace of Biodiversity
    There’s a reason scientists working in the Amazon had to come up with a term to describe the incredible wealth of plant and animal species present in the Amazon basin. The region is home to one in ten species known on Earth. 
    It’s estimated that 20% of the Amazon rain forest has disappeared during the past 50 years. 
     
    Deforestation due to agriculture, urbanization, and illegal logging is not only threatening the millions of unique plant and animal species native to the Amazon River region, it’s affecting humans worldwide. Whether it’s extreme drought in São Paulo, the multibillion-dollar illegal wildlife trade, or the catastrophic impacts of climate change, threats to the Amazon are having a very tangible ripple effect around the globe. 
     
    The good news is that some of the world’s most accomplished scientists are backing a big push to save the forest. We sat down with one of those scientists—National Geographic explorer Dr. Thomas Lovejoy—to talk about the state of the Amazon and why conservation matters. 
     
    NG: You’ve worked in the Amazon for more than 50 years. How have you seen the region change? 
     
    TL: Fifty years ago, there was only one highway in the entire Amazon basin. That’s an area as large as the continental United States with one highway and 3 million people. Today, there are between 30 million to 40 million people, countless roads, and it’s about 20% deforested. 
     
    But on the plus side, 50 years ago there was only one national park—in Venezuela—and a national forest and indigenous reserve in Brazil. Today, more than 50% of the Amazon is under some form of protection. The real challenge is to move towards a much more integrated approach to planning and managing the Amazon.
     
    When we talk about conservation of the Amazon, it’s hard for many people to relate because they don’t feel connected to the region. How can we change that?
     
    There are actually a lot of direct connections between our daily lives and the Amazon, no matter how far away we are. 
     
    For example, there’s a big, nasty viper called the bushmaster that lives in the Amazon. This snake kills its prey with venom that causes the prey’s blood pressure to go to zero. Scientists in São Paulo discovered that this venom actually works by affecting a previously unknown body system called the angiotensin system. This discovery then allowed pharmaceutical chemists to design the first ACE inhibitor medicines. Today, millions of people use these medicines to treat high blood pressure. They have longer, fuller, and more productive lives and they have the venom of a nasty snake far away in the Amazon to thank for it.
     
    A connection that affects everyone on the planet is climate change. Reforestation is essentially a way of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The existing forest is absorbing some carbon dioxide already. In terms of the global carbon cycle, tropical forests have a carbon sink roughly equal to half of what is in the atmosphere. About half of that is in the Amazon. This means to lose the Amazon would dramatically increase climate change.
     
    And there are some extraordinary local connections as well. The Amazon basically makes half of its own rainfall. Moisture comes in off the Atlantic Ocean, falls as rain in the Amazon forest, and about three-quarters of it evaporates back into the atmosphere. This then gets carried west and most of it turns into rain again closer to the Andes, where it falls and feeds the Amazon river system. This system holds about 20% of the world’s river water, which is huge. What isn’t rained out of the Andes disperses north and south, with the southern portion being really important for agriculture in Brazil and Argentina. So, São Paulo’s current drought—possibly the worst in its history—is happening partly because the region is getting less rainfall from the Amazon.
     
    What is your vision for the future of the Amazon?
     
    There’s been a lot of damage done and forest lost, but nothing is gone until it’s gone. A lot of the negative buzz out there—like the initial projection of species extinctions that I made in 1980—is made in the hope that it will in fact turn out to be a lot less because you’ve gotten people’s attention.
     
    Ideally what we hope is for the Amazon to return to be about 90% of the extent of its original forest, and for it to be managed collectively by the eight Amazon nations (Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana). We want to see more integrated planning between the people in charge of transportation, energy, agriculture, and the other industries in the region. We think Amazon cities can have higher quality of life and keep people in existing cities so there’s less reason to deforest.
  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    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.

    agriculture Noun

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

    Encyclopedic Entry: agriculture
    Amazon River region Noun

    tributaries and drainage basin of the Amazon River.

    angiotensin Noun

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

    atmosphere Noun

    layers of gases surrounding a planet or other celestial body.

    Encyclopedic Entry: atmosphere
    basin Noun

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

    Encyclopedic Entry: basin
    biodiversity Noun

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

    Encyclopedic Entry: biodiversity
    blood pressure Noun

    pressure exerted by blood on the walls of arteries.

    carbon cycle 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.

    climate change Noun

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

    Encyclopedic Entry: climate change
    concept Noun

    idea.

    conservation Noun

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

    Encyclopedic Entry: conservation
    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.

    deforestation Noun

    destruction or removal of forests and their undergrowth.

    desertification Noun

    the spread of desert conditions in arid regions, usually caused by human activity.

    disperse Verb

    to scatter or spread out widely.

    drought Noun

    period of greatly reduced precipitation.

    Encyclopedic Entry: drought
    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.

    energy 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.

    extinction 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.

    media 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.

    rain forest Noun

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

    Encyclopedic Entry: rain forest
    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.

    urbanization 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

The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation

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