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 the 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 a higher quality of life and keep people in existing cities so there’s less reason to deforest.
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.
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.
to succeed or complete a goal.
(angiotensin-converting-enzyme inhibitor) drug used to combat high blood pressure and heart failure primarily by relaxing blood vessels and decreasing blood volume.
the art and science of cultivating the land for growing crops (farming) or raising livestock (ranching).
Amazon River region
tributaries and drainage basin of the Amazon River.
hormone that regulates the constriction (narrowing) of blood vessels.
layers of gases surrounding a planet or other celestial body.
a dip or depression in the surface of the land or ocean floor.
all the different kinds of living organisms within a given area.
pressure exerted by blood on the walls of arteries.
series of processes in which carbon (C) atoms circulate through Earth's land, ocean, atmosphere, and interior.
area or ecosystem that absorbs more carbon dioxide than it releases.
gradual changes in all the interconnected weather elements on our planet.
management of a natural resource to prevent exploitation, destruction, or neglect.
continental United States
U.S. land continuously stretching from the Atlantic to Pacific oceans (not including the states of Alaska and Hawaii.)
agreement or treaty on a specific matter.
Convention on Biological Diversity
international treaty to sustain and protect the diversity of life on Earth.
destruction or removal of forests and their undergrowth.
rapid depletion of plant life and topsoil, often associated with drought and human activity.
to scatter or spread out widely.
period of greatly reduced precipitation.
(1992) informal name for the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Also called the Rio Summit.
capacity to do work.
conditions that surround and influence an organism or community.
to change from a liquid to a gas or vapor.
degree or space to which a thing extends.
process of complete disappearance of a species from Earth.
unusual or uncommon.
large public road.
forbidden by law.
area of land set aside by the government for exclusive use by an indigenous community.
to combine, unite, or bring together.
industry engaged in cutting down trees and moving the wood to sawmills.
means of mass communication, such as television or the Internet. Singular: medium.
substance used for treating illness or disease.
geographic area protected by the national government of a country.
drug or having to do with drugs and medications.
animal that is hunted and eaten by other animals.
people of a community.
area of tall, mostly evergreen trees and a high amount of rainfall.
not habitually used, but quickly available.
tributaries, mouth, source, delta, and flood plain of a river.
able to be touched or felt.
movement of people or goods from one place to another.
process in which there is an increase in the number of people living and working in a city or metropolitan area.
poison fluid made in the bodies of some organisms and secreted for hunting or protection.
snake with fixed fangs that secrete venom.
poaching or other taking of protected or managed species and the illegal trade in wildlife and their related parts and products.