Monday, January 20, 2014

The Amazon Rainforest: Carbon Neutral?

article from May 16, 2011 (all links current as of January 2014)
By Jamie Douglas

The Amazon Rainforest covers 5,500,000 square kilometers or 2,123,562 square miles – an immense area! The majority of the forest is contained within Brazil, with 60% of the rainforest, followed by Peru with 13%, and with minor amounts in Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana. I have traveled extensively in the Amazonian region, from rafting down the Urubamba River to the Amazon, to working on a film for a lengthy period. I traveled the length of the entire river twice and spent time in the bigger settlements along the river, such as Iquitos and Manaus, as well as in many smaller settlements.

The Amazon and its tributaries are the lifeblood of everything that lives in the region; and whether they are indigenous tribes or European settlers, they all live by and on the river. The amount of fish and wildlife that the basin supports is incredible. Many species of flora and fauna have yet to be discovered, and some will become extinct before being discovered.

The reason for the scenario I am about to discuss is not “global warming” as it is often confusingly called, but global climate change, and it is not all human-made. Many natural factors come into play when throwing about expletives like that. Throughout the history of the planet, there have been many events, long before man discovered hydrocarbons and CFCs. And there are always natural cycles at play, such as jet-stream shifts and massive volcanic eruptions that have led to global cooling and starvation within human memory.

However, there is no doubt that CFCs, coal-burning industries and internal combustion engines have contributed to a speed-up of the current climate havoc, which has brought inundating rains and strange snowfalls, but most disturbingly, extreme droughts in Amazonia. Twice in recent times, the Rio Negro, during a period of five years, has completely dried up, something unprecedented in the known history of humankind. There are several particularly severe consequences to this ecological catastrophe.

The indigenous tribes who have depended on the river for a good portion of their protein intake were deprived of that, and many had to migrate away from their traditional areas, intruding on other tribal areas, which led to sometimes-bloody conflicts. The inhabitants of the rainforest are very territorial because they have just enough sustenance for themselves. Many had no choice but to move downstream to Iquitos and Manaus, where there was nothing for them except meager government handouts, menial labor, crime and prostitution. But it is very unlikely that any of them will find their way back to their previous homesteads, as they are seduced by the modern conveniences of life in the cities and towns along the great river. This is the human disaster facing the people from the interior.

What is of much wider significance, and has gone largely unnoticed to the world population, is that with these droughts, millions of trees have died or are dying. As we all learned in school, the Amazon Rainforest is an essential living and breathing part of the Earth – the lungs, but more than that, something like the liver, kidneys, pancreas and lungs, combined, absorbing toxins along with carbon dioxide and releasing cleansed oxygen back into the air.

Between the cutting down of millions of acres over the last few years, along with slashing and burning to accommodate the cattle ranchers, miners and new settlements sprouting up like mushrooms after a rain, the world’s lungs were already getting strained. And now this: the dying of millions of trees along the Rio Negro, the dropping of the water table by 3 meters, well below the roots of any of the trees in the region, is bringing about a change, the likes of which humankind has never seen before. All those millions of trees will decay over a period of years and release many tons of carbon into the atmosphere, making this great natural resource that we usually think of as a carbon sink actually carbon neutral – something that, along with the tens of thousands of jet planes plying the upper atmosphere of Mother Earth and depositing millions more tons of carbon, will surely have an effect.

So, whether you call it “global warming” or “climate change” will, in the end, not matter. What will matter is that our descendants will inherit a less healthy planet (never mind the various national debts that they will have to pay off!).

I am not crying wolf, but there are some changes in the works.

Jamie Douglas
Patagonia, Argentina

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I encourage you to write me at cruzansailor [at] gmail [dot] com with any questions or suggestions you may have. Disclaimer: I am not in any travel-related business. My advice is based on my own experiences and is free of charge (Donations welcome). It is always my pleasure to act as a beneficial counselor to those who are seekers of the next adventure.