THE brazilian AMAZON basin

The amazon river basin

The Amazon river accounts for one-fifth of the world's fresh water that is drained into the oceans. The Amazon is 4,000 miles/6,868 km long, the equivalent to the distance that separates New York from Berlin, almost two times the length of the Mississippi river and five times longer than the river Rhine.

The Amazon basin occupies 7 million square kilometres: 58.5% of the area of Brazil, more than the physical space of Western Europe and the equivalent to two thirds of the United States. The Amazon rain forest is home of millions of species, most of them unknown by science.

See, for information about Amazon fauna:
Amazonian fauna: parrots and...

The Amazon has a key importance on climate patterns. A significant destruction of the Amazon rainforest can be a direct threat to our own survival and would induce strong alterations on world pattern climates.

Amazon history and literature

Some of the first reports of women warriors are Amazonian; when the Amazonian explorations first started, in 1541, the Spanish conquistador Francisco de Orellana travelled the Amazon River and his voyage was chronicled by a Franciscan friar called Gaspar Carvajal. It was Carvajal who first wrote about groups of women warriors, living in the interior of the forest apart from men, whom he named Amazons.

See, for books about the Amazon:
Books about the Amazon rain forest

Plants and biodiversity

The Amazon has the largest water lily in the world: the Victoria Amazonica. This tropical plant with leaves that can have a diameter of 1.8 m (6 ft) may be easily observed on the Manaus region.

Though emblematic and a touristic attraction, the giant lily and other plants of major economic importance, such as the mahogany, the rubber tree or the passion fruit tree, are just a small part of a much larger flora that involves many thousands of kinds of plants, many of them largely unknown or unexplored as a food source or in its potential medical use.

The Amazon flora: the huge biodiversity

The two million square miles (more than 5 million square kilometres) of Amazon rainforest contains an unknown number of flora species. Near the river margins, the vegetation is relatively sparse and poor in its variety due to seasonal floods, but in the deepest forest the variety is amazing.

And that variety must be kept, as it is not only a part of our environment but also a source of products that help sustain our lives - as food as or as source of medical products. More than 40% of all prescriptions dispensed by pharmacies in the U.S. are substances originally extracted from plants, animals, fungi and micro-organisms. Aspirin, for example, the most widely used medicine in the world, is derived from salicylic acid, which in turn was discovered in a species of meadowsweet.

Each species is a masterpiece of evolution, offering a vast source of useful scientific knowledge because it is so thoroughly adapted to the environment in which it lives. Species alive today are thousands to millions of years old. Their genes, having been tested by adversity over so many generations, engineer a staggeringly complex array of biochemical devices to aid the survival and reproduction of the organisms carrying them. ( E.O. Wilson, Only Humans Can Halt the Worst Wave of Extinction Since the Dinosaurs Died).

Deforestation and fires

Deforestation in the Amazon is very intense, as in other tropical rainforests. If the current rate of deforestation continues, the world's rainforests will vanish within 100 years, causing unknown effects on the global climate and eliminating the majority of plant and animal species on the planet, according to NASA Earth Observatory.

We will lose many of the Amazon richness if the current pace of forest destruction continues. At this very moment there are several fires, somewhere in the Amazon, burning many acres of it. Amazon fires never stop, even in the rainy season. The photo above (of Pacific Northwest Research Station USDA Forest) is very revealing.

Deforestation increases the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other trace gases in the atmosphere. The plants and soil of tropical forests hold 460-575 billion metric tons of carbon worldwide with each acre of tropical forest storing about 180 metric tons of carbon. When a forest is cut and burned to establish cropland and pastures, the carbon that was stored in the tree trunks (wood is about 50% carbon) joins with oxygen and is released into the atmosphere as CO2.  As such, fires are a direct contribution to the increasing level of CO2 in the atmosphere. They contribute to the around 6 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide that is released into the atmosphere every year, worsening the greenhouse effect.

We can't forget global warming dangers; if it were only a few degrees, that would be serious, but adaptable. However, the warming process might be unstable and could peak. We could end up like Venus, with a surface temperature of 400 degrees. It can be too late if we wait until the worst effects of global warming become obvious. We need action now to reduce emission of carbon dioxide. Those are words of the Physics Nobel Prize Stephen Hawking, on Larry King Live Dec. 25, 1999. Words corroborated by most of the climatologists: Climate is an unpredictable wild beast, and we are poking at it with sticks (W. Broecker).

Books and DVDs about the Amazon rain forest

Why the destruction of rainforest at such alarming rates?

The answer isn't simple. Sting, the English rock singer and songwriter, once said to the International Herald Tribune: If I were a Brazilian without land or money or the means to feed my children, I would be burning the rainforest too. The poverty is powerful answer, indeed.

NASA Earth Observatory explains that the causes of deforestation are very complex:

A competitive global economy drives the need for money in economically challenged tropical countries. At the national level, governments sell logging concessions to raise money for projects, to pay international debt, or to develop industry. (...)

Most of the clearing is done for agricultural purposes, grazing cattle or planting crops. Farmers chop down a small area (typically a few acres) and burn the tree trunks. Intensive, or modern, agriculture occurs on a much larger scale, sometimes deforesting several square miles at a time. Large cattle pastures often replace rain forest to grow beef for the world market.

Commercial logging is another common form of deforestation, cutting trees for sale as timber or pulp. Logging can occur selectively - where only the economically valuable species are cut - or by clearcutting, where all the trees are cut. Commercial logging uses heavy machinery, such as bulldozers, road graders, and log skidders, to remove cut trees and build roads, which is just as damaging to the overall forest as the chainsaws are to the individual trees.

Deforestation by a farmer is often done to raise crops for self-subsistence and driven by the basic human need for food. Most tropical countries are very poor by U.S. standard, and farming is a way of life for the large part of the population. In Brazil, for example, the average annual earnings per person is U.S. $5400, compared to $26,980 per person in the United States (World Bank, 1998). In Bolivia, which holds part of the Amazon rain forest, the average earnings per person is $800. Farmers in these countries do not have the money to buy necessities and must raise crops for food and selling.

There are other reasons for deforestation, such as to construct towns or dams which flood large areas. These cases constitute only make a very small part of the total deforestation though.