Travel

Why should we care about the Amazon rainforest?

As we are currently in the Amazon rainforest I thought I would elaborate on the ecosystem that supports all these incredible animals. I have seen the Amazon described by the National Geographic as ‘an incubator of life’ and having lived there for a short while I wholeheartedly agree with this succinct description.

Brazil has a 30% share of the tropical rainforest of which 50,000 square miles were deforested between 2000-2005, logging initiatives have been introduced to combat that but the effect has been pitiful. This mass deforestation could lead to drought as it has done already in some areas, which would cause human misery on a large scale.

Now, the rainforest is full of absolutely marvellous goodies that go into everything from cosmetic products to medicinal substances and there are plenty more potential discoveries still to be made that can improve our lives for the better. Bioprospecting is the growing business of collecting and testing jungle products to see how they can be utilised for our needs. This is certainly a career move that could lead you to discover an anti-ageing ingredient or cure for a disease and that could definitely help you to get laid. The possibilities are endless and thrilling to imagine.

In terms of medicinal plants, the Amazon has a lot to offer, some of the most notable of these are the cocoa tree, trumpet tree, wild yam, cinchona, coca, opium poppy, castor beans, white trillium and foxglove.

It has been estimated by the National Cancer Institute that 70% of the world’s cancer-fighting plants are found in the rainforest. A new drug developed by a private pharmaceutical company to treat HIV is harvested from a tree in Borneo. Anyone working for a business that has invested in a medicinal product from the Amazon that has stood up in clinical trials could be onto a goldmine, as long as they preserve the forests.

Native communities may be more inclined to reveal their secrets if they knew that their habitat was safe as well as having trust in the people that were asking those questions.

There is controversy surrounding the current building of the Belo Monte Dam in Northern Brazil, which will be the largest in the world when completed. It is claimed that it will provide electricity for 23 million homes. The problem is that its construction will displace tens of thousands of indigenous people altogether but they went ahead anyway.

In Brazil, there are more uncontacted tribes than any other country in the world, which puts the government in the unusual situation of monitoring them from afar by aerial photography.

The country’s Indian affairs department FUNAI (Fundação Nacional do Índio) estimates that there are up to 70 of these groups that live in the rainforest. There are of course famous pictures of tribal people aiming arrows at low flying aeroplanes, which is a fairly natural reaction to the intrusion.

In the state of Acre, the theory is that the indigenous tribes could be the survivors of rubber boom slaves. There are believed to be up to 600 people living in 4 tribes, and they are very lucky to live a relatively peaceful existence in designated areas.

There are groups in Rondônia, Mato Grosso and Maranhão, whose homes have become fragmented by logging. They are effectively hunted for their land by loggers and ranchers, which is pretty frightening.

All the murders that are associated with this rainforest domination are truly sickening and often not known about or reported. I think that being murdered for being an indigenous forest dweller, a local person with objections or a conservationist without any effort towards compromise or collaboration is a sign of individuals beyond reprieve.

It is certainly an industry that in certain situations will bulldoze the bodies in its path and this mentality has the potential to take human beings down a dangerous road.

One Awá tribesman in Karapiru escaped into the jungle after being confronted by gunmen. He lived in solitude for ten years before making contact with and joining another Awá tribe. This ability to survive is impressive and to lose this knowledge of how to live in complete independence from other people and material goods would be devastating.

In 2017 the Brazilian airline Gol paid £1 million in compensation after damaging the Caiapó indigenous reserve in a plane crash in 2006. The Caiapó tribe understandably would not revisit the crash site that they considered to be polluted and cursed by the dead after the 154 passengers lost their lives. Their settlement had to be rebuilt elsewhere.

This was a great win for an indigenous tribe especially as the chief Raoni Metuktire travelled the world with Sting (Bono wasn’t available) to highlight the plight of the rainforest.

Yossi Ghinsberg is an Amazon survivor who knew very little about the environment he was in, he was one of the many Israeli travellers that travel around South America every year and he became lost in Bolivia’s rainforest.

He travelled in a group with three other lone travellers from Austria, Switzerland and America, so it is not surprising that this group of very different cultures ended up having a disagreement. They set off to find a little-known tribe and parted ways when the Europeans continued into the rainforest on foot and he rafted down the river with his American friend, Kevin.

Unfortunately, the raft went over the waterfall taking Yossi with it, although Kevin managed to swim to shore. Yossi was then entirely alone and was forced to live on fruit and eggs. He even fought with a jaguar using a lighter and insect repellent to fashion a makeshift flamethrower and scare the beast away. There was a flood and he was starving and in pain, he also hallucinated that a girl was walking alongside him.

After a few days in this state, he collapsed from exhaustion by the side of the river. Incredibly Kevin had made contact with local villagers and they were searching the river by boat. They had almost given up but by chance they had landed the boat upstream as they were struggling to find somewhere to stop, and there was Yossi, unconscious but alive.

This experience consolidated his faith in Judaism, as he believes a book of Kabbalah with special powers from his Uncle Nissim helped to protect him. Kevin also converted to Judaism after marrying an Israeli girl and moved into a Kibbutz near Jerusalem.

It shows how faith has such a strong part to play in survival whether or not the survivors are believers, sometimes hallucinations can even keep people alive by giving them hope. Their travelling partners, Karl and Marcus sadly did not return from the rainforest so this is a story of luck as much as it is about survival.

A major study has estimated that it would take 300 years to catalogue all the tree species in the Amazon. So far 12,000 of the trees have been registered but there are an estimated 4,000 out there ready to be classified hopefully before they are chopped down and lost to science.

This excellent research to assist conservation of this incredible place was aided by the digitisation of museum records, meaning that we have a research network to preserve important stuff around the globe – progress!

More research has shown that we are responsible for the increase in forest fires as even in protected forests people practise selective logging and this fragmentation increases the likelihood of fires. It is very much not normal for a rainforest to burn, it is supposed to be wet and therefore not flammable.

Wildlife is affected as endemic bird species find it much harder to thrive in disturbed forests. These holes in the canopy that we create dry out the vegetation below and tropical forest needs to retain its cycle. When it loses moisture it becomes very sick and the wildlife suffers.

The scientific conclusion is that not only do we need to protect forests but we also need them to be pristine and undisturbed in order to thrive.

 

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