The benefits of the Amazon rainforest

Graphic by Penelope Taylor ’20

Graphic by Penelope Taylor ’20


After the recent election of Brazilian President-elect Jair Bolsonaro, concerns over the future of the Amazon rainforest have emerged among environmentalists and indigenous communities. According to National Geographic, Bolsonaro has threatened to roll back protections of the Amazon rainforest, leaving it vulnerable to exploitation.

Beto Marubo, a native leader from the Javari Valley Indigenous Lands, spoke to National Geographic about his concerns. “We are very worried, based on what the president-elect has stated,” said Marubo. “If what he has promised comes to pass, there will be chaos and upheaval in the Amazon.”

The Amazon rainforest, located in South America, is the largest tropical rainforest in the world. According to World Wildlife Fund, over the past 50 years the Amazon has lost 17 percent of its land due to cattle ranching and deforestation. The majority of its lands, though spreading through nine different countries, are in Brazil, according to BBC. The rainforest drives many vital functions of the planet, including carbon sequestration, which is the process of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The loss of a resource of this magnitude could be catastrophic.

“The Amazon rainforest is an amazing and important engine of carbon uptake and sequestration,” said Martha Hoopes, a biology professor at Mount Holyoke who specializes in invasion ecology and dynamics. “Although rates have slowed in the last decade, the [rainforest] still takes up about as much [carbon] than is released in all the Amazonian basin nations.”

According to National Geographic, rainforests act as the lungs of the Earth. While only six percent of land qualifies as a rainforest, these areas manage to produce 20 percent of the oxygen in the atmosphere. Deforestation directly hinders both of these processes, resulting in more carbon dioxide and less oxygen in the air. According to Rainforest Alliance, this means worsening climate change — almost 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions are a result of deforestation and forest degradation.

The rapidly increasing rate of deforestation is largely due to increasing agricultural development, which accounts for 80 percent of tropical deforestation. Large portions of the Amazon rainforest are cut down in order to create more farmland according to Rainforest Alliance. In hopes of increasing the food production and financial stability of the region, the organization notes that using current farmlands more sustainably would be a more economically and environmentally sound decision. As many people in the region are faced with extreme poverty, agriculture is one of the only ways to generate income.

Furthermore, deforestation in the Amazon rainforest inevitably leads to a loss of biodiversity, along with greater greenhouse gas emissions. “The Amazonian rainforest is also home to thousands of species,” said Hoopes. “Ecologists estimate that about one in every 10 species in the world lives in the Amazon. The tree diversity alone is incredible. But this, too, is declining as we lose Amazonian rainforest acreage.”

Many species in the Amazon rainforest are unique to the area and cannot be found anywhere else in the world. This means that once their habitat is destroyed, they are gone for good. One such species, the Spix Macaw, was once native to the Amazon rainforest and was featured in the animated movie “Rio.” Despite making an appearance in the 2011 movie, the wild species has been wiped out since 2000 and only 70 remain alive in captivity, according to National Geographic. Plenty of medicines and household ingredients like cocoa, coffee and palm oil could also be at risk because of rainforest degradation.

Lynn Morgan, a professor of anthropology at Mount Holyoke, explained that the College’s study abroad program in Monteverde examines issues surrounding the rainforest, including evaluating biodiversity loss. “[In the program, we can] see how humans use cloud forest functions as barometers of climate change,” said Morgan. “We see how habitats change in response to shifting temperatures, cycles of drought and storms. Human efforts to monitor and preserve this biodiversity include education, reforestation and clean energy projects as well as the development of ecotourism businesses to replace cattle and dairy farming,” she said.

Members of indigenous communities in Brazil are also fearful of what Bolsonaro’s presidency could mean for their rights and lands. By promising to exploit the rainforest, activists fear that Bolsonaro will expand agriculture and infrastructure into indigenous lands, potentially leading to violent attacks, according to National Geographic.

“Scientists have shown that the lands where indigenous people live have the most intact, protected forests,” Marubo said to National Geographic. “That’s because for us the land is life. Our land is not for sale. It’s not for rent. Without the land, there is no life.”