Life in the Amazon: Eleven Years After Our Return

January 18, 2017

Life in the Amazon: Eleven Years After Our Return


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May 1982. The Calypso, a converted minesweeper, carries Jacques Cousteau and his team as they set off on their historic expedition to the Amazon, the most ambitious modern expedition into Amazonia of its time and marking Jacques Cousteau's 53rd expedition overall. Photo courtesy Tim Trabon

Since I first laid eyes on the Amazon back in the early 1980s, this magical place of unimaginable biodiversity has always held a special place in the heart. I first came to explore the Amazon with my father, Jacques Cousteau, during a two-year expedition on the Calypso. The experience gave me a first hand look at how connected we are on this water planet. Twenty-five years after that first trip, I returned to the Amazon with my Ocean Futures Society team to learn more about the amazing biodiversity of this critical place, the people who live here, and the many struggles they face as outside interests continue coming in and transforming the Amazon River Basin. Now, another decade has passed, and I wonder what remains in the largest rainforest on Earth.

Global Influence

The Amazon basin is the size of the continental United States and it’s river carries 20 percent of the world’s freshwater into the ocean. It is home to more than half of all species on Earth – supporting more life within its complex jungles, river, and flooded forests than any other habitat. Two-thirds of the Amazon rainforest is found in Brazil. Starting at its source in the Peruvian Andes, thousands of small tributaries bring water through its jungles across eight countries into the largest river system in the world, the Amazon River.

Its rainforests play a vital role in the global water cycle; the massive expanses of trees in the Amazon create rainclouds that may fall as rain as far away as North America. The region is often romanticized and considered a remote wonderland, far off the beaten path. But today, tens of millions of people are flooding into the Amazon due to increasing development, industries, and hydroelectric power plants, altering and changing its native landscapes with unintended and often devastating consequences.

Deforestation and Climate Change

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Embers glow at the base of a decimated, ash-covered tree. Photographing the scene, Carrie Vonderhaar’s rubber-soled shoes begin to soften from the intense heat of the ground. Fires like this are set in order to make way for soy or cattle farms. Photo credit: ©Carrie Vonderhaar, Ocean Futures Society

The Amazon rainforest is ten times larger than the next largest rainforest on Earth: its influence is unparalleled. Ten years ago we wondered to what extent was the Amazon rainforest being cut down cleared for other uses? We learned that in 40 years, nearly 20 percent of the Amazon rainforest has been cleared to make use for cattle pastures, soy and palm agriculture, lumber, roads and dams. Since our return, sources estimate that 28 percent of Brazil’s rainforest is gone. There are many different factors at play across local and national levels, but today, the single largest driver of deforestation continues to be for the use of cattle pastures and beef exports from Brazil.

Although the rates of deforestation have decreased since its peak in 2004, deforestation continues at an alarming rate. In 2015, Brazil lost a rainforest amounted to 5,831 square kilometers, an area half the size of Los Angeles. Estimates that the Amazon could lose another 20 percent of its forests in two decades are cause for rapid concern. Scientists fear that if even 40 percent of the Amazon is cleared, the rainforest may reach a critical tipping point – when there are no longer enough trees to create adequate rainfall, and the rainforest becomes a scrubland or even a desert. The process is known as desertification, and it has happened to other places of the world. By deforesting the largest rainforest on Earth, we are weakening our planet’s ability to withstand disturbances and changes. This is especially worrisome, as human-accelerated climate change continues to upset the balance of our planet, and rainforests are our allies in adapting to these changes.

Climate change refers to the recent rising levels of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane in our atmosphere due to human activities like burning fossil fuels. Trees are natural buffers against the rapidly changing climate. By design, trees capture carbon dioxide and store it in their bodies. When trees are cut down, the carbon of which they are made is released either through burning or gradual decay. Deforestation in the Amazon today accounts for 20 percent of the global greenhouse gas emissions. At the UN Climate Talks in Paris in 2015, nearly 200 nations gathered to address the serious effects of climate change. When they stand, trees can help protect us from climate change. When we cut them down, they contribute to its impacts. We need the Amazon rainforests alive.

Our Human Right to Healthy Planet

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The affectionately nicknamed “Cabeção” ("big head") guides team members on the Madeira River. Before taking off into this Brazilian "Wild West," notorious for violence, he stopped at a friend’s houseboat to borrow a handgun for the group’s protection. Fortunately, the weapon will not be needed. Photo credit: ©Carrie Vonderhaar, Ocean Futures Society

As more people enter the Amazon, deforestation results as humans move deeper into the forests, often looking for profits. The Amazon is now home to more than 30 million people – of which only 9 percent, or 2.7 million, are indigenous people from hundreds of different ethnic groups. Many are undocumented with no legal status or rights in their countries. When our team returned to the Amazon ten years ago, we witnessed major developments like the Balbina Dam near Manaus in Brazil and highway constructions taking shape across the Amazon, regardless of the interests of local people. Today, major dam constructions like the Belo Monte Dam and transportation infrastructures like the Trans-Amazonian highway are only growing. These projects bring more people to the Amazon along with increased opportunities for illegal and unregulated exploitation of the region.

Native people are losing their homes from a multitude of threats, many of which are illegal and occur due to the demands of the outside world. Up to 80 percent of all logging in the Brazilian rainforest is cut illegally, and as much as 70 percent that is cut is wasted at the mills. The United States is the largest importer of Brazilian timber. The answer to this massive problem begins with the countries that create the unsustainable demand. US consumers must demand transparency from industries to ensure products do not come from illegal practices that threaten the existence of native people.

Today, Brazil is the most dangerous place in the world for environmental and land rights activists, followed by many other countries in South America and Latin America. Prior to our trip ten years ago, Sr. Dorothy Stang, an environmentalist working in the Para region was murdered a year before our visit. During our expedition, we ran into many unsettling encounters with illegal loggers in the forests and gold miners in the rivers. With camera equipment in hand, we wondered how dangerous of a situation we were truly in. Far too often, local communities trying to protect their homes, their land and their families are left to face enormous businesses and foreign interests without help from their government that should be protecting them. On average, two people are killed every day trying to protect their land, forests, and rivers from large-scale interests in dams, agriculture, logging, mining and even illegal wildlife trafficking, among others.

Hope for the Amazon

But we have hope. Our expedition eleven years ago brought us to Mamirauá Sustainable Development Reserve, a protected area containing hundreds of native species and housing an eco-friendly lodge that invites guests to enjoy a sustainable Amazon adventure, all managed by eight local communities within the reserve. We see the future in these businesses that value the people they serve, the environment around them and the culture of natives who live there. At Brazil’s largest natural reserve, travelers stay in floating lodges that rise and fall with the fluctuating water levels of the Amazon River across wet and dry seasons. We can enjoy and profit by protecting natural and pristine places without destroying its natural bounty and biodiversity. For places in the Amazon that are already cleared, scientist Dr. Regina Luizão told us, “let’s use everything that has been deforested and leave what is standing as it is right now.”

Throughout my lifetime traveling across the world, I have seen humans in their quest for development and ‘progress’ tear down and destroy the very environment we depend upon. The problem? The environment belongs to no one alone. It is our common, public good. As special interests groups around the world look to make quick profits from rapid and unsustainable development – the right to clean air, clean water, and clean food are taken away from the public interest. This must end, and it will only stop when we collectively take responsibility to protect the one thing we all have in common: our home, our oceans, and our one water planet.

Warm regards,

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Jean-Michel Cousteau
President, Ocean Futures Society
with Jaclyn Mandoske