Last year, I had the honor of traveling to Brazil and, by boat, several hours up the Amazon River and into the old growth rain forest. At night, I listened to the screaming howler monkeys under a blanket of stars. During the day, I swam with children just a few feet away from their fathers who were fishing for piranha, and learned about edible and medicinal plants and insects from the locals. It was a childhood dream come true, a life-long fascination with the people of the Amazon sparked by hours of watching PBS specials.
As you might imagine, the forest I had idealized in my mind was pristine. So, when our boat passed by huge swaths of bare land, devoid entirely of trees and life, I wasn’t prepared for the waves of sadness that left me feeling confused. Even ignoring the loss of biodiversity and the needs of other creatures, I wondered, how much is fresh oxygen and a cool, inhabitable planet worth? Apparently, not enough.
After nearly a decade of declining deforestation rates, the pace of logging in the Amazon is on the rise once again. In the past year, images taken by Brazil’s DETER satellite system have shown huge swaths of bare land that were thick forests just one year prior. Estimates suggest that in 2015, the rate of deforestation doubled that of 2014. Change is happening, quickly.
The resurgence in deforestation is primarily a result of rising commodity (e.g., corn, soybeans, beef, and palm oil) prices, a push for economic expansion, and recently enacted Brazilian laws and policies that encourage the development of the Amazon’s “natural capital.” In 2012, for example, Forest Code was passed into law, a policy that weakens critical environmental protections and offers amnesty to people who violated environmental laws before 2008. A policy that forgives people and organizations for cutting trees illegally, in essence, punishes those who obey the law with lost wages for their good behavior. Furthermore, it encourages future illegal logging; people assume that amnesty will be given again.
Some scientists and environmentalists believe that logging in the Amazon needs to cease entirely, that even selective logging is problematic, because the conditions there make sustainable forest management impossible. For example, it is impossible to drive through the thick Amazon forest in bulldozers and heavy machinery without accidentally damaging and killing other trees and their root systems in route to specific locations. In addition, when the canopy is opened up, allowing more sunlight to come through, the moisture disappears and the surrounding forest dries out, leaving the forest vulnerable to fire. Moreover, because treetops have no value and are difficult to remove, they are left behind when valuable logs are taken. The tops dry out on the dry forest floor and serve as fuel for fires.
Soil studies have shown that, until recently, large-scale forest fires used to happen just once every 500 years or so. Now, because of deforestation, large fires are more frequent. Climate change is another cause of increased fires, but because deforestation releases vast amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, it contributes to climate change and increased global temperatures.
When the Amazon dries, so does the water supply for the entire world. That is, deforestation in the Amazon has a direct effect on global weather patterns. Excessive logging in South America has been linked to less precipitation in North America, and new research suggests that future agricultural productivity across the globe is at risk from deforestation-induced warming and the corresponding shift in rainfall patterns.
While everyone is impacted by deforestation in the Amazon, the consequences can be felt most greatly and immediately by the people who live in and around the forest, by the indigenous peoples who have called the Amazon their home since the dawn of man. Indigenous peoples are being displaced, urbanized, and are losing their homes, their ability to maintain cultural traditions, their languages, and their economic independence. In addition, plant-based wisdom is being lost because food and medicine that was hunted and gathered is less available when the landscape changes and dries—many plants and animals have are already gone extinct.
Many countries have witnessed the impacts of cultural loss and economic change on psychological and physical health. For example, indigenous peoples of the U.S. and Canada experience higher rates of drug and alcohol addiction, depression, anxiety, poverty, and obesity—problems will persist for generations to come. Urbanization and loss of the natural landscape compounds these problems. That is, decades of research have shown that nature, having access to trees and green environments, reduces mortality rates and improves psychological wellbeing and physical health.
On my last night in the Amazon Forest, I heard a tree cry… I hope we learn that we can’t eat and breathe money before it’s too late.