The Amazon rainforest has long been recognized as a repository of ecological services not only for local tribes and communities but also for the rest of the world. It is also the only rainforest that we have left in terms of size and diversity.
But as forests burn and global warming worsens, the impact of Amazon deforestation continues to gradually undo the fragile ecological processes that have been refined over millions of years.
Ironically, as rainforest continues to disappear, scientific work from the last two decades has shed light on the critical ties that link the health of rainforests to the rest of the world.
Amazon rainforests and carbon dioxide
What forests take from the air, they can also give back. When forests burn, tree carbon matter is released in the form of CO2, which pollutes the atmosphere, and of which there are already excessive quantities.
Where rainforest and savanna once stood, pastures for cattle-ranching are now appearing. Pastures teem with termites and cattle, whose metabolic activities also release CO2, although their contribution to atmospheric pollution is under much debate.
With the forests gone, CO2 is no longer transformed through photosynthesis, and the crops that replace forests only absorb a fraction of CO2 compared to rainforests. Along with industrial pollution, rampant deforestation in South America and elsewhere has significantly increased the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.
The importance of the Amazon rainforest for local and global climate
Tropical forests and woodlands (e.g. savannas) exchange vast amounts of water and energy with the atmosphere and are thought to be important in controlling local and regional climates
Water released by plants into the atmosphere through evaporation and plant transpiration and to the ocean by the rivers influences world climate and the circulation of ocean currents. This works as a feedback mechanism, as the process also sustains the regional climate on which it depends.
The Amazon rainforest could cure you
What is the connection between the blue-green pills in your bathroom cupboard and the Amazon wildlife? The natural roots of medicine. For millennia, humans have used insects, plants, and other organisms in the region for a variety of uses; and that includes agriculture, clothing, and, of course, cures for diseases.
Indigenous people such as the Yanomamo and other groups of mixed ancestry (e.g. the mestizos of Peru or the caboclos of Brazil) have perfected the use of chemical compounds found in plants and animals. Knowledge of using these plants is usually held by a medicine man (shaman), who passes on this tradition to an apprentice, a process that has been ongoing for centuries and that forms an integral part of people’s identity.
With rainforests going fast, the continuity of this knowledge for the benefit of future generations is under threat.
The untapped potential of the Amazon's plants
Scientists believe that less than half of 1% of flowering plant species have been studied in detail for their medicinal potential.5 As the Amazone slowly shrinks in size, so does the richness of wildlife found in its forests, along with the potential use of plants and animals that remain undiscovered.