If the mass deforestation of the world’s largest tropical rainforest continues at its current rate, 57% of the total 15,000 Amazon tree species will be in danger of extinction, including the Brazil nut, cacao and açai. Deforestation of the Amazon directly threatens its critical ecosystems, the largest precipitation system in the world, its role in sequestering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and the production of oxygen.
The important study is the first comprehensive estimate of threatened tree species in the world’s largest rainforest, which involved 158 scientists from 21 countries. Published in the journal Science Advances, scientists compared almost 1,500 forest surveys from across the Amazon rainforest with maps of the current and projected deforestation. From this, they were then able to estimate how the overall populations of the different tree species have changed and how they may change in future.
As Amazon Tree Species Die, so Will Entire Ecosystems
If the current trend of deforestation and habitat destruction occurs, 57% of the 15,000 tree species will be in danger of extinction, according to the researchers. The study overlaid spatial distribution models with historical and projected deforestation to show that at least 36% and up to 57% of all Amazonian tree species are likely to qualify as globally threatened under International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List criteria.
However, if existing protected areas and indigenous territories across the vast area suffer no further damage, the number of species at risk would be restricted to a third of the total—a major decline, nevertheless, which would still class the species as vulnerable to extinction. Forests in the Amazon have been declining since the 1950s, but until now there has been a poor understanding of how this has affected populations of individual Amazon tree species.
The Amazon rainforest stretches over 5.5 million square kilometres, 60% of which is in Brazil. It is home to millions of species that make up 10% of all of Earth’s biodiversity, including 40,000 different plant species, 3,000 freshwater fish species, and over 370 reptile species. There are nearly 400 billion trees across 16,000 species in the rainforest, but sadly, Brazil has a deforestation problem so large, it can be seen from space.
During 2014, it was confirmed that due agricultural related deforestation, the on-going destruction of the Amazon rainforest has caused its moisture-generating mechanism to weaken. The rainforest systems have degraded to such a point where it can no longer regulate its own precipitation systems and there have been major droughts in Brazil.
A unique way to highlight the vast amount of damage occurring is by viewing the Amazon on an unusually cloud-free day, at the height of the dry season, where several fires were burning in Amazonia. These fires were set to clear patches of forest for agriculture, which reveal red-brown soils, and give rise to a broad smoke pall that is easily seen from the International Space Station (ISS).
Cattle Ranching and Feed
The Amazon rainforest has endured decades of deforestation and destruction due to farmers, loggers, and miners. Animal agriculture in the Amazon consists primarily of cattle ranching and planted supporting feed crops, such as the soybean. During 2012, the global production of soy—most of which is grown in South America—reached 270 million tonnes and 3/4 of this global soy production is turned into farmed animal feed. Deforestation and habitat destruction for agriculture purposes directly threatens Amazon tree species.
In order to sustain the 9.6 billion people who are predicted to inhabit the earth by 2050, the amount of land designated to grow farmed animal feed alone would have to increase by 42%. Unfortunately even using highly productive croplands to produce animal feed, no matter how efficiently, represents a net drain on the world’s potential food supply where around 1/3 of global cropland is used to grow animal feed.
Cattle ranching occupies 80% of the deforested areas in the Amazon. The pasture run-off contaminates the near by rivers and the fires used to manage fields often spread into the remaining forests. It is glaringly obvious that animal agriculture is largely responsible for the mass deforestation of the most species rich and diverse tropical rainforest on the planet.
Ground zero in the war on nature
Cows graze among the burning Amazon jungle in Brazil
The deforestation of the Amazon caused by animal agriculture contributes to climate change. Land-based carbon sinks are just as critically important as the role of phytoplankton in the ocean, where they sequester carbon dioxide from the Earth’s atmosphere and release oxygen into the water, which is part of the process photosynthesis. The Amazon rainforest plays the same role by sequestering carbon dioxide—during 1990s, an additional 2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide was soaked up each year.
However, a booming human population and subsequent actions involving the burning of fossil fuels and the increase of animal agriculture activities have dramatically increased the amount of carbon dioxide that is now in the atmosphere, which has had an unexpected consequence to the Amazon rainforest. The findings of an extensive 2015 land-based study has shown that Amazonian trees are in fact living faster and dying younger. The trees in primary, undisturbed areas across the basin of the Amazon rainforest have been dying off at an increasing rate—tree mortality rates have surged by more than 1/3 since the mid-1980s, while growth rates have stalled over the past decade. This had a significant impact on the Amazon’s capacity to take-up carbon.
From the 2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide soaked up in the 1990s, the net uptake by the rainforest has weakened by a half, and is now overtaken by greenhouse gas emissions in Latin America.
What Can We Do?
To help reduce our contribution to this problem, it’s relatively simple. All of our individual actions on a daily basis matter. We need land- and ocean-based carbon sinks to sequester carbon dioxide as part of photosynthesis, which then produces oxygen. Every human and non-human animal on this planet needs oxygen to live. The dominating food system supporting the current 7.3 billion people is clearly highlighted as being incredibly inefficient in terms of its resource use—land, water, and crops—while creating large amounts of carbon dioxide and methane emissions, land and water pollution, ocean dead zones, destroying habitats, and being inherently exploitative and cruel to sentient animals.
It’s up to every individual on this planet to look at their actions and what those actions contribute towards. Meat and dairy centric diets not only drive global health burdens and disease, but also have an enormous impact on the environment and key ecosystems. While no one can be perfect and there will always be factors which may prevent you from driving your car less, for example, a vast majority of individuals live in parts of the world which allow for an easily accessible plant-based diet. The more people who choose to move away from animal agriculture being their primary source of nutrition (and a bad one at that), the more food production systems will shift to meet the demand. Plant based diets of course will still have some impact, just as with anything we do, but it’s critical we focus on systems that do the least harm possible.
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