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The Amazon Rainforest: What You Have to Know

The Amazon Rainforest: What You Need to Know

Everyone knows that the Amazon Rainforest is threatened by climate change. But just what is it? How important is it? Well, that’s what I’m here in Brazil to study. I’m in the Atlantic Rainforest with my peers from Columbia University. We are being hosted by the Instituto de Pesquisas Ecological (IPE), studying forest ecology and field research methods. Our aim is to determine the best and most sustainable ways to tackle some of the biggest issues facing, not only Brazil, but the entire planet.

Walking through the forests here, one cannot help but feel in awe that they are breathing the air where the greatest concentration of LIFE exists. It is so heartbreaking to then think that these beautiful creatures are losing their homes for the sake of mere minutes of our pleasure! They are too stunning and precious, the loss too great.

Spoiler alert: the effects of Amazon deforestation will reach EVERYONE, and in our lifetimes too. But, read through because you can make a difference.

Yes, YOU!

Quick facts about the Amazon Rainforest:

  • At 1.4 billion acres, the Amazon is the single largest stretch of rainforest in the world. It accounts for more than half of the entire natural rainforest on the Earth
  • It is around 55 million years old
  • The Amazon rainforest consists of four layers. Each has a unique ecosystem to which plants and animals have adapted:
  • The tallest is the emergent layer. Its trees reach 200 feet in height.
  • The second layer is canopy. Smooth leaves with pointed tips assist the flow of water easy and prevent the growth of mosses and fungi.
  • The layer below that is able to get only 5% of sunlight. Plants here are uniquely adapted to survive.
  • The lowest layer is the forest floor. Only 2% of sunlight reaches here

Characteristic fauna:

  • 1/5th of the world’s freshwater is in the Amazon Basin alone. This makes it a biodiversity hotspot
  • 1/10 known species on Earth are found in the Amazon. Additionally, there are still millions yet undescribed
  • The Amazon Rainforest is the world’s richest and most-varied biological reservoir. It contains several million species of insects, plants, birds, and other forms of life:
  • 40,000 plant species
  • 5,600 fish species
  • 1,300 bird species
  • 430 + mammal species
  • 1,000+ amphibian species
  • 400+ reptile species
  • An estimated 2.5 million species of insects.

The Amazon is home to jaguars, harpy eagles, pink dolphins, manatees, tapirs, red deers, capybara, sloths, several types of monkeys and other species of rodents. However, around 137 plant, animal and insect species are lost every single day due to rainforest destruction – or 50,000/year


  • About 45% is dusky, 30% is clay and 25% is water
  • Top soil is around 2.5 – 5cm deep
  • Over 100 million years of exposure to the elements acidified the soil and leached it of its nutrients
  • Plants are able to thrive despite the poor quality soil because they recycle nutrients from dead flora and fauna (rather than getting it from the soil)
  • Terra preta is a dark, fertile anthropogenic (artificial) soil found in the Amazon basin. Indigenous peoples created this “Amazonian dark earth” or “Indian black earth” between 450 BCE and 950 BCE. They would mix the infertile Amazonian soil with bone, manure and charcoal. The charcoal, which gives the soil its color, is very stable and remains in the soil for millennia, helping it retain minerals and nutrients. Terra preta zones are typically surrounded by common soil. Deforested soils are productive for just 1-2 years. After this, farmers to move to new areas and clear more land. However, terra preta is less prone to nutrient leaching caused by floods due to its high concentration of charcoal, microbial life and organic matter

Dominant vegetation:

  • 16,000 tree species and 390 billion individual trees live in the Amazon Rainforest
  • The lush vegetation encompasses a variety of tree species. These include myrtle, laurel, palm, acacia, rosewood, Brazil nut, rubber tree, mahogany and the Amazonian cedar
  • Food found in the Amazon Rainforest include breadfruit, nuts, bananas, cacao, guava, mango, berries, kola nut and plantains


The Amazon is in the “Tropical Rain Forest Climate” or “Equatorial Climate”. It is warm and humid. The average temperature is about 79 degrees Fahrenheit during the day. The temperature difference between night and day is greater than that between the seasons.

The immense extent and great continuity of this rainforest is a result of the high rainfall, high humidity, and high temperatures that prevail in the region

Disturbance Regimes (aka what natural threats does it face?):

Like most tropical and subtropical broadleaf forests, the Amazon is particularly susceptible to plowing, overgrazing, and excessive burning due to vulnerable soil and climate conditions. Anthropogenic (human-sourced) fires threaten habitat loss as well as air and water quality. Taking into account the full range of natural disturbances, anthropogenic turnover creates significant increase in biomass, and a greater carbon imbalance. Warmer temperatures and less rainfall have produced droughts of historic proportions. Long dry spells increase the likelihood of forest fires. These incidents have profound effects on other aspects of the ecosystem as well

Primary Human Usage:

For most of human history, deforestation in the Amazon occurred mostly by subsistence farmers producing crops for their families and local consumption. But in the 20th century, industrial activities and large-scale agriculture sharply increased the rate of deforestation. Large scale mining operations both disrupt natural ecosystems and require huge amounts of woodAmazon rainforest tree from with red eyes

The Amazon basin contains deposits of nickel, copper, tin, manganese, iron ore, gold and other valuable minerals. Alongside deforestation, secondary effects of mining include the dispersion of mercury (used to extract gold) into the local environment. The mercury poisons indigenous communities, as well as water supplies, plants and animal life.

Oil drilling in the Amazon is causes deforestation. Additionally, it leads to widespread soil and air pollution, indigenous conflict, biodiversity loss, and the displacement of local populations

Animal agriculture:

  • 1-2 acres of the rainforest are cleared per second. This is mostly for industry
  • 70% of deforestation in the amazon is to make room for cattle ranches
  • Corporations in the meat industry are systematically clearing huge tracts of land of native forestry and replacing them with soy crops to feed livestock. They use the land until it is utterly degraded. At this point, they repeat the process elsewhere.
  • Animal agriculture is responsible for 91% of all Amazon deforestation
  • The construction of hydroelectric power dams disturb the ecosystem. Studies predict that this could submerge a significant portion of the Rainforest underwater
  • Timber corporations also remove valuable wood from the remaining forest
  • 136 million acres have been cleared for animal agriculture
  • 26 million rainforest acres have been cleared for palm oil production. Yet, palm oil gets significantly more attention by the media and consumers. Lets be honest, its easier to be passionate about causes that one does not have to change their lifestyle for. No one wants to hear that the real problem is the beef on their plates!

Conservation issues:

30 million people live in the area. Increased industrial activity has impacted many indigenous tribes. They suffer displacement and exposure to disease. For instance, mortality rates are increasing among many tribes who had little contact with the industrial world and did not develop certain immunities.

  • Amazon forest loss accounts for 5-8% percent of global greenhouse gas emissions
  • 1,100 activists have been killed in Brazil in the past 20 years. 150 since 2012. Recently, a rancher shot 73-year old American nun and activist Dorothy Stang. She had campaigned for 30 years to save the Amazon and its indigenous farmers from the interests of wealthy landlords. The verdict originally found the shooter ‘not guilty’, but has recently ordered his arrest and retrial. Fewer than 100 of these men have gone to court. About 80 convicted suspects were hired gunmen for powerful ranchers and loggers. The legal system found only around 15 of the murderers guilty. None of them are currently serving sentences

Thank you for sticking with me!

Moreover, thank you for being a conscious, caring and engaged citizen. I hope this piqued your interest. If you want to learn more about the connections between environmental issues and food, I recommend you watch ‘Cowspiracy’ on Netflix. Additionally, you can check out this fact page, which provides an overview of how our diets impacts the environment. I will publish more of my own work too throughout the summer as I conduct research.

On another note, I’m not sure what would be the most interesting format for you all. If you have a minute, please let me know in the comments below whether you prefer academic research essays, bullet-point fact sheets like the one above, or more personal posts. Ultimately, I do feel very passionate about this subject. Subscribe to stay informed and share this post with your friends.

This is happening at an alarming rate. Consequently, every single person and every single effort counts!

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