About 20 percent of the Amazon rainforest has disappeared during the past 50 years.
Forest has been lost due to agriculture, urbanization, and illegal logging. Loss of forest threatens the millions of unique plant and animal species native to the Amazon River region. It also affects humans worldwide. Whether it's extreme drought in Brazil, the multibillion-dollar illegal wildlife trade, or the devastating impacts of climate change, threats to the Amazon are having a ripple effect around the globe.
Some of the world's most accomplished scientists are backing a major push to save the forest. We sat down with one of those scientists, National Geographic explorer Dr. Thomas Lovejoy. He talked about the state of the Amazon and why conservation matters.
NG: You have worked in the Amazon for more than 50 years. How have you seen the region change?
TL: In the 1960s, there was only one highway in the entire Amazon region. That's an area as large as the continental United States, with one highway and three million people. Today, there are between 30 million and 40 million people, and countless roads. About 20 percent of the forest has disappeared, too.
There has been progress, though. Today, there are many more national parks in the Amazon. More than 50 percent of the Amazon is under some form of protection. The real challenge is to move toward a much more unified approach to planning and managing the Amazon.
When we talk about conservation of the Amazon, it's hard for many people to relate because they don't feel connected to the region. How can we change that?
It's true that we are far away. There are actually many direct connections between our daily lives and the Amazon, though.
For example, there is a snake called the bushmaster that lives in the Amazon. This snake kills its prey with poison that causes the prey's heart to stop. Scientists in Brazil discovered that this poison actually works by affecting a body system we did not know existed. This discovery then allowed scientists to develop heart medicines. Today, millions of people use these medicines to treat high blood pressure. They have longer, fuller and more productive lives. People have a nasty snake far away in the Amazon to thank for it.
A connection that affects everyone on the planet is climate change. Restoring the forest is a way of removing excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Today, tropical forests absorb about half of the carbon dioxides in the atmosphere. About half of the world's rainforests are in the Amazon. Losing the Amazon would release that carbon dioxide and increase climate change.
There are local connections as well. The Amazon basically makes half of its own rainfall. Moisture comes in off the Atlantic Ocean, falls as rain in the Amazon forest. Most of it then evaporates back into the atmosphere. This then gets carried west where nearly all of it turns into rain again and feeds the Amazon River system. This system holds about 20 percent of the world's river water, which is huge. The rest of the moisture goes north and south. The southern portion is really important for agriculture in Brazil and Argentina. So, Brazil's current drought—possibly the worst in its history—is happening partly because the region is getting less rainfall from the Amazon.
What is your vision for the future of the Amazon?
There has been a lot of damage done and forest lost, but nothing is gone until it's gone.
We hope for the Amazon to return to be about 90 percent of what it was originally, and for it to be managed together by the nine Amazon nations: Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Guyana, Suriname, plus French Guiana. We want to see more unified planning between the people in charge of transportation, energy, agriculture, and the other industries in the region. We think Amazon cities can have higher quality of life and keep people in existing cities so there is less reason to deforest.