Burning the Amazon

Mining forests for farmland and wood

Photo by Nadine Zylberberg

Burning the Amazon

The first time I really, truly began to understand the Amazon — river and rainforest — was through the words of David Grann, in his narrative nonfiction masterpiece, The Lost City of Z. As he put it:

How easily the Amazon can deceive.

It begins as barely a rivulet, this, the mightiest river in the world, mightier than the Nile and the Ganges, mightier than the Mississippi and all the rivers in China. Over eighteen thousand feet high in the Andes, amid snow and clouds, it emerges through a rocky seam — a trickle of crystal water. Here it is indistinguishable from so many other streams coursing through the Andes, some cascading down the western face toward the Pacific, sixty miles away, others, like this one, rolling down the eastern facade on a seemingly impossible journey toward the Atlantic Ocean — a distance farther than New York City to Paris. At this altitude, the air is too cold for jungle or many predators. And yet it is in this place that the Amazon is born, nourished by melting snows and rain, and pulled by gravity over cliffs.

From its source, the river descends sharply. As it gathers speed, it is joined by hundreds of other rivulets, most of them so small they remain nameless. Seven thousand feet down, the water enters a valley with the first glimmers of green. Soon larger streams converge upon it. Churning toward the plains below, the river has three thousand more miles to go to reach the ocean. It is unstoppable. So, too, is the jungle, which, owing to equatorial heat and heavy rainfalls, gradually engulfs the riverbanks. Spreading toward the horizon, this wilderness contains the greatest variety of species in the world. And, for the first time, the river becomes recognizable — it is the Amazon.

I read this passage before my trip to the Amazon rainforest last year, and again as we were cruising on the muddy river. It somehow manages to encapsulate the magnitude of this region and to put two million square miles of rainforest in perspective. At the time, the rainforest seemed indestructible to me.

As our plane descended into Iquitos, a city in the Peruvian Amazon, I remember being in awe of the canopy of trees that went on as far as I could see in every direction. I couldn’t imagine this place without it.

But now, in 2019, I read daily stories about how the burning of the Amazon. This isn’t the first time. But this summer, destruction of the forest was up by 60 percent over 2018, an alarming statistic.

The Amazon is home to over 12,000 species of trees, including the walking palm, whose stilt-like roots allow it to move in tiny increments on the forest floor, and the rubber tree, whose creamy white latex gave way to the rubber boom at the turn of the 20th century. The Amazon’s trees are at once mythical and functional. Over the last few weeks, their future has been put in question.

We know how critical the Amazon rainforest is to the rest of the world. What happens when we slowly allow it to disappear?

The practice of logging

The 1970s saw a boom in deforestation, with the building of the Trans-Amazonas highways in Para, Brazil, and the soy highway in Mato Grosso. Since then, about 20% of Brazil’s rainforest has been cleared. The majority of deforestation is attributed to farming: livestock pasture, animal feed, soy plantations. Around 80% of the Amazon’s deforested areas have been covered by pastures for cattle ranging. And, rightly, that’s where much of the news has been focused.

As Matthew Hansen, a co-leader of the Global Land Analysis and Discovery laboratory at the University of Maryland, put it bluntly, “Brazil has turned certain states like Mato Grosso into Iowa. You’ve got rain forest, and then there’s just an ocean of soybean.”

A snapshot in the Amazon

But logging is also an important culprit. Interestingly, fewer of the Amazon’s trees contain timber than in other parts of the world, but that doesn’t keep the practice from becoming a growing problem. The most valuable species in the region is big-leaf mahogany and most of it comes over to the U.S., including an estimated 80% of Peru’s mahogany.

In 2003, mahogany was listed as CITES II, an international trade regulation that restricts trade avoid harming the native ecosystem. But illegal logging persists, often unregulated and on indigenous or forest land. What’s more, logging companies have little incentive to maintain the land for long periods of time after trees have been cleared, leaving room for fires, plant disease, and other ecological disturbances. (More on criminal logging in Brazil here.)

What does it have to do with me?

A line of Sulpac products

It’s easy to blame big industry or entire nations, but it’s also worth questioning our own daily practices. As we move away from plastic, we often look towards paper goods to soothe our consciences. Packaging paper is, in large part, still made from chopped down trees. We think of paper products as renewable and recyclable. To an extent, paper products are highly recyclable, but any consumer knows how few products made from recycled paper are available at the point of purchase. The larger question is, are tree wood-based packaging and consumer products the solution to the plastic waste crisis? Companies like Finland-based Sulapac is banking on this, having developed sophisticated moldable materials and producing everything from wood-based hangers, drinking straws, high end consmetic jars, and cotton swabs from wood pulp derived polymers.

As a counterpoint, the trees we cut down would otherwise be absorbing CO2 around the clock. And, the energy it takes to create wood pulp to make a paper bag for example, is significant.

The real and urgent questions are: Should we be making packaging and single or short term use materials from virgin resources like wood and petroleum at all? Should the materials we use be renewable at the rate we consume them, ie, should we create a global deficit of limited resources to build Q-Tips?

Fueling deforestation

“Wood biomass” or “biofuel” is not as ubiquitous a term as fossil fuels, but it’s on a path to replace them. This tree-based fuel, made from burning wooden pellets, doesn’t sound like the kind of process that requires deforestation, which is most likely the point. Power plants in the U.S., the UK and Europe converting from coal are more and more often replacing the coal with freshly logged wood processed into pellets for burning. Yes, basically, we are back to wood fires and torches for heat and light, but on a massive scale.

More than 80% of southeastern U.S. forests are privately owned. When the demand for wood fuel goes up, logging here spreads wider, goes deeper into old wood. The impact is far reaching. Soil erodes, ecosystems shrink, and species decline. Tree diversity is severely impacted, as re-planting is limited to one or two species preferred by loggers.

Large-scale forest clearing leaves a destructive mark on the soil underneath. NC State ecologist Asko Noormets has been measuring CO2 in soil at a timber plantation in North Carolina for years.

The measurements, taken every 30 minutes for the last 11 years, have Noormets worried. They suggest that logging, whether for biofuels or lumber, is eating away at the carbon stored beneath the forest floor. Every square meter of this forest is losing roughly 125 grams of carbon annually into the atmosphere, the data suggest. Over time, he predicts, logging could wear this fertile, peat-based soil down to the sandy layer below, releasing much of its carbon and destroying its long-term productivity.

When he has looked at emissions from other managed forests around the world, he’s found similarly elevated rates of soil carbon loss. Noormets isn’t certain what’s driving the losses, but he suspects that by disturbing the soil, logging alters the activity of soil microbes that release CO2.

Trees are renewable, in a sense, but we’re not replacing them at the same pace as we cut them down, nor could we with the same diversity and quality. This disrupts ecosystems, where symbiosis is the key to continuity. Studies show that deforestation can actually lead to rainfall reduction, which becomes a destructive force of its own.

Art by Elkpen

Awareness preserves some hope. Forest certification, while successful in the U.S. and Europe, is not nearly as widespread in South America—yet. Pro-business governments, lack of enforcement, and cost of certification are just some of the factors that keep this region from adapting the practice. Brazil and Bolivia may be exceptions. With organizations like Forest Legality Alliance, the Amazon Alternative, and the Global Forest and Trade Network of the WWF, these nations have been held accountable for reducing illegal logging and encouraging more sustainable timber. We need to keep the pressure on.

And at home, we can open up these conversations: Is paper really better than plastic? What are even better alternatives? Can we really convert waste into useful materials? Can we make better use of the wood we have already harvested through reclamation and recycling? Can we reduce? And how can we vote against logging with our dollars?

Year-round, the Amazon is at risk, even when it isn’t making headline news. To me, it seemed indestructible, too vast and mighty and important to vanish. It’s our job to make sure that remains true.


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