For decades we have known that the Amazon is home to more species than almost anywhere else on Earth. Amazon Rainforest constitutes the world’s largest “pharmacy” yielding thousands of previously unknown substances found no where else. Compounds from tropical flora relieve headaches, help treat glaucoma and provide muscle relaxants used during surgery. The Amazon Rainforest has also yielded guanine for the treatment of malaria and periwinkle for the treatment of leukemia. Given the rainforest’s teeming biological diversity, its value to humanity as a laboratory of natural phenomena and as a medical storehouse is priceless.
Recently, the “pharmeceutical” benefits of the Amazon have been expanded to the potential of healing the Earth from the plague of plastic waste. A group of Yale students discovered, quite by accident, a fungus that appears to be quite happy eating plastic in airless landfills. This fungus shows a voracious appetite for a very common group of plastics: polyurethane.
Human beings have only begun to catalog and name the creatures that live here. Home to thousands of varieties of flowering plants, the rainforest supports endless varieties of hummingbirds, butterflies and insects such a the rhinoceros beetle and the army ant. It is also home to the spider monkey, pink and gray dolphins, Amazon river otter, piranha, anaconda, jaguar, blue and yellow macaw, toucan, harpy eagle, fishing bat, tapir sloth, tarantula, Cayman crocodile, manatee, etc.
The Amazon Rainforest, the largest rainforest and richest ecosystem on earth, has stood inviolate for thousands if not millions of years since its creation. The profusion and variety of life forms present in the rainforest and its critical role in supplying the world with air has resulted in its being called the “Heart and Lungs” of the Planet. Indeed, the majority of the world’s oxygen is supplied by its dense foliage and teeming plant life which upon first inspection, seems boundless and indestructible.
A recent study by the Smithsonian Institution indicates that about 90% of all of the plant and animal species extant in the world today reside in the Amazon Rainforest and depend upon its complex ecology. As the greatest repository of nature’s treasures and most significant source of air, the Amazon Rainforest is crucial to the survival of all life on the planet and to human beings’ understanding of their place in the web of life. In the words of Guatama Buddha, “The forest is a peculiar organism of unlimited kindness and benevolence that makes no demands for its sustenance and extends generously, the products of its life and activity. It affords protection to all living beings.”
Before the arrival of Europeans and up to the third decade of this century, the Amazon Rainforest covered nearly 45 million acres in what is today Brazil, parts of Venezuela, Colombia, Peru and Ecuador. Brazil has the greatest amount of tropical forest in the world. It is also experiencing the worse losses: between twelve million and twenty two million acres a year, according to the World Resources Institute.
Brazil’s rainforest is being decimated by a vast army of homesteaders, farmers, ranchers and corporate interests that include large scale mining and intensive farming. Drilling and mining leave scars, and farmers find that raising crops quickly exhausts the thin soil of cleared forest land. Many farmers merely abandon their plots and clear new ones. The cultivation of crop production leaves rivers polluted with chemicals. The extraction of gold and other metals fouls waterways with mercury and other toxins used in processing.
Today, scarcely twenty years since the intensification of the development of the rainforest, it has shrunk to 88% of its original size. It is estimated that each second, an area the size of a football field is destroyed, adding to the daily toll of approximately fifty thousand acres. In one year, an area the size of Italy is decimated and made uninhabitable to nearly all forms of life. Already thousands of plant and animal species about whom little was known have been irrevocably lost to the bulldozer, the chain saw and to the slash and burn methods employed by regional farmers, ranchers and miners.
Although its arboreal canopy reaches hundreds of feet into the air, the rainforest and its groves of giant trees are in fact rooted in very shallow soil and exist in a fragile balance. The rainforest experiences an abbreviated life cycle in which the creation of top soil is bypassed through the efficient decomposing activities of tropical bacteria and fungi. Rather than collecting in the soil, the nutrients are absorbed by the trees. A layer of nutrient-poor soil in the rainforest is generally less than four inches deep. Unlike other forests around the world, the rainforest once disturbed, cannot renew itself, remaining instead a barren sandy wasteland subject to erosion.
At the current rate of destruction, parts of the Amazon promise to turn into great stretches of desert within our lifetime. The repercussions of this activity are global. As the rainforest gets smaller, it is less able to supply the world with much needed oxygen or to absorb as much carbon dioxide contributing to global warming and the greenhouse effect. The burning forest adds even more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere jeopardizing the stability of ecosystems worldwide.
Given the immense size of the Amazon Rainforest and it’s unimaginable bio-diversity, we have just begun to scratch the surface of the solutions residing within. If we can find cures for cancer, malaria, polyurethane waste and more; perhaps it holds the ability to cure the incomprehensible problem we face today of plastic fragments choking our oceans? What other mysteries lie hidden within the green foliage and moist soil?