Amazon: the challenges of pollution and deforestation

Hi everybody!

In our fifth article about water (time goes by so fast…) we will discuss the issues concerning water in Amazonia. This huge tropical forest, which nickname is « the lung of the planet » receives every day big quantities of freshwater, but there are some great threats on its survival.

Geographic introduction

South America’s geography is very specific. There is a strong duality between the Amazonian part, which covers 37% of the territory, and the Andean region which counts many high peaks (we could experience that in our attempt to climb the Chimborazo, in Ecuador, which is 6268 meters high). For survival reasons, people from Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia moved to the highest zones. Indeed, in the Amazon rainforest, climate is warm and wet all year long, which makes it one of the places on earth where biodiversity is the richest… but also a tough place for humans to live ! Parasites, bacteria, insects, viruses and many little things make the environment very hostile, and the struggle for survival exhausting. As we went to San Roque de Cumbaza, inside the Amazon rainforest, we quickly understood why the conquistadors chose to settle their capitals Bogota, Quito and La Paz at high levels (respectively 2640m, 2850m and 3660m high). In two days, we came across many venomous tarantulas and we came back from this place with an extensive collection of mosquito bites. Only Lima, the Peruvian Capital, is close to the sea.

 

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In San Roque de Cumbaza, we could experience what a tropical rain is

 

 

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Antoine standing a bridge over the Cumbaza river, in the Amazon rainforest

 

 

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Quito, the Ecuadorian capital, high in the Andean mountains where climate is good

 

Amazonia regulates climate rather than being a « green lung ».

In Medellin, Colombia, we met Laura, Felipe and Julian, three founding members of the association Ingeo Bosque. They study freshwater distribution in the Colombian Amazon rainforest. Felipe is straight forward: « If you take a look at Colombia, on an anthropocentric point of view, the Amazon region is not very interesting ». Indeed, 1.3 M people are living there for more than 30 M in the Andean part of the country. But Felipe warns us « This zone is still a crucial issue on an ecological perspective and for climate regulation on a global level! ». We tend to forget that forests have a huge impact on climate and rains! The expression « green lung of the planet » is a bit overplayed. Forests produce oxygen but they consume a lot of it too! However, trees sweat out water in the atmosphere, producing clouds. Amazonia creates 50 to 80% of its own rains while « sweating ». Moreover, forest act like a rain pump from the seaside regions to the interior of the continent, which regulates winds and climate. To sum it up, neglecting the Amazon rainforest means less precipitations in South America, and a higher sensitivity to climate variations.

 

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Inequalities of population and precipitations in Colombia per region

 

 

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Meeting with Julian, Felipe and Laura from the association Ingeo Bosque

 

The impact of climate change

Let’s talk about climate changes. More and more, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru are suffering from the consequences of a climate phenomenon called « El Niño ». It is a natural phenomenon which consists in a warming of the Pacific Ocean currents off Peruvian and Ecuadorian coasts. It happens every seven years, but its consequences can be harsh for those countries. El Niño considerably changes the rain season which can lead to floods, landslides and strong rains, but also to powerful droughts! Felipe told us that in 2014, Colombia was struck by a violent cycle of El Niño, and that water resources drop from 50 to 65% of their usual level in the Orinoco region! It was a disaster both for people and for wildlife.

The important thing to understand is that even if this phenomenon is a natural one, it has been getting harsher and harsher in the last years. Everything is connected: deforestation, climate change and natural disasters….

 

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Drought in the Orinoco region after an episode of El Niño in 2014

 

The challenge of deforestation

The Amazon rainforest matter is a central one when dealing with deforestation. You might have already heard those scary figures: every 4 seconds, a soccer field is wiped out there. The rainforest has already lost a fifth of its original size. Laura and Julian confirmed us that this issue is a big one in Colombia. Generally, forest is replaced by pasture. Which leads us back to the issue we treated in Montana…

On the long run, deforestation could have dramatic consequences. Forest plays a crucial part in climate stability. It could cause a strong decrease of rains in the region and a stronger sensitivity to natural phenomena. Moreover, it damages soil fertility. Forest soils absorb and filter ten times more water than pastures! It refills groundwater and prevents floods. Last but not least, a rich biodiversity relies on those forests.

When meeting the Ingeo Bosque team, we were surprised to learn that there is no formal study in Colombia which shows that deforestation is linked to the decrease of water resources. If everybody feels like this is a real cause, the Colombian government does not react as there is no tangible evidence. And it does not really look for them either. Ingeo Bosque’s goal is to provide the government with clear data which will show the environmental impact of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest.

 

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One fifth of the Amazon rainforest has already disappeared

 

 

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Forests are essential to refill groundwater supplies and to prevent floods

 

 

The challenge of pollution

Lastly, firms have an important part in dealing with water resources of the Amazon rainforest. Since 1993 in Colombia, laws have been enforced to make them contribute to the protection of the resource, as of 1% of their investment. However, some of the activities in the region are a true threat for the whole biosphere. Two months ago, Brasil endured one of the most severe disaster of its history after two dams belonging to the firm Samarco broke down. The tanks which were collecting extraction waste flooded the Rio Doce with toxic mud and thousands of people had to be relocated. In some other places (mainly in Bolivia), use of mercury for silver treatment and many other kinds of pollution brings us in front of a major matter of tomorrow: we must act to preserve the Amazon, first river in the world, which gathers on its own 18% of the world’s freshwater reserves.

 

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In Brazil, the flood of toxic muds in the Rio Doce is qualified as the worst-ever environmental disaster

 

In our next article, we will talk about the difficult question of coping with public resource. What should be the role of private companies? How to put a price on a vital resource? Until then, we present you the interview of the great team of Ingeo Bosque !
See you soon !

Greg