Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Amazon and the Lessons Learned
As goes the Amazon, so goes the Earth.

Caught up as we are in the near-term effects of dwindling economies, political turmoil and profitable energy alternatives, we too often fail to see the core issues of the global environment. We leap aboard the latest fad, from soy milk to ethanol, and never pause to consider the effects those seemingly beneficial things have on the larger issue. We leap before we look, and pat ourselves on our collective back, confident that we have “gone green.”

Truth is, we can’t see the forest for the trees. The core reality is we’d best start looking at the forest. In particular, we need to look at the rain forests of the Amazon Basin. Consider this:

The Amazon is home to over half of the world’s remaining rainforests, and they produce 20% of the Earth’s oxygen.

A full 50% of the planet’s annual rainfall evaporates or originates from the Amazon rainforest to the atmosphere. Unbridled deforestation will result in less rainfall, thereby producing significant implications for the global climate.

A single big tree in the Amazon stores about 1.3 tons of carbon. The cutting and burning of forests alone accounts for about 20% of the carbon going into the atmosphere.

Jean-Michel Cousteau's Ocean Adventures: Return to the Amazon (airing on PBS this month, check your local listings) looks at the issues confronting the Amazon, and by extension, the entire planet. Airing in two parts, it’s a fascinating story that spans from the Amazon’s mouth at the Atlantic ports of Brazil to a glacier in the Peruvian Andes. It’s an inspiring journey, wrought with incredible natural beauty and laced with subtle warnings about the catastrophic consequences of ignoring the ecosystem of the Amazon.

In the 25 years since Jean-Michel first explored the Amazon with his father, the legendary Jaques Cousteau, potentially disastrous changes have altered the Amazon. An area the size of Texas has been deforested. Even though the Amazon is 4250 miles long, that’s a significant amount of acreage in the global scheme. Rainforest covers 1.9 million square miles of the Amazon basin—Texas covers over 268,000 square miles. Broken down, that accounts to over 18% of the rainforest lost to mostly illegal logging and burning of the forests.

As dire as that is, it’s not the focus of Return to the Amazon. Granted, the first part of the two-part show explores the fragile balance of the rainforest in the wake of developers, but it skirts any political agenda. It does scrutinize the issues of unregulated global commerce in the region that feed American, Asian and European egos. It’s ironic that we think of soy as a healthful alternative, but seldom think about the wholesale destruction of the rainforest in favor of plantations that make our “healthful” beverages possible. Illegal lumber trading makes luxurious mahogany flourish in upscale furniture markets. The list goes on—commercial fishing, exotic animal trafficking, exploitation of the native flora all share a vibrant underground commerce—often tainted by blood.

Whereas the first part of Return to the Amazon draws attention to the delicate ecosystem of the region, poignantly illustrated by the impact of human intrusion, the second half offers cautious optimism for the Amazon’s future. While government agencies struggle, with mixed results, to sustain the environment, indigenous tribes of the region seek to live in harmony with nature, rather than conquer it. Commercial interests are realizing it’s in their best interest to keep the region alive and vibrant. As a result, a sort of symbiotic relationship emerges, with new business models of ecotourism and the development of, and exportation of sustainable products and
medicines, leave a new footprint in the global landscape.

Ultimately, Return to the Amazon is a cautionary tale that offers hope for the planet’s future, while warning of the consequences that await the planet if we fail to heed the lessons learned. It’s never preachy, but it gives one pause to consider. . . and hope.

As goes the Amazon, so goes the Earth.