Amazonia's revenge

By Jean Hodgkinson

The Amazon is caught between two destructive forces and their combined effects threaten to flip its ecosystems from forest to savannah -Carlos Rittl

Brazil’s Amazon River “initially bore various names after its discovery in 1500,” relates the Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. The hemisphere’s mightiest river “was finally called Amazon after a legendary race of female warriors believed to live on its banks.”

These fierce warriors (they cut off their right breasts to more easily use bows) were a fable of ancient Greece, their savage realm strategically placed “in Scythia or elsewhere on the edge of the known world.” This gargantuan river with its ominously thick, endless expanses of rainforest personified everything the European mind imagined to be its most persistent and terrifying nemesis: Nature unconquered, and unconquerable.

Five hundred years later the Amazon, so foreboding to those first European soldiers of fortune, is finally in retreat. As of 2010, Brazil’s forest coverage (5.19 million square kilometres) trails only Russia (8.09 million) and leads third-place Canada (3.1 million) by a hefty margin. And the Amazon represents 62 percent of Brazil’s territory, compared with Russia’s 49 percent and Canada’s 34; but for these two the percentage has remained steady. Brazil has lost 600,000 square km (nearly 10 percent) of its forests since 1990. That’s as much land as all the islands (any language) of the Caribbean Sea combined, seven times over.

The other destructive force flipping the Amazon is global warming, to which its very disappearance is contributing immensely. In 1990 Brazil emitted 237.33 million metric tons of carbon dioxide; in 2010 the figure was 453.87 million, an increase of 91 percent. According to Greenpeace Brazil, “Amazonian deforestation and fires account for more than 75 percent of Brazil’s greenhouse gas emissions.” And with a population of 200 million (behind only China, India, the U.S. and Indonesia) deforestation will continue, unrelenting. People on the brink of starvation must still slash and burn their way into more farmland to feed their starving families and, if anything’s left over, international commodity markets (or maybe it’s the other way round).

In 2005* the eastern Brazilian state of Amazonas was “suffering the worst drought in more than a century. The Amazon River floodplains have dried up and people are walking and using bicycles [where] canoes and riverboats used to be the only means of transport,” Greenpeace Amazon reported. “Large boats have become stuck in the dry mud; the landscape is covered with thousands of rotting dead fish.” A scientist from Brazil’s National Institute of Space Research said, “This drought has no parallel since 1902, when the level of the Rio Negro began to be measured.”

In 2006 Geoffrey Lean (stationed in Manaus, Brazil) followed up for the UK Independent and reported on the release of an “alarming” study done by a “blue-chip” Massachusetts research centre. It “concluded that the forest cannot withstand more than two consecutive years of drought without breaking down … The research, carried out on the Amazon river, has taken even the scientists conducting it by surprise … [It now] appears the Amazon is entering its second successive year of drought.” In year three, the study found, the trees “started dying.” Then the newswires went silent on the thirsty Amazon. Until “billions of trees died.”

In 2010.

Here’s a little more from Damian Carrington’s article (February 4, 2011, courtesy

“The 2010 Amazonian drought led to the declaration of states-of-emergencies and the lowest ever level of the major tributary, the Rio Negro … Satellite-derived rainfall measurements found that the 2010 drought was even worse than the very severe 2005 drought, affecting a 60 percent wider area and with an even harsher dry season … After 2005, they counted how many trees died [on 126 single-acre plots spread across the Amazon] and worked out how much carbon would be pumped into the atmosphere as the wood rotted … they estimated that 8.5 billion tonnes of CO2 will be released – more than the entire 7.7 billion tonnes emitted in 2009 by China.” And Amazonia is nothing if not a warrior.

Too bad the fiercest warriors prefer death to surrender, because that choice means also taking the opponent (that’s us) down with ‘em. Last month the Rio Times reported “high temperatures and a relentless drought in the Northeast have severely diminished reservoir levels [and] for the first time since 2002 Brazil may be forced to introduce power rationing … Reservoirs in the Southeast were at only 29 percent of capacity. Reservoirs in the South and North were at 36.5 and 41 percent respectively.”

*(Harper’s Index, Dec 2005) … Percentage change since 1970 in the amount of the earth’s land stricken by severe drought: +100