Biodiversity and the Amazon Rainforest

by Ashley Thomson

May 22, 2020

As an ecosystem, the Amazon is one of the most biodiverse places on earth. Over 3 million species live in the rainforest, and over 2,500 tree species (or one-third of all tropical trees that exist on earth) help to create and sustain this vibrant ecosystem.

© Valdemir Cunha / Greenpeace

What is Biodiversity?

Biodiversity describes the differences and variations that exist between all living beings: animals, plants, microscopic bacteria, funghi, and everything else you can imagine that is considered living. Just like there’s major differences between the different types of life, like a goldfish and a house cat, or a person and mushroom — there’s also variation across similar beings, like an elm and a peach tree, or a beetle and a butterfly.

The balance between all the component parts of a biodiverse system helps to keep the ecosystem and its inhabitants (including humans!) healthy. These processes help purify water, make air breathable, control outbreaks of diseases and pests, support pollination, build fertile soils, and store carbon. Biodiversity is, in a sense, what makes a place breathe, live, and stay healthy and beautiful.

Purple flowers of the Jambo tree in Belterra.

The Amazon Rainforest and Biodiversity

Biodiversity also describes ecosystems or environments that contain a high degree of this variation — for example, the Amazon rainforest. As an ecosystem, the Amazon is one of the most biodiverse places on earth. Over 3 million species live in the rainforest, and over 2,500 tree species (or one-third of all tropical trees that exist on earth) help to create and sustain this vibrant ecosystem.

More and more, biodiversity is at risk. Both in the Amazon and globally, ecosystems are being encroached upon, altered, and transformed by human activity. This in turn impacts the biodiversity of an area and the types and quality of functions an environment can provide.

Scarlet Macaw (Ara macao) are seen here in Cristalino State Park. This park reserve is one of the most bio-diverse in the region and is currently under threat from illegal logging and fire.

Drivers of Biodiversity Loss

The extinction of species is happening at rates never seen before — up to a thousand times faster than what would happen naturally. According to a recent report by IPBES (The “Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services), an estimated 1 million species are currently facing extinction. This rate has largely picked up in the last 40 years, with threatened and vulnerable species across taxa.

In the Amazon, species are threatened as human activity expands deeper into the rainforest. From August 2018 to July 2019, the Amazon lost over 3,800 sq. miles of forest — an area equivalent to over 1.8 million football fields — which signified the highest rate of deforestation in the decade. Biodiversity loss from habitat destruction is often driven by land grabbing and industrialized agricultural expansion, mining, logging, and large-scale infrastructure development, usually through deforestation. Even worse, deforestation in Indigenous lands and protected areas has skyrocketed in recent years.

Industrial agriculture expansion, including for large industrialized crops such as soy and cattle, often requires the clearing of forested areas and a more permanent land use change into agricultural use. Industrialized agricultural systems, such as those based on plantations, have very little biodiversity, and the application of pesticides can also affect nearby ecosystems and human communities as runoff infects the broader habitat.

Logging platform located 3km outside the Indigenous Land of Cachoeira Seca. A Greenpeace team is in the area to witness the “Cachoeira Seca” (Dry Waterfall) Indigenous land, where illegal logging and land grabbing has been occurring.

Mining operations go deeper into the forest and drive the demand to build infrastructure (like roads) and deforest crucial habitats. Mining projects — on both the small-scale and large-scale — represent a great risk to water and soil given the risk of toxic leaks. Mining also spreads into protected areas, such as Indigenous Lands and Conservation Units, and vast wildlife refuge locations.

Logging can also harm biodiversity. Greenpeace has long investigated how logging supply chains — including for high-value wood like Ipê — can be rife with fraud, corruption, and illegally laundered timber that originates from protected areas and Indigenous reserves. In addition, a large-scale industrial timber plantation that replaces a natural forest area will have much less biodiversity, and is the equivalent of an agricultural “monocrop.”

Aerial photograph showing rainforest in Pará state, Brazil. The Ipê tree flowers with brilliant pink, yellow or white flowers every September. It is a valuable timber for its wood, known for its durability, strength and its natural resistance to decay. Ipê growing in the Amazon has a low population density, with an average of one tree per 10 hectares. This means that large areas of forest need to be opened up to access these valuable trees.

Infrastructure includes roads, power, transport networks, and other large-scale projects. BR 163 is a highway in the state of Pará (PA) that cuts into endangered species´ habitats and has made the surrounding area subject to deforestation and habitat destruction. Other infrastructure, like hydropower dams, can deeply disrupt habitats and affect the environment, people, and biodiversity in their surroundings by isolating species and contaminating the water.

Risks and Tipping Points

The loss of biodiversity can throw an entire ecosystem — and the resources it provides — out of balance. It can even threaten its ability to sustain itself. One concerning example of this is the growing likelihood of massive-scale deforestation causing the Amazon rainforest to reach a “tipping point.” This means that the hydrological cycle would be disrupted to the point that it triggers a massive forest “die-back” that could turn vast areas of the rainforest into a savannah, and with it lose immeasurable amounts of biodiversity.

Furthermore, there are additional risks to destroying habitats, such as the increasing prevalence of zoonotic disease. Deforestation may increase the risk for disease outbreaks and can introduce new ways for zoonotic diseases to reach human communities and amplify their ability to jump across species. The Amazon rainforest has been identified as a region with a high likelihood for future zoonotic disease emergence.

Spotlight: Hyacinth Macaw (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus)

The Hyacinth Macaw exists naturally in the Amazon, Cerrado, and Caatinga biomes; however agricultural expansion, illegal logging, and the advancement of cities have drastically reduced their habitat. Today it exists only in small areas of these biomes, and the species is classified as Vulnerable by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature). In the Amazon, there are still sightings in central Pará, the epicenter of deforestation in the biome. In 2019, the area of deforestation reached 203,460 hectares in this region.

Blue macaw (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus), also known as hyacinth macaw, in Miranda, Mato Grosso do Sul state, Brazil.
This is one of many species in the Cerrado threatened by the agribusiness expansion fueled by a high production of soy and corn for export. This predatory model puts traditional communities and natural resources at risk.

What’s being done to protect biodiversity globally and in the Brazilian Amazon?

Some of the most important things we can do to protect biodiversity are:

  1.  Protect Indigenous people and their rights and enforce existing protections. Nearly one million Indigenous people in Brazil call the Amazon rainforest their home. Indigenous communities have a right to their livelihoods in their territories, and it is our global responsibility to push back when their protections and livelihoods are put at risk and violated. There’s been a steady rollback of environmental protections and enforcement under the Bolsonaro government that is harming Indigenous communities, which has only continued under COVID-19 and leading deforestation and habitat destruction.

    Indigenous leaders from Brazil and Greenpeace Germany activists peacefully demonstrate at the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF) Sustainability Committee Meeting in Berlin against some of the world’s biggest brands, including Nestle, Unilever and Mondelēz, to demand they end their role in forest destruction in the Amazon and across Brazil.

  2. Promote greater science, research, and understanding on biodiversity, especially for Brazilians. In the last four years there’s been over 600 new species of plants and animals discovered in the Amazon. Too often, these species are discovered after their habitats have been encroached upon, when they are already at risk. We need to invest more in scientific research programs — like the Tatiana de Carvalho Program, a Greenpeace Brazil scholarship program for students researching the Amazon. Without proper study, we can’t know how or what we’re losing or risking when we introduce radical shifts into the environment.
  3. Rethink how we interact with biodiversity and nature and address the harm already caused by our current systems. In the US, this will mean re-thinking if what we consume or produce is based on sourcing practices that are often detrimental to delicate ecosystems. Destroyed forests and fragmented habitats can be restored, and there are alternatives to the industrialized food systems that are harming biodiversity, local communities, workers, and consumers. By protecting biodiversity, we can also have positive effects on forests, the climate, and communities around the globe.

Spotlight: Milton’s Titi (Plecturocebus miltoni)

First catalogued in 2014, this primate species only exists at the intersection of the Roosevelt and Aripuanã rivers in the states of Mato Grosso and Amazonas, Brazil. From January to September 2019, 204 fire hotspots were recorded within a radius of up to 30 kilometers from where the species lives. Over the past year, the region has lost 3,130 hectares of forest. Because it lives exclusively in the treetops, the loss of forest cover is fatal for this species. Its main threats are fires and forest degradation.

Titi monkey (genus Callicebus). Sawré Muybu Indigenous Land, home to the Munduruku people, Pará state, Brazil.

Conclusion

2020 was set to be a big year for nature and biodiversity. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) was set to reset their 10-year priorities for protecting nature and biodiversity. Unfortunately, many of the Aichi Targets fell short — including Target 11 to bring more terrestrial, inland water, and marine areas into protected or conservation status. This means we need even bigger and bolder action to protect nature.

While there have been some promising steps for corporate actions and government policy signals for forests and the climate — such as zero-deforestation commitments, moratoriums, streamlining climate into trading agreements, and increasing the area under protection and conservation — many commitments have not yet translated to effective action, and the successes are under threat or only partially implemented.

Our current path is not sustainable. We need to follow through on our commitments, and reconsider our relationship to biodiversity and nature. It’s becoming more and more clear that if we fail to protect nature, we’ll only further compromise nature’s ability to provide for us and our collective well-being.

Ashley Thomson

By Ashley Thomson

Ashley is a Campaigner on the Amazon with the Greenpeace USA Forests team.

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