The Amazon rain forest extends through seven countries with its main and most significant part in Brazil. It has an area three fourths the size of the United States and constitutes 30% of the existing rain forest which have escaped human destruction. As the earth's largest rain forest, or largest green area, it is rightly known as the "lung of the world."
The amount of water that the Amazon main river empties into the Atlantic Ocean each minute would serve the needs of New York City for an entire year.
In an area four miles square one can find 1,500 different kinds of plants, 750 varieties of trees (as opposed to only 400 varieties of trees across the entire United States), 400 species of birds and 100 species of reptiles.
The latest studies of this area indicate that 30,000 different kinds of plants have been catalogued in the Amazon rain forest. The majority of these plants are medicinal and widely used by the pharmaceutical industry throughout the world. The Pilocarpus tree, for instance, in the Amazon rain forest gives forth more than red flowers. It produces pilocarpine, a medicine used to treat glaucoma, a serious eye disease. More than 25% of all prescriptive medicines sold in the United States have natural plant products as their main active ingredient. Tropical rain forests cover only a tiny fraction of Earth's surface, yet they contain fully half of the world's plant and animal species a rich storehouse for scientists searching for new pharmaceutical. For centuries, rain forests plants have been used to treat human maladies. And today, the jungle pharmacy gives us treatments for leukemia, heart disease, malaria and other major killers. In addition, medicines made from rain forest plants are used to ease pain, facilitate surgery and help in family planning.
All this wealth and importance went unnoticed by mankind for many year. Apparently this region was known only by a few courageous scientists and a small number of subsistence farmers, besides the natives inhabitants. Nowadays, however, the entire world knows of the Amazon. Countries meet in conference to deliberate its future and the world media have focused more and more on this precious patch of real estate. Why?
The reason for this intense interest is that the Amazon region, with all its trees, its birds, its insects, its reptiles and its rivers is in great danger of extinction; furthermore, all the different kinds of animals including man, are also in danger of extinction as the supply of oxygen diminishes. Man's search for progress and increasingly higher standard of living is putting his very existence at risk. And, there is more to this story:
Inasmuch as this rain forest is located almost entirely in Brazil, its difficulties are inextricably intertwined with the difficulties of that country. Brazil is a proud but a poor country whose riches and land are held by a small group of individuals. This problem worsened considerably during twenty-one years of generals and bureaucrats made powerful by their military backing. The loans from overseas banks and the disposition of those funds took place without the least bit of input from the populace who during this time became poorer as corruption and favoritism enriched those in control. Large developments were begun in the Amazon region without the least consideration for the most important needs of the nation. With total disregard of environmental repercussions, projects were undertaken such as mineral extraction from the mountains range of Carajas and Pelada, and the construction of two gigantic hydroelectric plants, Tucurui and Balbina, for which an enormous green area was simply covered with water. The damage wrought is both disastrous and permanent. And only few years ago, due to pressure from creditor banks and focus from the international media, the Brazilian government has cancelled other such projects. The damage, however, has been done, and the world has lost a significant part of its total rain forests.
These projects - Carajas, Pelada, Balbina and Tucuruvi - had the immediate effect of attracting people from other parts of the country in search of a better life. Mineral extraction, especially gold, has always prompted migration throughout recorded history. The Amazon "gold rush" was no exception. But when the migrants arrived in the Amazon and realized the enormous expanse of uncultivated and unclaimed land, they immediately seized portions of land for themselves in an effort to survive.
Migrants with severely limited technological resources have tended to use the "slash-and-burn" method to prepare the land for planting. This technique, formerly limited to comparatively small areas, has now increased dramatically with the increase in the number of squatters who can lay legal clams to the land once they have planted crops. Last year, for example, when the government announced its intention to begin agrarian reform in unproductive areas, six thousand fires in the Amazon were detected by satellite during the course of one day. The smoke from these fires forced the closure of several neighboring airports.
The ongoing disaster (that has been caused and is still being caused) has reached uncontrollable proportions. The world-wide populace is becoming more and more aware of the problem and is trying desperately to preserve the environment for the future. But, besides, the present forces the poor to eke out an existence the best they know how by using available land. Perhaps the solution is in the words of ecologist Chico Mendes, a poor and simple man who lived in the Amazon and was shot to death in March 1988 for trying to defend it against the spoilers: " What we demand is a complete reorientation of Brazil's approach to the Amazon. It is the last hope for the rain forest, which is the last hope for man".
Copyright © by Joyce Cavalccante
United States Literary Representative is Veritas Literary Agency
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