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Learning about the Amazon rainforest: a resource under threat

The Guardian
Rainforest experts explain the challenges to maintaining one of the planet's essential natural resources


According to Dr Toby Gardner, a conservation scientist at the University of Cambridge, the Amazon stands at a crossroads. "We need to understand how everything is connected," he says. "In an ideal world, the forest would be celebrated not only through protected parks but through incentives such as compensation and market premiums for farmers, with the foresters and farmers acting as proud stewards of one of the earth's greatest natural resources."

People are a major factor. "People who live in the Amazon are among the poorest in Latin America," says Damian Fleming, head of programmes, Brazil and Amazon, at WWF-UK. "They need support and incentives to do the right thing. But long-term, sustained government support is crucial, otherwise you just get a collection of well-meaning projects."

And there's an element of realism that needs to be acknowledged. No one cuts down the rainforests for fun, says Dr John Hemming, anthropologist and author, but deforestation is driven by demand for beef, soya and timber, and exports are bound to continue. "We can't keep every last bit of rainforest intact but I'd like to see some serious respect for the indigenous and environmental reserves which exist now. Brazil and other countries have done very well in creating these."

That's something which Dr Jos Barlow, an ecologist at Lancaster University, agrees with. "In some areas, charities and local government have collaborated to clarify the law and stop deforestation," he says. "Our next challenge is to expand this throughout the entire Amazon and defend protected areas."

Looking ahead

The twin threats of cattle farming, one of the greatest causes of deforestation, and badly planned or illegal dams risk upsetting the Amazon's ecosystem and its related services. "It's a delicate balance," says Cláudio Maretti, Living Amazon Initiative leader, WWF. "We need to consider biodiversity when planning energy policy, and we need a longer-term view from the nine countries of the Amazon, with a united approach to sustainable development."

"I'd see climate and water funds and pollution management systems in place," concludes Dr Gardner, "with payments from national and international beneficiaries of the services the Amazon provides now for free. I hope the Amazon will retain the greatest expanse of rainforest on the planet and be supported by innovative organisations that can unite people, governments and the private sector."

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