New Internationalist

The Facts

May 1991

new internationalist
issue 219 - May 1991


[image, unknown]
Illustration: Clive Offley

The Amazon rainforest is a living thing.
It lives in balance - or 'equilibrium' -
consuming what it produces.
If the balance is lost it may die.

The facts of life .

• is the largest river system in the world: four times larger than the Zaire (the second largest), eleven times larger than the Mississippi.
• disgorges 198,000 cubic metres of water per second - enough to fill Lake Ontario in three hours.
• contains one fifth of the world's fresh water - or two-thirds excluding water locked in polar ice caps.
• flows a distance of 6,762 kilometres from its source in the Peruvian Andes to its mouth - equal to the distance between London and New Delhi.
• has 10,000 tributaries totalling 80,000 kilometres in length which would stretch twice round the Equator.
• provides 24,000 kilometres of navigable 'trunk' waterway - ocean-going ships can penetrate up the Amazon a distance equivalent to crossing the North Atlantic.

• extends over five million square kilometres - that is 10 times the size of France.
• makes up one third of the world's remaining tropical rainforest.
• has 30 per cent of all known plant and animal species.
• contains 80,000 known, and at least 10,000 unknown species of tree.
• has a density of between 100 and 300 tree species per hectare of forest (temperate forests have between five and ten).

In the Amazon there are:
[image, unknown] • one fifth of the world's bird species in scarcely one fiftieth of its land surface.
• several million animal species, mostly insects: one tree stump in Bolivia was found to house more ant species than the whole of the UK.
• 3,000 known species of land vertebrates.
• 2,000 known species of fresh water fish, or ten times as many as in the whole of Europe.

The Amazon Basin (the area drained by the river)
• covers some 7.5 million square kilometres - an area almost as big as Australia - in six different countries (Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela).
• is the wettest region on earth, with an average rainfall of 2.54 metres per year.
• contains the largest flood-plain forest in the world, covering two per cent of the forest area.
• is surrounded by one of the youngest rock formations on earth (the Andes Mountains) to the west and two of the oldest (the Guyana and Brazilian Shields) to the north and south.
• has very poor soil: 90 per cent suffers from phosphorous deficiency, 50 per cent from low potassium reserves and 24 per cent from low drainage or flood hazards.


The facts of death

[image, unknown] • As much as 75 per cent of deforestation in the Amazon has resulted directly or indirectly from large-scale agricultural or industrial schemes. Many of them have received funding from international agencies like the World Bank.4
• Estimates of the total amount of forest now cleared vary between five per cent and 20 per cent. Most independent experts now accept a figure of 12 per cent by 1985, of which 75 per cent has taken place since 1960.
• In 1974 a single fire set by Volkswagen destroyed 10,000 square kilometres of forest: the largest fire ever known.1
• In 1987, probably the worst year for deforestation so far, satellites detected 8,000 fires in the states of Rondônia and Mato Grosso between June and September. In that year, an area of 210,000 square kilometres, almost as big as the UK, was cleared.1

LANDSAT Surveys: Deforestation 5
Area of forest cleared as a percentage of State or territory


Mato Grosso



• Brazil's '2010 Plan' envisages the construction of 31 hydroelectric dams in the Amazon Basin.
• Two dams have already been completed: Tucurui in Pará and Balbina near Manaus have flooded a total of some 5,000 square kilometres of rainforest.
• Much of the energy produced by Tucurui is consumed by aluminium smelters. The construction of the Balbina Dam cost $700 million, and a further $700 million may be needed to increase its efficiency.
• The Waimiri-Atroari Indians living in the neighbourhood of the Balbina Dam have been decimated both by the dam and by the BR 174 Highway running north: in 1972 they numbered 3,000, but by the mid-1980s their numbers had been reduced to less than 300.

• The Calha Norte ('Northern Trench') project was begun by the military in 1985 to develop the region's network of roads, increase the military presence in the area and improve the demarcation of national boundaries.
• It covers 24 per cent of Brazilian Amazonia in a 6,000-kilometre long corridor which includes 84 indigenous areas, 51 different Indian peoples, and 557 mining claims.
• It includes the construction of the perimetral norte highway through the forest and the development of a hydroelectric plant at São Paradão.
• Official policy is to promote the colonization of Indian peoples, converting them to the life of agricultural peasants on one-square-kilometre size plots.

1 Angela Gennino, ed. Amazonia: voices from the rainforest. A Resource & Action Guide, Rainforest Action Network and Amazonia Film Project, San Francisco, 1990.
2 Rainforests: Land use options for Amazonia, Oxford University Press and World Wildlife Fund UK, in association with Survival International, Oxford, 1990, Introduction by Norman Myers.
3 S Hecht and A Cockburn, The Fate of the Forest, Verso, London, 1989.
4 Philip M Fearnside, 'Deforestation and International Economic Develop-ment Projects in Brazilian Amazonia' in Conservation Biology, vol 1, no 3, October 1987.
5 Anthony B Anderson, 'Deforestation in Amazonia' in Anthony B Anderson, ed. Alternatives to Deforestation, Colombia University Press, New York, 1990.
6 Barbara J Cummings, Dam the Rivers, Damn the People, Earthscan, London, 1990.

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