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One tree at a time

Update 17

AmazonQuest is an interactive expedition developed by Classroom Connect. For five weeks, a team of scientists and explorers are examining one of the most distinctive and most threatened environments on Earth: the Amazon River basin.

A Shipibo man works hard to cut down a 150-foot tall tree. The whole job took about half an hour.  

I watched a small piece of the Amazon rainforest disappear today.

This morning, two Shipibo men from the village of Roaboya led us into the forest. For 20 minutes, we walked along a path past tall weeds, banana trees, and low brush. Our destination was a 150-foot tall capirana tree, by far the biggest tree around. It would take ten people holding hands to surround the base of its trunk.

The men took out a chainsaw and an axe and started cutting into the tree's silky smooth skin. Capirana are called snake trees because they shed their bark to protect themselves from strangler figs and other epiphytes. As beautiful as they are, people here chop down capirana trees for their wood.

With a loud metallic roar, the men chewed into the 150-year-old tree, circling it to assure an even cut. Then, all at once, less than 30 minutes after the cutting began, the giant tree toppled over with a crash so violent, it shook the ground under our feet.

This, of course, is just one of the millions of trees that fall in the Amazon each year. People here have been cutting down trees for decades to sell as wood and to clear land for crops, roads, and other types of development.

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Still, it's hard to know how extensive the problem really is. Lots of statistics float around. Brazil's Environmental Ministry estimates that, of the almost two billion acres of Amazon rainforest that originally spanned seven countries, 85 percent remains -- compared to 99 percent in 1970. The New York-based Rainforest Alliance estimates that more than 33 million acres of Amazonian rainforest disappear every year, an area greater than New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Jersey, and Delaware combined. That translates to 64 acres of rainforest lost every minute. In May, the Associated Press reported that annual deforestation rates were up 15 percent for the year beginning in August of 1999.

For the first three weeks of AmazonQuest, I found those numbers hard to believe. In a helicopter ride and two small plane rides, we saw hundreds of miles of unbroken forest. As we traveled through a remote stretch of jungle, we saw jaguars, rare blue-headed macaws, river otters, and tons of other wildlife.

Yet environmentalists fear the worst. Five thousand tree species, or 68 percent of the world's total, live in the tropics. Many of those species live nowhere else. As trees disappear, animals go with them. Erosion becomes a problem without tree roots to hold the earth together. Then, there are the fires. In Roaboya, like in the rest of the Amazon River basin, people cut and burn large areas of land to make room for yucca, corn, bananas, and other crops. Those fires release gases like carbon dioxide, which contribute to global warming. Meanwhile, thin rainforest soils support crops for only a couple of years. Then, the soil becomes infertile. It takes at least another five years for the forest to grow back and the soil to replenish itself. In the meantime, people keep cutting down more and more primary forest.

Much of the Amazon River basin still looks healthy and full of trees.  

Barges loaded up with logs pass us all day long as we travel the Ucayali River from Pucallpa to Iquitos. "There goes your rainforest, Emily," Dan just said as we watched a pile of logs pass upstream in front of the pink sunset. Pucallpa is a major shipping port. A road connects the river city to Lima, from where companies export wood all over the world.

Despite the alarmist tone that many conservation groups take, the rainforest isn't necessarily doomed. For the past two years, INRENA, Peru's institute for natural resource management, has been working to regulate logging. They sell permits, patrol the forest to enforce regulations, and re-seed forests throughout the Amazon Basin. Other conservation groups, such as ProNaturaleza, Conservation International, and the Rainforest Action Network are also working on reforestation and sustainable forestry projects.

The biggest challenge will be finding a way to feed people and protect the forest at the same time. In places like Roaboya, people are so poor that chopping trees is a necessity, not a choice. This morning's downed Capirana, for example, might bring in as much as 200 soles, or 60 dollars. That amount could feed an entire family for two weeks.

These people know better than anybody how important trees are to their survival. The tree they chose to cut this morning, it turns out, was going to die anyway. Its trunk was hollow in the center and a massive hive of Africanized honeybees lived inside. We went running away to escape the buzzing swarm, adding another dose of terror to the string of near-death experiences we've encountered so far on AmazonQuest.

At least some things about the rainforest haven't changed.

Staying hopeful,



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