The Amazon, the largest rainforest on the planet, is still largely unexplored by science but beset by deforestation for agriculture, mining and illegal timber extraction. — © AFP
In a remote part of the Brazilian Amazon, a scientific expedition lists the species. Hurry up.
“The pace of destruction is faster than the pace of discovery,” says botanist Francisco Farronay, of the National Institute of Amazonian Research (INPA), as he cuts through the bark of a huge tree and smells its innards .
“It’s a race against time.”
The largest rainforest on Earth, still largely unexplored by science, is beset by deforestation for agriculture, mining and illegal timber extraction.
According to a study by MapBiomas last year, the Amazon lost some 74.6 million hectares of native vegetation – an area equivalent to the entire territory of Chile – between 1985 and 2020.
The destruction has accelerated under the government of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, accused by environmentalists of actively encouraging deforestation for economic gain.
The rainforest is considered vital in curbing climate change for its absorption of CO2 which warms the Earth.
Since 2019, when Bolsonaro took power, average annual deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon has increased by 75% compared to the previous decade, according to official figures.
– ‘Denial of science’ –
“Most plant species in the Amazon are found in invaded areas,” said Alberto Vicentini, another member of the expedition launched by Greenpeace.
It is estimated that “we do not know 60% of tree species, and each time an area is deforested, it destroys a part of the biodiversity that we will never know”, said the INPA scientist.
For their research in this remote part of the northern Brazilian state of Amazonas, the team flew from Manaus, flying over hundreds of miles of green forest cut by meandering rivers, to Manicore.
From there, a five-hour boat trip down the river for a week-long expedition to collect plant samples and observe animal behavior, for which they installed cameras and microphones.
The group includes experts in mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish, trees and flowers. But it’s a difficult time to be a scientist in Brazil, they say.
“We are living in a moment of scientific denial, as we have seen with the pandemic in Brazil,” with Bolsonaro railing against masks and vaccines, Vicentini said.
“Research institutions in Brazil are under attack by the policies of this government, universities are suffering many cuts,” he added.
A sheet of newsprint used by one of the group’s botanists to press a flower bears the title: “Increased Logging in Amazonas” with a picture of two trucks leaving the rainforest loaded with logs.
“There are places where no one has ever been, we have no idea what is there,” said INPA biologist Lucia Rapp Py-Daniel.
“Without the resources to investigate, we don’t have the information to even explain why we need to conserve” the area, she said.
Resources have been shrinking for a decade – another phenomenon that has accelerated under Bolsonaro, critics say.
In May, Brazil’s two main scientific societies, the Brazilian Academy of Sciences (ABC) and the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science (SBPC) warned that funding for scientific research in the country would be cut by nearly 3.0 billion reais (about $560 million) this year.
“We should be accelerating the pace of research in the face of destruction, but instead we are slowing down,” says Py-Daniel.