The world's eyes are currently on Rio de Janeiro as elite athletes from around the globe compete at the Summer Olympics, but it hasn't been all fun and games.
There has been no shortage of controversy about poverty in Rio, political turmoil, and the looming threat of the Zika outbreak. While some of these issues have been downplayed by Brazilian and Olympic officials, there is one issue that was made front and center: the Amazon rain forest.
The Opening Ceremony of the Olympics highlighted the Amazon, which stretches more than 2.1 million square miles in South America, 60 percent of which is in Brazil. Dancers celebrated its rich biodiversity and its importance as such a unique ecosystem.
Unfortunately, the Amazon is in trouble. Despite its rich history spanning tens of millions of years, rampant deforestation and urbanization over the last 40 years alone has eliminated a staggering 20 percent of the rain forest.
For some, it might seem like the Amazon is too far away and abstract of an idea to care about, but we can't turn a blind eye toward it anymore.
Here are five reasons to care about the Amazon:
1. The rain forest is fighting back against climate change.
The trees of the Amazon are often referred to as "the lungs of the planet," as they are responsible for creating about a quarter of the oxygen we need to breathe. Not bad for a place that represents less than 2 percent of Earth's total surface area!
In addition to creating all of that glorious oxygen, photosynthesis also means the trees and plants take out carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which reduces the greenhouse effect on the planet. As climate change continues to make the planet hotter, it becomes increasingly important to protect the rain forest, and to try and fight back.
2. The Amazon is the biggest hub of biodiversity on the planet.
Ten percent of the biodiversity on the planet is found in the Amazon rain forest. That equals out to more than 5,500 vertebrate animal species, 40,000 plant species, and 100,000 invertebrates. Some of the most iconic inhabitants include jaguars, anacondas, spider monkeys, toucans, dart frogs, and tarantulas, to name only a few.
Half of the tree species in the Amazon are in danger of being lost forever, but it isn't too late to save them, as long as we come together and stand up against deforestation.
3. Most of the Amazon has not been explored.
The Amazon is a premiere destination for biologists and ecologists, but because of its sheer enormity, most of it has not been explored and studied by researchers. This means there are countless species that are yet to be discovered.
It's important to protect the species we already know about, but even more so to preserve those that we don't. There could be undiscovered species with properties that will help scientists in the fight against antibiotic resistance or cancer. Currently, 70 percent of plants known to have anti-cancer properties are native to tropical rain forests.
4. The Amazon was the original producer of coffee and chocolate.
A significant number of favorite foods originated in the Amazon rain forest before being cultivated around the world, including coffee, cacao (chocolate), bananas, vanilla beans, avocado, sugar cane, and more. Going back to the fact that there's so much of the Amazon that we don't know, there's a very good chance that we could find something new and delicious.
After everything that coffee has done for humanity, are we really going to allow its original home to be destroyed?
5. There are more than 400 Indigenous tribes that live in the Amazon.
Another facet of the Amazon that was celebrated in the Olympics is the fact that it is still home to at least 400 tribes of Indigenous people whose entire lives is spent in the rain forest. They have unique languages and deep cultural roots. They live in balance with the land and don't squander the resources.
The rain forest is their home and it isn't ours to take from them.
While some tribes have contact with the developed world, many don't. If deforestation continues, these people will be pushed out of their native lands, effectively becoming refugees in a world they know nothing about. Not only that, but their longstanding isolation has shielded them from many common viruses and bacteria. Even contracting the flu virus can have catastrophic consequences.
Here's what we can do to help:
It's possible to save the Amazon before it is irreversibly destroyed, but it will take effort. We must educate others by sharing articles like this one and speaking out against deforestation. We must contact our politicians and encourage them to support measures that protect it.
We also have the power to protect the Amazon with our wallets, by making sure the products we buy don't contribute to deforestation and destruction.
There are also many charitable organizations doing important work. The lives of Indigenous people can be preserved by donating to Survival International, while the Amazon Conservation Association works to protect biodiversity.
We don't have to lose the Amazon. We just need to care enough about it.
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