The Amazon rainforest

The large forests of the world play an essential role in the ecosystem of our planet, as they are home to thousands of plant species that purify the air and regulate world temperatures. This is why the Amazon rainforest is known as the “lungs of the planet”! All human beings need these forests to be able to continue to live in a stable and healthy environment

 Source: RÉCIT national de l'univers social


The Amazon rainforest extends over six million square kilometres, which is nearly four times the size of the province of Québec.

Two thirds of this forest is in Brazil and occupies almost all the northern portion of this country. The forest also extends into smaller areas of Peru, Bolivia, Columbia, Ecuador, Venezuela and Guyana.

In the heart of this forest, the Amazon River flows over 6300 km and has thousands of tributaries. Roughly 20% of the world’s freshwater supply is found in the Amazon Basin.
The Amazon rainforest is home to almost 50% of all known animal and plant species on the planet. Scientists estimate that there are thousands more yet to be identified. Some of unidentified species may hold the key to treating numerous human diseases.

The Amazon rainforest contains 45% of the world’s tropical forests.

Under the forest: Desert

The soil of the Amazon rainforest is very thin. Trees protect this soil from the sun with their leaves and hold it in place with their roots during the heavy rain season. Once the trees are cut down, the land rapidly transforms into a desert…

 [Sol craquelé par la sécheresse. EXPOSITION "De l'eau pour la vie" 2004.]
Source: Osès, Bernard ©IRD

Destruction for the sake of exploitation

Agriculture and clear-cutting are the main threats to the Amazon rainforest.

Indeed, millions of hectares of the forest are burned every year to make room for pastures and fields. The trees are burnt to enrich the soil with their ashes. However, because the soil is poor, it depletes very quickly. As a result, workers must then burn new areas of the forest to relocate their crops. The most common crops in this area are soy and coffee.

Other economic activities also endanger the Amazon rainforest including rubber exploitation (latex is tapped from rubber trees), oil drilling and mining for gold, silver and diamonds. Extracting oil and minerals causes pollution that contaminates the soil and water.

 [Illegal clear-cutting and colonization near Manaus.]
Source: Uguen, Katell ©IRD

 [Deforestation in the Brazilian rainforest.]
Source : Osès, Bernard ©IRD


Brazil: A developing nation

Brazil is a developing nation with significant social inequalities. A small percentage of the population is wealthy and has access to all modern conveniences, while the majority of Brazilians remain very poor.

The wealth of the Amazon and its vast territories attract many people: the rich come to invest their money (to make even more) and the poor come to find work or a small piece of land to farm and live on with their families. In both cases, the forest is endangered.

 Source: Webmink, Flickr

 Source: Paul Keller, Flickr

In the meantime, the indigenous communities of the Amazon witness the destruction of their traditional territories and their ways of life. Much like the poor who have migrated from the southern part of the country, indigenous people must work for the rich, who exploit them almost to the point of slavery. Violent confrontations are not uncommon.

 Source: Alistair Howard, Flickr

In spite of this, the exploitation of the Amazon rainforest creates a great deal of wealth for Brazil, which results in a dilemma for the country: Should this enormous potential for economic development be sacrificed in order to preserve the environment and biodiversity?

The lungs of the earth
Each year, about 25,000 km2 of the Amazon rainforest is cut down or burnt, which is the equivalent of over 8000 soccer fields per day! This means that in the past 30 years, a forest territory the size of France has been cleared of trees. What is worse is that today 20% of this cleared territory is unusable and has been abandoned.

Yet we now know that forest exploitation is destructive at every level.

We are well aware of the value of trees on a local level. Tree roots retain moisture and prevent soil erosion. Their leaves allow other vegetation to grow in the understory. Their branches shelter and feed many insects, birds and mammals. Finally, trees act as wind breakers and embellish the landscape.

 Source: Camaron/Duff, Flickr

However, the large forests of the world also play an essential role on a global level. As they carry out photosynthesis, trees transform carbon dioxide into oxygen, thus regenerating the atmosphere and enabling all living beings to breathe. This is why the Amazon rainforest is known as the “lungs of the world.”

The world’s forests also play a role in temperature regulation by retaining moisture and providing shade to a large proportion of the earth. Forests constitute a giant aeration system for the world.

 Student working document :


ources :

Université Libre de Bruxelles
Grupo de trabalho amazônico
GreenPeace Brésil