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Focus on Global Biodiversity

October 2010

The Amazon – Helping the World Breathe

photoA project to chart the health of the Amazon River basin

South America's Amazon rRver basin is the most important eco-system in the world.

Its 2.5 million square miles sprawls over nine nations. The basin contains two-thirds of the world's fresh water, more than 50% of the globe's remaining rainforests and, combined with the adjacent Andes mountain range, it accounts for half of all the world's flora and fauna.

The region also acts as a giant lung for the planet, absorbing vast amounts of carbon dioxide and recycling it to produce 20% of the world's oxygen needs. Effectively, without the Amazon and even as vast tracts of forest are being destroyed daily, the world would choke to death.

JICA and Brazil's National Institute for Amazon Research (INPA) in May launched an ambitious four-year project, using both the most sophisticated satellite and other technology and the most rudimentary techniques involving arduous journeys by foot and human observation, to discover just how this system works.

It promises to be the most comprehensive project of its kind ever undertaken.

During the $US4 million project, researchers will be able to accurately plot how the Amazon forest as a whole, and how individual tree and plant species, are reacting to changing climatic conditions; at the end of four years how much carbon monoxide the entire eco system holds and from the accumulated data they will hopefully be able to predict future trends.

The information will be vital in the highly complicated and sensitive area of ongoing international negotiations which are trying to establish a system of national obligations, responsibilities, rewards and penalties in such areas as climate change.

Under one mechanism known as REDD (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation), for instance, nations which use their forests to help mitigate global climate change could receive financial and other benefits. But to substantiate their claims states would need the kind of accurate information which will be provided by the new project.

JICA has worked actively with Brazil for several years on a series of forestry projects and in this case, experts from Tokyo University and the forestry and forest products research institute of Japan (FFPRI) are working with their Brazilian counterparts.

The basic research is divided into two broad components. Using simple leg power to traverse the forests and subsequent human observation, more than 1,000 monitoring spots are being established throughout the Amazon. At each site counters will tally tree numbers, their measurements and the amount of carbon dioxide each contains.

At the other extreme of investigative techniques, satellites and other sophisticated equipment will be able ‘to fill in any missing blanks' and provide a detailed ‘overview' of the forests.

Together they should provide the most comprehensive data ever compiled on how much carbon dioxide the basin contains which will also highlight how much CO2 is not being released into the atmosphere where it would help fuel even further climate change and environmental degradation.

It is literally a race against time.  One typical hectare of the forest contains 750 types of trees, 1,500 other plants and what one report calls most dangerous and least frightening animals on earth."

But already around 20% of the Amazon forests have been destroyed and a further 2.7 million acres are being lost each year.

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