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Focus on Latin America

October 2011

Understanding the Greatest Show on Earth

PhotoSatellite images of destruction in the Amazon basin/ NASA

It is nature's most magnificent—and important—showcase.

Spread across 2.5 million square miles and nine nations, the region contains around 50% of the world's rain forests, flora and fauna and, dominated by the globe's greatest river, it contains two-thirds of the world's fresh water.

More important even than the physical wonders of so much biodiversity, the Amazon River basin also acts as a giant external lung for more than six billion people, absorbing vast amounts of carbon dioxide and storing and recycling it to produce 20% of the world's oxygen needs. Without the Amazon, the world would effectively choke to death.

But even as the globe relies so heavily on this eco-system, one million hectares of it are lost each year to mainly human encroachment and scientists still do not know how this system truly functions.

A four-year, US$4 million project between JICA and Brazil's National Institute for Amazon Research (INPA) launched in 2010 aims to answer outstanding questions such as how much carbon the entire eco-system holds. From the accumulated data politicians and scientists will be able to more effectively meet such challenges as climate change and the preservation of biodiversity.

Most Comprehensive Project

PhotoCharting the life of the Amazon forest on the ground

It is the most comprehensive project of its kind ever undertaken in the Amazon, employing both the latest technology including satellites, radar, aircraft instruments and lasers imaging and also simple ‘leg power’ to plot forest life.

Local human monitors have established more than 1,500 spots throughout the Amazon where they tally tree numbers, their measurements and the amount of carbon each contains.

The combined information will provide a comprehensive picture of how much carbon the entire basin contains and how much CO2 is not being released into the atmosphere where it would fuel even further climate change and environmental degradation.

According to Niro Higuchi, the leading INPA researcher on the project, the technological results and human observations are a ‘perfect combination’ and will allow researchers to fill in any current gaps in their understanding of the system.

Equally important, he said, was that Japanese technology would allow scientists to fully ‘interpret’ raw data to build up a comprehensive information base.

Experts from the Forestry and Forest Products Research Institute of Japan (FFPRI) and Tokyo University visit the region at least three times a year. JICA sends three Brazilian counterparts to Japan annually for advanced training.

Higuchi, a forestry expert who was born in Brazil to Japanese parents, has been working on similar work since 1980 and said the current project was effectively a continuation of a program launched in 2004.

Results Mixed

PhotoCharting the life of the Amazon forest on the ground

He said preliminary results were mixed. "In the short term," he said, "we are okay for the moment. We are about in equilibrium. Overall, the forest is still accumulating carbon and helping to clean the earth."

However, other factors such as forest destruction are also at work, he said. Almost 20% of the Amazon has already been destroyed.

Governments and scientists have already recognized that altruism or nostalgia will not save the world's natural resources and that they must be seen to be able to pay their way. Higuchi said the current project would help ‘value’ the Amazon and that the results would help to protect the forest in the long term.

Ongoing international negotiations are already trying to put into place a system of national obligations, responsibilities, rewards and penalties in such areas as climate change.

A mechanism known as REDD (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation) allows nations which use their forests to mitigate climate change to potentially receive financial and other benefits—a system which could benefit Brazil and surrounding nations once they have accurate information on how the Amazon truly works.

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