Amazon Forest Census Announced

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Brazil’s federal government has announced plans for what could become  one of the world’s most significant and politically sensitive  environmental surveys — a mapping of all the trees in the Amazon rainforest.

With  almost 60% of Brazil still enjoying its original forest cover, this could open up a new golden age of  natural science and give huge impetus to the discovery of new species.

The survey is called the National Forest Inventory and will mobilise an army of researchers from federal, state and local governments, universities and research establishments. As well as measuring living forest cover and the levels of degradation in different parts of the country it will research biomass, geology,  and the ways human  geography interact  with  Brazil’s forest.

Such a survey will create huge opportunities for researchers around the world and generate vast tracts of data  from the nation that is home to an estimated 20% of global  biodiversity.

The new census  announced by Brasilia’s environment minister Izabel Teixeira would take four years to complete, and would provide detailed data on tree species, soils and biodiversity in the world’s largest rainforest. The last exhaustive survey was carried out more than 30 years ago.

The mapping initiative is nationwide, with over 22,000 sample points selected — 4,000 of them in Amazonia.

You can read a BBC news report  about the  Brazilian government’s plans by clicking here.

Antonio Carlos Hummel, director of the national forestry service  said the project had already attracted  Br$65 million ($33 million) in funding from the national development bank.

Historically, the Amazon has  been a tender spot for national sensitivities. Ever since the German  scientist Alexander von Humboldt was expelled from the then-Portuguese colony for alleged spying,  foreigners  in the Amazon have been  regarded with intense mistrust. Scientists, missionaries and travelers have frequently been branded as spies.

However,  foreign scientists have always played a leading role in opening up the mysteries of the Amazon.

In the Victorian era three British naturalists,  Richard Spruce, Henry Walter  Bates and  Alfred Russel Wallace, made  heroic journeys of discovery in the period 1848-1859. Wallace — the co-discoverer of the theory of evolution along with Charles Darwin — had his formative insights  in the Amazon, before  he travelled to  Borneo.  When  Bates’ eleven year journey ended in 1859 , he had sent back over 14,712 species (mostly of insects) of which 8,000 were new to science.

German explorer and plant collector Carl Friedrich Philipp von Martius and his zoologist companion Johann Baptist von Spix undertook a three year journey through Brazil that unlocked much of  our contemporary  knowledge about the region’s flora. Between 1817 and 1820 von Martius and Spix  undertook  a 10,000 km long journey through Brazil that led to von Martius’ masterwork, the Flora brasiliensis. Published over a 60-year period, the Flora brasiliensis remains the most complete survey of plants in a country that hosts almost 20 percent of the world’s biodiversity.

One of Brazil’s principal agencies for funding of scientific research, FAPESP continues to build on the foundations laid by von Martius through its own  BIOTA program. Since 1999 this project to catalogue the flora of southern Brazil, has involved 1,200 scientists (900 researchers and students from São Paulo, 150 collaborators from other states and 80 from abroad). It has led to the discovery of more than 500 new species, and generated 20 books and almost 1,000 scholarly articles.

If a single regional initiative  like the BIOTA program can generate  so much research and so many  work opportunities for local  and foreign scientists alike, the new  Amazon tree census  could yield a treasure-trove.

In recent years , all discussion  abut  the Brazilian Amazon has focused on the deforestation issue. Brazilian governments have been  lambasted for the pace of deforestation,  and the ingenuity shown by its farmers in  foiling  even the most modern  satellite surveillance. Yet there has been less focus on the overall area  destroyed, and much less even, about the  potential for science in the untouched parts. You can read about this in an excellent article on  the activities of IBAMA, the  environmental watchdog.

In the decade between 1996 and 2005, 19,500 sq km (7,530 sq miles) of jungle was lost on average every single year. The comparison is overused, but that really is an area about the size of Wales or New Jersey each year. It reached a peak in 2004 when more than 27,000 sq km was lost. Then, in 2004 Brazil declared war – it said it would cut deforestation by 80% by 2020. Seven years later  it had almost reached its goal. 2011 had the lowest rates of deforestation since records began three decades ago – just over 6,200 sq km was cut. That’s 78% down on 2004.

No one should be complacent about what’s happening, because  Amazon deforestation is causing global climate change , according to NASA. But by focusing on  the science, and focusing on what  trees are in the Amazon rather than on those being  cut and burned, Brazil is making a long-delayed policy shifted that should be applauded.

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