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This is What the Amazon Rainforest Used to Look Like

It's been burning for weeks—but deforestation in the Amazon has been going on for decades. Below, we compare images from now and then.

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old branco riverHistoria/Shutterstock

Then: Rio Branco

In 1919, the 482-mile Rio Branco (“White River”) that flows south from Guyana to meet the Rio Negro was surveyed—although not for the first time. This postcard from the time shows what the lush landscape surrounding the river near Boa Vista, capital of Roraima (a state in Brazil) looked like.

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Aerial view of rainforest at the Rio Branco River on the state of Roraima ANDRE DIB/Shutterstock

Now: Rio Branco

This aerial view of the Rio Branco shows some of the changes that have occurred in the last 100 years—namely, development. A region rich in diversity of fauna—in particular bats, birds, and frogs, according to World Wildlife Federation (WWF)—is now losing out to deforestation to make way for mining, cattle ranching, plantations, roads, and housing.

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Amazon rain forestForest man72/Shutterstock

Then: Forest canopy

The Amazon, with its over two million square miles containing a dense diversity of trees, has been called the “lungs of the planet” for its ability to keep Earth’s carbon dioxide levels at healthy levels; it also produces an estimated 10 per cent of the oxygen in our atmosphere.

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forest canopy nowEnvironmental Images/Universal Images Group/Shutterstock

Now: Forest canopy

Since earlier this summer, thousands of fires have been burning in the Amazon, many set by farmers clearing land for cattle and crops—an ecologically ruinous practice that has resulted in the greatest amount of deforestation the region has ever seen: 519 square miles in the month of July alone. As a result of these intense fires, a 1.2 million square miles wide corridor of smoke has created poor breathing conditions and caused the sky over Sao Paulo to go dark in the middle of the afternoon, reports Newsweek.

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brazil nut treeStock Connection/Shutterstock

Then: Native foods

The Amazon provides a large variety of foods that are both eaten by indigenous populations and animals and also harvested for sale and export. One of these is the Brazil nut, the most important non-timber crop in the rainforest. Brazil nut trees can grow to heights of over 160 feet and produce some 250 pounds of nuts in a year, according to the Rainforest Alliance.

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Destroyed tropical rainforest in Amazonia Brazil. Image taken on 20 January 2010guentermanaus/Shutterstock

Now: Native foods

Trees like Brazil nuts are endangered due to logging and other industries that rely on clearing the pristine forest. As a 2015 study published in Science Advances reported, between 43 and 51 per cent of the Amazon’s 15,000 estimated tree species would see declines of 30 percent or more if deforestation continued at the present pace. That means not only Brazil nuts are at risk but economically important cacao and açai as well, according to Pacific Standard—and likely these other important discoveries that came out of the Amazon Rainforest.

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indigenous people in the amazon rainforest Associated Newspapers/Shutterstock

Then: Indigenous people

Some 98 per cent of land reserves for Brazil’s 305 indigenous tribes—including the still-marginally isolated Yanomami, shown here—exist within the Amazon rainforest, according to tribal advocacy nonprofit Survival International. Tribes including the Tikuna, Awá, and Guarani have subsisted here, in at least partial contact with the outside world. But about 100 “uncontacted” tribes are also thought to make their home in the Amazon.

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A deforestation area in the edge of the Amazon River with a traditional indigenous house in Amazon state in BrazilLMspencer/Shutterstock

Now: Indigenous people

Needless to say, deforestation has wreaked havoc on the lives of the Amazon’s already beleaguered indigenous populations. Dam projects threaten their land, water, and livelihood; tribal leaders have been attacked and killed by gunmen hired by land-grabbing ranchers, and this summer’s fires have been called “genocide” by tribal members and their advocates, reports CBC.

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amazon animals thenStock Connection/Shutterstock

Then: Amazon animals

The Hoatzin (pictured here) is one of over 1,000 species of bird that makes its home in the Amazon rainforest, along with Channel-billed toucans, Scarlet macaws, and the Harpy eagle, according to WWF. In fact, reports nonprofit environmental news site Monagabay, over 430 mammals and over 1,000 fish species are indigenous to this vibrantly rich ecosystem.

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amazon animals nowStock Connection/Shutterstock

Now: Amazon animals

Unsurprisingly, the deforestation of the Amazon has meant a significant loss of habitat for all denizens of the rainforest—a threat that has been significantly ratcheted up this summer and under the government of President Jair Bolsonaro. One of the most at-risk creatures is the Scarlet macaw, which WFF calls an “icon” of the Amazon, and which has been listed as declining by the IUCN Red List since 2016, and as endangered by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service since February of 2019.

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pristine amazon watersShutterstock

Then: Pristine waters

This photo of unidentified waterfalls (of which there are many) taken in the Amazon in 1972 shows how pristine and endless the rainforest once appeared. Emptying into the Amazon River’s thousands of tributaries beneath the rush of the falls, some of the rainforest’s endless species of fish (piranhas, pirarucu, river dolphins) and 450 species of reptiles reside.

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Rio Abanico hydrolectric power generation project under construction in the Ecuadorian Amazon, Morona Santiago province.Dr Morley Read/Shutterstock

Now: Not-so-pristine waters

For years, though, the various governments of the countries in which the Amazon resides have been harnessing rivers and waterfalls for hydroelectrical projects; the one depicted here is on the Rio Abanico in Ecuador. But as WWF reports, such projects come at a price—displacing people, destroying habitat for wildlife, emitting greenhouse gases from submerged and decaying trees and shrubs, and providing a breeding ground for disease-carrying mosquitoes. Conservation of this paradise on Earth is incredibly important.

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Reader's Digest
Originally Published on Reader's Digest