Subscribe to Here’s the Deal, our politics
newsletter for analysis you won’t find anywhere else.
Thank you. Please check your inbox to confirm.
In the Amazon rainforest, record-breaking forest fires and ongoing deforestation threaten the survival of thousands of plant and animal species that call the ecosystem home. Scientists seeking to save them are carefully evaluating which areas of the vibrant Amazon biome to preserve -- knowing many are already lost. Amna Nawaz reports from Brazil on the efforts to save Amazon inhabitants.
South America's Amazon rain forest is home to a remarkable diversity of animal and plant life. But a record-breaking number of forest fires and the already ongoing cutting down of trees is putting many of the rain forest's original inhabitants at risk.
With the support of the Pulitzer Center, Amna Nawaz and producer Mike Fritz traveled to Central Brazil to see the efforts under way to save one of the most pristine sections of the Amazon.
It is the last part of our series Brazil on the Brink.
So, all these tracks are probably puma tracks.
In this corner of the Amazon Basin in Central Brazil, signs of life are everywhere.
So, just by looking at the tracks like this, you have a better sense of what actually lives in this area?
Yes. We get a sense of what lives in this area, of what is more abundant and what's rare. And then we start getting a sense of, OK, which habitat do we need to protect more of?
George Georgiadis is a Brazilian scientist fighting to protect everything that lives here, animals like giant river otters, pink dolphins, rarely seen jungle cats like jaguars, and hundreds of species of birds.
So their survival is dependent on the survival of this area?
Their survival is dependent on the survival of this area.
But climate change and the steady destruction of the Amazon's rain forest and the surrounding savanna, known as the Cerrado, has made George's mission all the more dire.
We have lost probably half the natural habitat of this area since 2013. Things are going fast.
How long do we have? What do you think?
Oh, it's already past time. We're just picking up the pieces.
To save what they could, George and his wife, Silvana Campello, helped the Brazilian state of Tocantins create Cantao State Park in 1998, a nearly 350-square-mile-stretch of pristine forest and grasslands nestled between the Araguaia and Coconut rivers.
We fell in love for this place, because, as biologists, we could understand how important this place is.
The couple houses visiting researchers, who run long-term studies and use motion-activated cameras to better understand what animals actually live here and what they need to survive.
Some, like the giant otters, have even been saved from the brink of extinction.
We have placed a camera trap. So we're going to go there and check the camera trap and see if there has been any activity.
And tracking them, Silvana says, has led to new discoveries about the way they live and interact with each other.
We have been finding also interesting behavior that hasn't been reported in science.
Among the otters?
Among the otters.
Like, for example, den sharing. A certain group of otters will occupy a den for couple of weeks, and then they will leave, and another group will come and use the same den. And then the group will leave, and the former owners would come back and live in that same den.
It's like an Airbnb for giant otters.
For all the focus on the threats to the Amazon rain forest, Silvana says it's the animals that are the best bioindicator of a changing environment.
Millions of insects, thousands of known plants, fish and birds and hundreds of mammals, reptiles and amphibians call this area home.
You know, one out of every 10 known species in the entire planet lives in the Amazon. That's plants, and insects, and animals. Scientists say new ones are actually discovered all the time, which is why they say they're worried that, for every acre lost, an entire species could disappear right along with it.
That's why Silvana says it's crucial to not only protect this area for the animals that live here, but for humans as well.
It's the card effect. People say that nature is like a house of cards. If we start losing species, it's like removing a card from the house of cards. Eventually, there will be a point when the planet will collapse, because everybody has a role. Everybody's here for a purpose, the purpose meaning the balance of the planet.
The single greatest repository of the variety of life on Earth is in the Amazon.
Thomas Lovejoy is an ecologist at George Mason University who's been coming to and studying the Amazon since the 1960s.
The Amazon actually makes this planet work. It affects the climate. It affects the hydrological cycles. And all these species that, added up, become biological diversity, all have evolutionary histories that go back four billion years.
But the Amazon's incredibly rich biodiversity is now under assault from several different fronts.
Nearly 20 percent of it has been deforested since the 1970s, cleared out to make way for infrastructure projects, mining and agriculture. That destruction is having a devastating impact on the ecosystem, and many of the rain forest's original inhabitants.
It's estimated that hundreds of species in Brazil are now facing the threat of extinction.
As we lose species, the next generation will not miss them. But if you show them, if you bring people to see giant otters, for example, here, or pink dolphins, if they see them, if they relate to them, they care now. We must care now, before they go.
But the monumental effort to repopulate and regrow what has already been lost in the Amazon is slowly beginning, and some of the solutions might be found in this small storage facility in Canarana, Brazil.
Man (through translator):
The muvuca comes from 60 to 120 species of seeds that we work with.
It's called muvuca, a planting technique that uses native forest seeds to be spread over burnt or deforested land.
The method was developed with input from the Xingu indigenous tribe.
Bruno Ferreira (through translator):
The importance of involving them is because they have been here. It is their call. They are holders of the knowledge of these species. They know what will germinate well.
Bruna Ferreira is the manager of the Xingu Seed Network, a cooperative between indigenous communities, local farmers and NGOs that started in 2007.
Bruno Ferreira (through translator):
This is the job of ants. But the seed network is the largest network in Brazil, and nobody does work like this.
The hope is that the forest will slowly regrow with stronger, more durable plants and trees. It's all part of a larger effort using native seeds that aims to eventually plant millions of trees.
Today, there are 600 collectors of native seeds. And the network helped to recuperate and restore more than 5,000 hectares of degraded areas below the Xingu and Amazon rivers.
For some Xingu tribal members, like Abeldo Xavante, a 21-year-old who now works for the Seed Network, regrowing the forest is essential to preserving the past.
Abeldo Xavante (through translator):
We came from the forest, and, today, nobody else from my tribe lives in the forest. We live in the savanna.
And young people do not know the seeds, and they no longer want to eat forest fruits and other foods from our culture. They want white man's food, sweets and sodas. So we must rebuild the forest, so that we can live there again.
There's also a push to have local Brazilian farmers, like Nedio Goldoni, conserve more of their land. Goldoni owns a cattle ranch outside of Canarana. About 10 years ago, in order to comply with deforestation laws, he allowed the Xingu Seed Network to work on his property.
Nedio Goldoni (through translator):
We need to produce, because you have a lot of human beings who need to be fed. But, also, we have to preserve what needs to be preserved.
Back in Cantao, scientist George Georgiadis says that, even with new efforts to stop deforestation, pristine areas like this will likely disappear.
You have conceded that it will mostly be destroyed?
It will mostly be destroyed.
So why even fight to save what you can now?
Because you have to know the limit of what you can do. It's like the barbarians are burning the library. You can save a couple of books and hide them under your shirt.
That's what you can save. You have got to be optimistic and do it. If you're like, but they're burning the whole library, what's the point, then you don't even save those two books. And then, in 1,000 years, when people learn how to read again, there's not going be anything. So you have to have a different attitude.
But Georgia and Silvana hope a different attitude will also help save areas like Cantao and the animals that call this remarkable place home for as long as possible.
Silvana, you have been studying these animals for years and years, and you still talk about them with, like, a sense of wonder. Does it still excite you to come out and try to find them?
Oh, definitely. It's like talking about somebody you love. You never lose your enthusiasm when there is love.
Even all these years later?
All these years later, and — and more.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Amna Nawaz in Tocantins, Brazil.
Watch the Full Episode
Amna Nawaz serves as co-anchor of PBS NewsHour.
Mike Fritz is a video journalist and producer for the PBS NewsHour.
Support Provided By: