The more studies about the Amazon deepen, the more scientists and researchers discover endemic characteristics responsible for maintaining the biome.
Paru State Forest (Flota do Paru), located on the border of Pará and Amapá states, is a good example of the Amazon region uniqueness.
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It was precisely at this site that the Amazon Institute of People and the Environment (Imazon) discovered, in September 2022, the tallest tree in the region: a sample of angelim-vermelho (Dinizia excelsa), approximately 400 years old, 9.9 meters in circumference and 88.5 meters in height.
It is the equivalent of a 30-story building. Much bigger than some monuments that many people dream of having a photo next to, such as Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro (38 meters) and the Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy (57 meters).
This tree would be, in itself, a remarkable discovery.
"But what we discovered there was a sanctuary of giant trees, some of them over 70 meters tall, when they are usually 25 or 30", says Jakeline Pereira, a forestry engineer who is part of the management council of the State Forest, which has 36 thousand square kilometers.
Jakeline Pereira is a researcher at Imazon and has been working for 15 years in the region, where she’s carried out socioeconomic surveys and cataloged physical aspects, such as relief and hydrography.
She describes the area as a very dense and closed forest, with tall trees and very large leaves, surrounded by rivers with lots of waterfalls and rapids, which prevent the passage of speedboats at certain points.
"There are some high terrains with huge stone walls. And there are also areas with mountains, not to mention the part we call the Amazonian cerrado. It's beautiful", she reports.
Surveys performed Imazon's Deforestation Alert System, which monitors the region via satellite, show that the forest has already lost 46.5 square kilometers of vegetation cover since 2008.
However, data from the Project for Monitoring Deforestation in the Legal Amazon by Satellite of the National Institute for Space Research, indicate a larger number: 74 square kilometers.
The information does not surprise Jakeline Pereira. According to the researcher, the southern region of the conservation unit has been the focus of deforestation.
"In 2022 deforestation broke out. The government has not yet taken action. It has not gone to the area to remove people, nor has it fined anyone. And they are not traditional populations. They are people from the South and Southeast of Brazil who arrived in the municipality from Prainha to place cattle, plant corn. They saw an opportunity and started to do Rural Environmental Registry in a conservation unit, which is illegal. The danger is that it is precisely where we saw the new chestnut areas and there are already squatters collecting toll. Mining activities are also advancing, opening up clearings and creating risk due to mercury. We have already mapped two thousand people working in mining", warns the researcher.
The Rural Environmental Registry is a device that demarcates rural property areas and is self-reporting.
After campaigns and pressure from environmental activists, the State Secretariat for the Environment and Sustainability canceled 456 registrations in December 2022. This report has contacted the public body, but received no response so far.
Since 2006, the Paru State Forest has been a conservation unit designated for the sustainable use of natural resources, with 425,000 hectares predetermined for forest management carried out via concession and intended for extractivists who have authorization to explore products such as chestnut, copaiba, andiroba and camu-camu.
According to Jakeline Pereira, sustainable production is essential for maintaining the forest.
She even recalls that more and more areas of chestnut groves have been discovered by farmers who are exploring the forest, which is important for generating jobs and income in the region.
"When we talk about a conservation unit, people think that it is something untouched, that prevents development. It is an outdated view. The Paru Flota is being used and generates income in a legal and supervised way. It generates royalties per cubic meter of wood for each municipality where it crosses and we hope that one day it becomes a place for adventure tourism, for people to visit the trees and rapids. Furthermore, family farming already existed before the creation of the unit and these families were mapped and continue working until today", says Jakeline Pereira.
"Supporting our activity is supporting the standing forest "
Maria Jorge Tavares, 68, is an extractivist. Maria and her children alongside, continue an activity learned from her father and which has been passed on from generation to generation: the chestnut harvesting.
The operation is complex. Most of the chestnut collectors who work on the banks of the Paru River, which gives its name to the state forest, live far away from the collection sites.
Maria, for example, lives in Laranjal do Jari, in the south of the state of Amapá. She and her family need eight days just to reach the chestnut grove, where they camp for around five months, always between the months of February and August, the harvest period in the region.
Working hours usually run from eight in the morning to five in the afternoon. The chestnuts are taken on rafts to the district of Monte Dourado, in the municipality of Almeirim, in Pará.
Sixty kilos of raw Brazil nuts reached R$1,000 at the peak of the covid-19 pandemic. Now, the price is around R$ 200.
Maria Jorge says that production faces several obstacles, ranging from the difficulty of getting around and the lack of roads in the region to the few credit opportunities, which, according to her, have decreased in recent years.
"I wanted the Federal Government to look at us. In the previous government, it was four years without funding and support. So, we are hopeful now that the government has changed. A lot of money was blocked, zero loans for family farming. Supporting our activity is supporting the standing forest. I was born here and so were my children. We and the forest are one. Who would take better care of the forest than someone born in it?" asks Maria, who started picking chestnuts at the age of 11 and says she doesn't intend to stop anytime soon.
Manager of social operations at Jari Foundation, an entity that provides technical assistance to workers in the region, Jorge Rafael Almeida estimates that more than 600 families have already been impacted by the actions, although he points out that extractivists need more support.
According to him, the price of nuts often fluctuates and the harvest period lasts less than half of the year.
"We also work to prevent that extractivists depend on middlemen, who pay for gasoline and transport, however, in return, define the price of the product. It becomes a “sistema de aviamento” [goodwill business system] that predominates in the majority part of the Amazon. The solution for this is providing easier credit. There are several successful cases of people who started to pay for their own operation with the help of the banks. Encouraging the family economy is one of the keys to preserve the Flota do Paru", states Jorge Rafael, who is also a member of the managing board of the Flota do Paru.
Saharan dust fertilizes the Amazon
It is agreeable to say that the last time South America and Africa were connected was more than 240 million years ago, when all the solid land of the planet was a single continent which gradually separated, named Pangea.
But that's not quite the case: the two continents are still intrinsically linked, thanks to the dust of the Sahara Desert, which travels taken by the rains to the Amazon.
"The Amazon is integrated into the atmosphere of the planet as a whole. In addition to exporting water vapor and biogenic aerosols, it absorbs greenhouse gases and also receives nutrients that come from the Sahara Desert along with dust and emissions from fires, including spores and small seeds from species that are abundant in Africa," says Paulo Artaxo, a physicist and climate scientist who is vice-president of Brazilian Society for the Progress of Science.
The phenomenon affects mainly the extreme north of the Amazon, where Flota do Paru is located, but it is an event that has also been registered in urban and more centralized areas, such as Manaus, the capital of the Amazonas state, where Paulo Artaxo and the group of researchers he coordinates found the first evidence of Saharan dust in the region 25 years ago.
According to Artaxo, the phenomenon is very important for the fertilization of the biome.
In 2015, NASA, the United States space agency, published a study stating that the desert annually sends 22 thousand tons of phosphorus to the Amazon, a nutrient found in commercial fertilizers and essential for the growth of the forest, with strong, tall and resistant trees.
It is almost the same amount that the forest produces from the decomposition of fallen trees. According to the agency, this replacement of phosphorus is important, as the heavy rains in the region "wash" nutrients from the soil.
The dust which is the richest in phosphorus comes from the Bodélé depression in Chad, which was a lake that dried up a thousand years ago.
According to NASA, every year 690,000 trucks of sand cross the Atlantic Ocean towards South and Central America due to the dynamics of the rains. About 28 million tons of that total volume fall into the Amazon Basin.
"But not just dust and phosphorus, which is a fertilizer. There are several microorganisms, viruses, bacteria, fungi. We are quantifying the impact of this event on biodiversity, measuring the elemental compositions of the aerosols that reach the forest", says Artaxo.
Information on rainfall is preliminary: on average, it drops 52 milligrams per square meter (mg/m2) of iron, 21 mg/m2 of magnesium and 0.97 mg/m2 of phosphorus, partially balancing the volume of nutrients that the Amazon River transports from the forest to the sea. The study is conducted by the University of São Paulo (USP) in collaboration with researchers from China, the United States and Germany.
Forest land connects trees
In addition to receiving the dust of a desert five thousand kilometers away, the Amazon also has the support of the mycorrhizal network to remain robust.
It is a cluster of fungi that interacts underground and allow the exchange of nutrients from one plant to another.
The system was kindly nicknamed: wood wide web, in reference to world wide web, the original name of the internet, replacing “world” by “wood”.
This happens because the mycorrhizal network actually sends messages from one tree to the other, as if it were connected via Wi-Fi, informing about occurrences in the region, climate, winds, deaths of plants in the surroundings and also pest attacks. Fungi act as defenders and release chemical signals to alert neighboring species.
According to scientist and professor of forest ecology at the University of British Columbia, Suzanne Simard, 90% of plants have good relationships with fungi, that is, one depends on the other in order to live.
In more dense forests, such as the Amazon, it is possible to observe a fine web on the forest floor, called vegetative mycelium, which largely contributes to sustaining and absorbing nutrients.
Simard's discoveries are compiled in the book "Finding the mother tree: discovering the wisdom of the forest". "It's no exaggeration to say that this is a super-fast route for data traffic, bringing together a large population of diverse and dispersed individuals," she said in an interview with the BBC.