The challenges and importance of conserving the Amazon’s aquatic ecosystems

Before anything else, this discussion must start off by defining what the Amazon actually is. At the very least, and this is obviously a simplification, it is the integration of the forests with rivers. If we fail to embrace that notion, we will have an equivocated vision of the Amazon. The cycle of the waters allows the biome to enjoy climatic stability, which is of interest to the entire southern part of the continent, not just Brazil.

Generally speaking we have knowledge of and prioritize protection of terrestrial ecosystems, so we tend to focus very strongly on protecting forests and deforestation indicators and forget about the rivers. We of the Living Amazon Initiative perceive the rivers as equally precious and important for biodiversity, and we see their vital role in connecting the stretches of well conserved terrestrial biodiversity—often at the level of forests, savannahs and others, and the connections among all the fragments are effected by a water course.

But why is it so important to keep a river free flowing and not fragment it?  It is because we have a volume of life in the waters of the Amazon that is equivalent to the immense size of the biome; that is, a huge volume. It is there that we have what is probably the most important presence of freshwater rivers in the world. There has clearly been a colonization of them originating from the sea because of the huge aquatic space that the Amazon constitutes. There are at least three dolphin species, including the grey dolphin and the presence of the Amazonian manatee, which is a super-indicator of biodiversity quality. These creatures all migrate and they require large tracts of water for their existence.  It is similar to the way we think about the jaguar, for example, and the large tracts of land that it needs to roam and survive.

When we talk about a damming the river, we are talking about converting a natural ecosystem into an altered ecosystem. Just as we have entities present in a field of soy bean or a eucalyptus plantation, we have natural entities present in a dammed upriver that it is no longer a free flowing river. The two are roughly equivalent: a eucalyptus plantation and a dammed up river.

We understand and have seen the negative effects of deforestation on our terrestrial ecosystems. It is not difficult then to imagine the similar impacts the construction of dams would have on our river systems—dams and deforestation both convert natural ecosystems into highly altered zones. And the effects of altering rivers extend to people and communities. Although there may be strong national interest in producing clean energy, we must both fully understand the impacts of hydropower projects on biodiversity and allow for voices of local and indigenous communities to be heard in regard to a dams’ impact—before projects are implemented. Only in this way can we make progress that is sustainable and healthy for the Amazon and our planet.

Claudio Maretti, leader of the WWF Living Amazon Initiative
May 2014

 

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