The Vulnerability of Amazon’s Freshwater Ecosystems

A study published in Conservation Letters this week found that freshwater ecosystems in the Amazon are highly vulnerable to environmental degradation.

River, lake and wetland ecosystems—encompassing approximately one-fifth of the Amazon basin area—are being increasingly degraded by deforestation, pollution, construction of dams and waterways, and over-harvesting of plant and animal species.

Damage to Amazon freshwater ecosystems greatly impacts Amazonians, who historically have been so dependent on freshwater ecosystem goods and services that they have been called ‘water peoples.’ Current per capita fish consumption in the Brazilian Amazon averages 94 kg/yr in riverine populations, which is almost six times the world average.

“Despite some terrestrial protections that are high by global standards, this paper shows key gaps in protection for the Amazon’s freshwater systems and species,” commented Robin Abell, the Senior Freshwater Conservation Biologist at World Wildlife Fund.

The Madeira River basin, for example, is threatened by oil exploration, deforestation and dams in its headwaters, even though protected areas cover 26% of the catchment area. “The pressures that the authors details need to be addressed now, before conservation opportunities are lost. Restoration can be far costlier than proactive protection,” cautioned Abell.

Adequate protection of Amazon freshwater ecosystems requires broadening the forest-centric focus of prevailing environmental management and conservation strategies to encompass aquatic ecosystems. By building upon existing protected areas, it is possible to develop a river catchment-based conservation framework that protects both aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, effectively protecting the Amazon river-forest system.

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