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Nobody knows how many species of plants and animals live in the tropical rainforests. Conservative estimates suggest a figure of about 30 million species. But as they continue to probe this mysterious and largely unexplored realm, some scientists believe that the figure could be as high as 80 million or more, and that rainforests could account for more than half of life forms on earth.

Roughly speaking, species already accounted for in the rainforest include 80,000 trees; 3,000 land vertebrates; 2,000 freshwater fish; almost half the world's 8,500 species of birds; and 1,200 different kinds of butterflies. Among these diverse life forms, many of them endemic to the region, and some of them endangered, there are all sorts of weird and wonderful creatures: a monkey small enough to sit in the palm of your hand [pigmy marmoset]; the world's largest rodent [capybara]; the world's biggest snake [anaconda]; and the world's noisiest animal [the howler monkey, whose voice can carry as far as 10 miles].

Some of our favourite foods come from the Amazon: chocolate [cacao], cinnamon, cola, ginger, cashews, black pepper, cayenne pepper, avocado, eggplant, sugarcane, vanilla and figs. Many medicinal plants have been found in the rainforest, such as quinine for malaria and curare, used by Amazonian hunters to paralyse prey, and in western medicine as a muscle relaxant during operations and for Parkinson's disease. Hallucinogenic plants, such as ayahuasca, used by shamans in religious and curing rituals, are being studied in the west for possible medical and psychiatric use. Many more such herbs from the rainforest medicine chest are bound to be discovered in the future, as long as miners, loggers and farmers don't destroy it: Ecuador enjoys the grim fame of the Amazon Basin's highest rate of deforestation.

The above facts are important because they indicate how vital the Amazonian rainforest is to our planet. But they don't tell us how important the rainforest is in human terms. The guardians of this natural cornucopia are the indigenous inhabitants themselves. In the Amazon basin, some 200 tribal groups guard a priceless biological heritage contained in an area of about five million sq km [almost two million square miles] of tropical forest. Over a period of about 10,000 years, generations of these peoples have lived on the wettest place on earth, which has an average rainfall of 25 cm [100 inches] a year. They know the rainforest. They know its plants, its birds, its animals, its rivers, its rhythms. They have not destroyed it because this jungle is their home where they have learned to live full and meaningful lives in an environment that gives them everything they need. They are the true masters of the rainforest.

The rainforest is also important for people who visit, like you and I. While we may marvel at the richness and beauty of its nature, at the same time it is completely alien to us. We can try to make some connection with this strange world, by swimming in a river, walking in the rainforest or spending a night in a hut in the jungle. Even if we share no common language, we can sit with people who rely totally on this natural world, who don't separate the physical from the spiritual, whose way of life as jungle nomads contrasts sharply with our own material concepts of materialism and possession. In the rainforest we can travel back in time to a world of hunting and gathering, a world in which our species has lived for 99% of its time on earth. We in the west have forgotten that life, but the people of the rainforest haven't.

In the Ecuadorian part of the Amazon basin there are many such indigenous peoples, the biggest groups being the Siona-Sequoia, Cofan, Huaorani, Quichua, Shuar and Achuar. Some of them have only recently been in contact with people outside their forest environment, and it is thought that there are still small groups that continue to be totally isolated. Others, however, have either been in touch with the world outside for years and have adapted to it, or have been destroyed by its alien diseases.

Many Amazon peoples don't like visitors, who come as miners, colonists, travellers, tourists, photographers, travel writers, anthropologists, botanists, priests or policemen. But some realise they cannot remain isolated forever, and that tourism is a lesser evil than the logging and mining that destroys their forests. But wherever you go in the rainforest, it is wise to do so with a sensitivity and a respect to the peoples whose home it has been for thousands of years.

Last updated 3rd July 2006

|Article contributed by Dominic Hamilton|||
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