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At the 2002 UN climate conference in Johannesburg, then Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso issued a decree that created the largest protected tropical rainforest reserve on earth. It is the Tumucumaque Mountains National Park and is in Brazil’s northern state of Amapá. 

At more than 3.8-million hectares, it is larger than Belgium. It is pristine and untouched, and access is limited strictly to fewer than 100 visitors a year (researchers excluded). The Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation must give permission to visit in advance. 

I am told I was the first visitor in 2024 and the first SA visitor in 21 years. I spent four days sleeping in a hammock surrounded by birds and 300-year-old, 100m tall megaflora, next to the Amaparí river (an Amazon tributary). I was woken up at night by the screams of howler monkeys and encountered the odd beautiful tarantula and 20cm-long centipedes (whose painful bite made me keep my distance). It was magic. 

Getting to this unspoilt rainforest took some planning and effort, as there is very little information about it online. For this I thank the Brazilian consulate in Cape Town for its valuable assistance. There is a four-hour flight from São Paulo to the city of Macapá, capital of Amapá, and from there several hours by car and boat. 

The equator runs through Macapá, so you just must have pictures for Instagram with one foot in the southern hemisphere and the other in the northern hemisphere. The city is on the banks of the Amazon River delta.  Though I had visited Brazil’s Amazon region twice before, the immensity of the river still overwhelms me. It is so large that it has tides. The delta mouth stretches about 250km and is dotted with islands, including Marajó, an inland river island larger than Switzerland. Forget Rio de Janeiro, this is where Brazil’s immense and true beauty is to be found.

The purpose of my trip was not just an adventure to get away from it all (though there was that too), but to learn more about the Amazon rainforest, Brazil’s original people, their struggle to preserve the forest and their lifestyle, the threats they face from businesses that believe trees are valuable only when cut down, and why all of this matters to the planet. 

The Amazon has been described as the lungs of the earth. While that is not entirely accurate because the trees absorb the oxygen they release — sea plankton release more oxygen than the rainforests — one of its biggest benefits is in the form of the moisture it spreads throughout the atmosphere. Some of this moisture rains down on the forest itself, but much of it rises high enough into the atmosphere to be transported through winds to other parts of the world where it rains down. 

These aerial rivers are an indispensable and life-giving part of the water cycle. Rainforests don’t arise where they do because it rains there, but rather create their own rain through the water they absorb, which is then perspired through their leaves. This eventually condenses and creates an eternal cycle of rain for much of the planet. The energy used by trees for this process has a cooling effect on the surroundings. While we were sweating in unheard of temperatures of 38°C during December in São Paulo, a city largely devoid of trees, in the forest it was actually pleasant, even cool at night.   

In deforested areas of the Amazon the rain is already measurably less, and river water levels far lower. About 17% of the Amazon has already been deforested, resulting in less rain falling in Brazil and increased drought in South America as a whole. Despite these already clear detrimental effects, I heard some Brazilians say there is no reason to worry because the Amazon is too big to be destroyed. It is not. There are examples, including in South America, of rainforests that have been completely obliterated. 

While most Brazilians are opposed to deforestation and want to protect the forest, many are looking for an elusive balance between preserving the Amazon while harnessing its riches. Unfortunately, those in favour of deforestation have powerful lobbies in parliament who deny that the forests play a role in regulating the earth’s climate, using traditional and long-debunked climate change denialist arguments.

Whatever the economic benefits of clearing the forest, they represent short-term gains with a heavy long-term environmental price tag. The trees deliver their services to us for hundreds of years. Once a tree is cut down, chopped up and made into furniture, its benefits are brought to an abrupt end, and it immediately releases more CO2 into the atmosphere.

And money the loggers earn is typically spent quickly. My guides told me that the number of trees that die naturally every year equals that of the trees  mown down, suggesting that the loggers could just harvest dead trees and leave the living ones intact. The trees also produce oils, fruits and various substances with medicinal properties, many of which we are yet to discover.

They may contain solutions for some of the challenges facing humanity, including health, food and water security, secrets the besieged original Brazilian people living in the forest know and understand and can share with us. We must just get past the notion that a tree has value only if cut down and learn from the original Brazilian people that the value of a tree in the forest holds for us thousands of kilometres away from where it grows. 

Brazil will host the 30th Conference of the Parties (COP30) in 2025 in the Amazon, providing a perfect opportunity to get this message across. 

• Myburgh is an attorney practising in Johannesburg and São Paulo. 

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