Scientists have been warning us about the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, but now U.S. scientists James Alcock, of Pennsylvania State University, says that the forest could reach a ?point of no return? in as little as 10 or 15 years, if deforestation continues at the rate of about one percent a year, and disappear within half a century. This is much sooner than has been predicted in other studies, which estimate that total rainforest loss won?t occur until the end of this century, 75 to 100 years from now.

Brazil’s science and technology ministry has stated that an article published in the journal Science earlier this year saying that deforestation rates in the Amazon could reach 42% by 2020 was based on unreliable facts and ?ecological futurology.? But Professor Alcock’s forecast, which based on a mathematical model, predicts a stark future for the precious area of rare animals and plants. Many new plants are still being discovered there which are made into drugs to treat diseases such as HIV, cancer and heart disease.

Alcock states that his model is a useful predictor of what could happen in the other great tropical forest systems as well, in south east Asia and the Congo river basin in Africa. The size of the Amazon river basin has already been reduced by about 25%.

?It’s a very difficult problem because of several pressures,? he says. ?For example, you can’t say: ?Leave the rainforests alone? when people are living in poverty.? He feels that plans to preserve small areas of forest would probably not work, because damage to the overall system would limit the rain necessary for their survival. Less rain falling on the forest could also increase the likelihood of fires.

Another consequence is the extinction of many creatures that depend on the forest for survival. According to Alcock, ?There are already a large number of species that are endangered because the forest itself is endangered. We might be able to keep a few animals at the zoos, but we’d surely lose a lot of amphibians, reptiles and insects.? Philip Stott, professor of biogeography at the University of London, disagrees with Alcock?s estimate. ?This model sounds to me to be highly simplistic in political, economic and ecological terms,? he says. ?Many scientists believe that deforestation estimates are greatly exaggerated, and that in the Amazon 87% may still be intact?perhaps more.?

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