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We have spent the past week paddling along a narrow river that parallels the Amazon River called Panela Capea. We have been amazed by the number and diversity of plants and animals we have encountered. Approximately 50% of the Earth’s plants and animals reside in the world’s tropical rainforests. The Pink River Dolphins, Howler Monkeys, and countless other animals we have seen so far are examples of the Amazing biodiversity found in the rainforest. The rainforest is full of life, from the paca and peccaries roaming the forest floor to the Macaws perched in high in the canopy.

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This house is typical of many of the houses we’ve seen in comunidades throughout Amazonia. Not all houses are painted with signs like this, so this house must be important in the comunidade.

The four main layers of the rainforest – emergent, canopy, understory, and forest floor – all play host to a different, but equally fascinating array of plants and animals. In fact, some rainforest animals and insects never touch the ground and have adapted their lives to living in tree branches high above the rainforest floor!

The bottom layer, the forest floor, is where tree life begins in the rainforest. Little (if any) sunlight that reaches this level, and few plants or shrubs manage to grow here. However, leaves and fruit, which fall from the trees above, decay on the forest floor, providing rich nutrients for the already fertile soil, helping new trees and plants grow.

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This sign lets passersby know that the land here is protected by the Brazilian government for indigenous people.

Just above the forest floor is the understory. This level is hot and damp, and the air is very still. The many shrubs, saplings and tree trunks, as well as vines and fragrant flowers, provide shelter and food for the bees, bats, snakes and frogs that call the understory their home. The understory also sometimes hosts animals that typically dwell in the layers above and below it; the jaguar is often found reclining on the low branches of the understory, and birds and monkeys, which normally live in the layer above, venture into the understory in search of food.

Above the understory is a dense covering of greenery called the canopy. Sunlight generously hits the upper layers of the canopy, but this rich green blanket, sometimes called the roof of the rainforest, prevents sunlight from reaching the levels below. Trees in this level soar as high as 150 feet; they must grow quickly in order to compete successfully for the limited sunlight available. Thick vines, air plants (such as mosses and lichen), and gorgeous tropical flowers (such as orchids and bromeliads) also grow abundantly in the canopy.

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This 10 year old boy was very helpful to us as we settled for the night. He cleaned the house we stayed in, helped us carry our supplies, and told us about the different types of manioca that we had for dinner. This morning, Hoeky watched him fly a kite, which is called “papagallo” in Portuguese. Here he is seen playing with his dogs.

Only a few trees per acre manage to grow higher than the thick cover of the canopy level; these are the trees which make up the emergent level. Emergent trees have little protection from the sun and must adapt to hot temperatures, low humidity, and high winds. A variety of insects and an array of birds, such as macaws, eagles, and birds of paradise, live in the emergent level.

The tropical rainforest is a rich and ripe place for plants and animals to live, but what kind of environment does it make for humans?

Actually, people have been successfully living in tropical rainforests for thousands of years, and studies estimate that over 2,000 indigenous tribes with more than seven million people lived in the Amazon before the arrival of the Europeans 500 years ago. Since then, estimated numbers have declined significantly; it is believed that less than 400 tribes and about one to one-and-a-half million people currently live in the Amazon rainforest.

These inhabitants of the Amazon survive off the richness of the rainforest, getting their food by hunting, fishing, gathering and cultivating small crops. They make their medicines from rainforest plants and build their homes from rainforest trees and plants.

The survival of the indigenous people of the Amazon rainforest is solely dependent on the conservation of their habitat. Until fairly recently, the rainforest protected these people and provided everything these people needed to survive. Unfortunately, their way of life has been increasingly threatened. Last week we stayed in a small native community called Nova Esperanza. The four families living in Nova Esperanza are Mirana, a native group from the Brazilian Rainforest.

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A teenage couple poses for a photo.

Like most indigenous people in the Amazon live in communities that are very similar to the communities of non-native people in the Amazon. They speak Portugese, wear jeans and t-shirts, and grow yucca and bananas, just like everyone else.

Remember, a habitat is defined as a place where certain organisms naturally live and grow. The habitat provides the food, water and shelter that these organisms need for survival. If the habitat is destroyed – or even altered in a minor way – the survival of the organisms that live there is gravely threatened. In today’s interactive world, where we are so dependent on products derived from all over the world, the loss of a rich habitat such as the rainforest would be a tremendous loss for everyone. Understanding and protecting the Earth’s habitats is a crucial element for survival, not only of rainforest plants, animals and people, but for people all over the world.

Habitat is vital to survival. The three basic levels of habitat are: food, water, and shelter. How does your habitat provide these basic needs?

Think about your habitat. Where does your food come from? How can you trace your food back to the source?

Fresh water is a necessity to survival. Where does your water come from? Trace your water back from the tap to the source. What kinds of treatments are applied to ensure water’s safety?

What kind of impact have people had on your habitat? What are ways you can reduce your impact?

How do plants, animals, and people co-exist in your habitat? How do plants, animals, and people co-exist in the flooded forest? Are there any similarities?

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