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The Wachiperi Community of the Peruvian Amazon

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage
At the 2015 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Nely Ninantay Yonaje shares her experience growing up in the remote Peruvian Amazon community of Queros. In the Festival's "Perú: Pachamama" program, she was one representative of the Wachiperi people who are fighting to preserve and revive their traditional customs and native language. Production, Editing: Claudia Romano Videography: Charlie Weber, Holly Wissler, Claudia Romano [Catalog No. CFV10757; Copyright 2015 Smithsonian Institution]

Driving a wedge into the Amazon

Smithsonian Libraries
Habitat loss and fragmentation are a pervasive threat to Earth's biodiversity. For those who study such things, the Biological Dynamics of Forest Fragments Project (BDFFP) in central Amazonia has, since 1979, been a scientific Mecca. Two hours north of the city of Manaus in Brazil, this 1,000-square- kilometre study area is home to the world's largest and longest-running experimental study of forest fragments1-3. Yet despite assurances from the Brazilian government, the BDFFP is now itself in imminent danger of becoming fragmented by rampant colonization (see map, overleaf). As the agricultural frontier expands, forest burning, logging and hunting are threatening to besiege the study area and drive a wedge deep into a crucial conservation corridor. For the BDFFP, is this the beginning of the end?The BDFFP is under particular pressure from the Manaus-Venezuela highway. Aside from slicing through the BDFFP, the highway bisects the Central Amazonian Conservation Corridor4, a budding network of protected and indigenous lands that is one of the most important conservation areas in the entire Amazon basin. These and other protected reserves in Amazonia are coming under increasing pressure as deforestation activity has spiked over the past decade5. For those Brazilian and foreign scientists who have studied at the BDFFP - and there are hundreds - the situation is all the more depressing as they fight against government bureaucracies that seem either myopically disinterested or determined to push ahead with forest colonization at any cost. The solution, the scientists believe, is to follow a carefully conceived land-use plan for the region that they themselves helped to devise. This plan, inexplicably, has yet to be released by the federal agency that sponsored it.

Lust for Salt in the Western Amazon

Smithsonian Libraries
Although the use of mineral licks by diverse Amazonian birds and mammals is well-known, the ultimate motivation for such behavior remains unclear. As aerosol deposition of salts declines with distance from oceanic sources, lick visitation in the western Amazon can be explained by demand for sodium, given the low concentration of this micronutrient in the plant tissues consumed by these taxa. Sodium limitation also influences ant foraging behavior, and impinges on ecosystem rates of carbon cycling. The biogeographical context of sodium availability has been largely overlooked, but has substantial pantropical implications for herbivore and decomposer performance in inland rain forests.

Reproductive phenology of Central Amazon pioneer trees

Smithsonian Libraries
This study characterizes the flowering and fruiting phenology of the 13 most common pioneer tree species in early successional forests of the Central Amazon. For each species, 30 individuals, 10 each in three secondary forests, were monitored monthly for four years at the Biological Dynamics of Forest Fragments Project, north of Manaus. Five species showed nearly continuous flowering and fruiting throughout the study, indicating that resources were available to pollinators and dispersers on a regular basis. The other eight species showed stronger seasonality in reproduction, seven of them annually, and one supra-annually. Overall, flowering was concentrated in the transition from the dry to the rainy season and fruiting was concentrated in the rainy season. There was no relationship between reproductive phenology and tree pollinator type or dispersal mode. Reproductive phenology was remarkably consistent year to year. The pioneer community showed a variety of phenological patterns but as a whole tended to be characterized by annual flowering and fruiting, either continuously or seasonally, thereby fitting generalizations of pioneer species relative to mature forest species.

Switch to corn promotes Amazon deforestation

Smithsonian Libraries
The United States is the world's leading producer of soy. however, many u.s. farmers are shifting from soy to corn (maize) in order to qualify for generous government subsidies intended to promote biofuel production (1); since 2006, U.S. corn production has risen 19% while soy production has fallen by 15% (2). This in turn is helping to drive a major increase in global soy prices (3), which have nearly doubled in the past 14 months. The rising price for soy has important consequences for Amazonian forests and savanna-woodlands (4). In Brazil, the world's second-leading soy producer, deforestation rates (5) and especially fire incidence (6) have increased sharply in recent months in the main soy- and beef-producing states in Amazonia (and not in states with little soy production). Although dry weather is a contributing factor, these increases are widely attributed to rising soy and beef prices (5, 7), and studies suggest a strong link between Amazonian deforestation and soy demand.

Amazon's Jeff Bezos Honored at Citizenship Ceremony

Smithsonian Magazine

An Armenian immigrant named Gabriel Kazanjian patented the first handheld hairdryer in 1911 in Chicago. German-born Levi Strauss invented jean pants in San Francisco in the early 1870s.  In 1866 Pierre Lallement filed the earliest American patent for the bicycle a year after he arrived from France. These are just a handful of the ingenious immigrants whose inventions forever changed life in the United States. Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon and the son of a Cuban refugee, joins this group of world-changing innovators of immigrant heritage.

This week during a citizenship ceremony for new Americans, the Smithsonian Institution awarded Bezos the James Smithson Bicentennial Medal in recognition of his contributions to the American experience in the field of e-commerce and technological innovation.

The award, which was established in 1965 in honor of the 200th anniversary of James Smithson’s birth, has been given to 73 distinguished individuals, including Ralph Lauren, Clint Eastwood, Julia Child and Chuck Jones.

After taking an oath of allegiance to the United States, the new citizens proudly waved their American flags. (, NMAH)

“You’re all Americans by choice and you help remind all of us what it means to be a citizen of this great nation, and the privilege and responsibility that brings,” Bezos said in addressing the 20 newly naturalized U.S. citizens who represented 17 countries.

The ceremony took place on the 100th anniversary of Flag Day in front of the entrance to the museum’s permanent exhibition “The Star-Spangled Banner: The Flag that Inspired the National Anthem.” The 20 candidates recited their oath of allegiance to the United States in the presence of the nation’s most important flag in June, Immigrant Heritage Month.

The National Museum of American History entered a partnership with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services in 2008 to organize and host naturalization ceremonies. (, NMAH)

“This country, like no other, presents the change to be and the opportunity to become,” Alejandro Mayorkas, a naturalized citizen and the deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, reminded the new Americans.

Presented in partnership with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, the naturalization ceremony was the first event for the museum’s participation in “America Now,” a program celebrating civic participation in collaboration with the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

In his final address to the newly-minted Americans, Bezos offered his support. “I will not stop cheering for you after today ends. I will always cheer as you go on to do amazing things. Thank you for letting me be a very small part of this very big day.”

Drought sensitivity of the Amazon rainforest

Smithsonian Libraries
Amazon forests are a key but poorly understood component of the global carbon cycle. If, as anticipated, they dry this century, they might accelerate climate change through carbon losses and changed surface energy balances. We used records from multiple long-term monitoring plots across Amazonia to assess forest responses to the intense 2005 drought, a possible analog of future events. Affected forest lost biomass, reversing a large long-term carbon sink, with the greatest impacts observed where the dry season was unusually intense. Relative to pre-2005 conditions, forest subjected to a 100-millimeter increase in water deficit lost 5.3 megagrams of aboveground biomass of carbon per hectare. The drought had a total biomass carbon impact of 1.2 to 1.6 petagrams (1.2 x 1015 to 1.6 x 1015 grams). Amazon forests therefore appear vulnerable to increasing moisture stress, with the potential for large carbon losses to exert feedback on climate change.

Indian Music of the Upper Amazon [sound recording]

Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections
Recording location: Amazon, South America

Amazon Just Opened An Actual Bookstore in Seattle

Smithsonian Magazine

For years, Amazon has been a bastion of online book sales. The company revolutionized the publishing industry, challenged big-box bookstores and sparked a longstanding debate about the need to support local, independent sellers. But now, reports Jay Greene for the Seattle Times, Amazon is dipping its toe into the world of brick-and-mortar retail with an actual bookstore in Seattle. 

The new bookstore, Amazon Books, is located in Seattle's University Village. The tech giant plans to use its famous troves of data about reader habits to stock the store with books that sell quickly, a tactic Amazon Books' vice president, Jennifer Cast, describes to Greene as "data with heart."

The store, which is stocked with roughly 6,000 books, looks different than your average shop—every single book is displayed with its cover exposed. It's part of a strategy GeekWire's Taylor Soper calls a "minimalist approach." Amazon Books won't stock a collection as large as other stores, but instead, will focus on the books that are most likely to sell. There might be something to the tactic: A 2014 study of libraries found that circulation increased by 58 percent when books were displayed with covers facing out. Crucially, the display strategy also circumvents an age-old industry practice of paying to prominently display books on shelves.

The irony of Amazon opening a real-life bookstore wasn't lost on publishing insiders, who often criticize the retailer for undercutting independent sellers. The Bookseller's Philip Jones notes that "much of what Amazon has so far said about the store is anathema to 'real' booksellers." The launch will surely generate interest from curious readers, but will it spell doom for Amazon's scrappy independent competition? As the New York Times' Alexandra Alter wrote in September, business is booming for the indies. Maybe they'll be too busy to worry.

New Agreement Will Help Protect the Amazon Basin

Smithsonian Magazine

Covering nearly three million square miles and home to indigenous people as well as millions of plants and animals, the Amazon River Basin is truly one of Earth’s most spectacular places. But that majesty is matched by temptation. Because it’s so rich in natural resources, the world’s largest tropical rainforest is quite the allure for those who wish to harness its trees and the water that flows through it. Faced with those threats, a group of government officials, conservationists and others just moved to protect both the basin’s natural grandeur and its environmental integrity.

The move came during the Amazon Waters International Conference in Lima, Peru. The conference was organized by The Wildlife Conservation Society (formerly the New York Zoological Society), a conservation group with a goal of conserving wild places that cover over 50 percent of the world’s biodiversity. It brought together officials like Peru’s Ministry of Environment, scientists and others with a stake in the Amazon Basin’s survival. 

The basin’s environmental impact is so extensive that the entire globe shares those stakes, though it isn’t always immediately obvious. It’s thought that one in ten of the world’s species live within the basin, making it a bastion of biodiversity. The huge number of trees and other vegetation in the forest serves as a critical carbon sink—the rainforest sucks in more carbon dioxide than it emits, absorbing greenhouse gases. And the forest is home to rich indigenous cultures, including a number of “lost” or uncontacted peoples

All of that diversity, however, is under threat by human development in the Amazon Basin. Everything from gold mining to massive dams to deforestation are reducing the rainforest’s size, killing native species and turning large swaths of the forest into unrecognizable, unrecoverable wasteland. About 1,930 square miles of Amazon forest disappeared in 2015 alone, Chris Arsenault reports for Reuters. That’s significantly less from the all-time high, but still more than the rapidly declining forest can tolerate. And climate change threatens everything within basin—plants, animals and humans, too.

More than a dozen parties at the conference signed the new declaration, which aims to drive those numbers even lower and make conserving the basin a higher priority. It identifies seven objectives, from expanding ecosystem management in the basin to promoting research agendas that gather more information about the Amazon’s ecosystems and environmental impacts. The declaration also lays out the biggest threats to the basin—from habitat loss to pollution, natural resources exploitation and invasive species. 

“We hope many more will join and the doors are open for individuals and institutions interested in doing so,” Cristián Samper, President and CEO of the Wildlife Conservation Society, says in a release.

Signing a document will only go so far—after all, protecting the basin needs action, not empty words. But a public commitment creates something else the Amazon needs: A visible coalition who demands that the world change its approach to the invaluable landscape. 

Stopping Deforestation in the Amazon: A Publicity Campaign

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Teacher-created lesson that complements a unit on South America. Students design an environmental public-service campaign.

Fire Is a Quickly Growing Threat to the Amazon Rainforest

Smithsonian Magazine

Photo: CIFOR

We tend to think of the Amazon rainforest as a lush, humid, wet place, but it experiences distinct wet and dry seasons. And, according to new research, those dry seasons are increasing dramatically. Over the past 30 years, that season has expanded to include three additional rainless weeks, LiveScience reports. A lengthening dry season stresses and may eventually kill trees, the researchers report, and also increases the likelihood of wild fires breaking out.

The Amazon is no stranger to fires, either. During an infamous, long-term drought in 2005, forest fires raged through the jungle’s southwest stretches. Earlier this year, researchers reported that “hidden wildfires”—those that burn beneath the thick canopy of trees—had consumed 33,000 square miles of rainforest between 1999 and 2010, LiveScience writes. Those fires typically take place in the dry season and are sparked predominantly by careless humans who flick a cigarette or leave a smoldering fire burning in the dry leaves.

In this new study, researchers used rainfall measurements from 1979 until today to better understand how quickly the forest is changing, and how those changes may play out in the future. Their models projected a significantly more severe dry season for the Amazon than previous climate forecasts have suggested. If the Amazon continues to dry at just half the pace as it has over the past 30 years, conditions suffered during the drought of 2005 will become the new norm by the end of this century, the researchers warn.  “We do not know what has caused this change, although it resembles the effects of anthropogenic climate change,” they conclude. 

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The USPS Will Make Sunday Deliveries Just for Amazon

Smithsonian Magazine

“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” So goes the U.S. Postal Service motto. It just doesn’t apply on Sundays. Unless you’re ordering from Amazon. The Postal Service announced that it would make special Sunday deliveries for customers.

For the next year the Sunday deliveries will only be available in New York City and Los Angeles, according to the Los Angeles Times:

The postal service’s Sunday package delivery business has been very small, but the arrangement with Amazon for two of the retailer’s larger markets, Los Angeles and New York, should boost work considerably.

To pull off Sunday delivery for Amazon, the postal service plans to use its flexible scheduling of employees, Brennan said. It doesn’t plan to add employees, she said.

Because Amazon is so huge, other vendors will have a hard time competing with this new Sunday offering. But the USPS is hoping to cut more deals like this one, according to the New York Times:

The Postal Service said it expected to make more such deals with other merchants, seeking a larger role in the $186 billion e-commerce market. would not say if it would try to arrange Sunday deliveries with other parcel carriers.

This deal alone won’t save the USPS, which continues to bleed money (about $32 billion since 2007) and see declines in letters, but it might keep them from going under for a bit longer.

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Satellite Images Reveal 81 Pre-Hispanic Settlements in the Amazon

Smithsonian Magazine

Historical accounts from the 18th century attest that the Upper Tapajós Basin was once densely populated with large villages connected by roads. Nevertheless, for many years, the prevailing theory among archaeologists was that pre-Hispanic settlements in the Amazon were clustered mainly around the fertile lands near the floodplains. Large swaths of the Amazon, particularly regions situated at a distance from major waterways, remain largely unexplored by researchers. Now, as Sarah Kaplan reports for the Washington Post, new research in the savannah-like region near Brazil’s border with Bolivia​ shows that ancient human activity in the Amazon was far more robust and wide-ranging than experts previously thought.

By studying satellite imagery, researchers from the UK and Brazil found traces of 81 settlements in the Upper Tapajós Basin​. The aerial surveys revealed the remains of dozens of geoglyphs—mysterious, geometric earthworks that may have been used during ritual ceremonies. Villages have often been found near, or even inside geoglyphs, and when archaeologists explored 24 of the sites uncovered by the satellite images, they unearthed stone tools, ceramic fragments, garbage piles, and terra preta, an enriched soil that has been found in other parts of the Amazon. According to Nicola Davis of the Guardian, the team also discovered evidence of fortifications, sunken roads and platforms where houses once stood.

Describing their discovery in Nature Communications, the researchers write that they were able to date wood charcoal from the sites to between 1410 and 1460 C.E. Peak activity of other settlements on the southern rim of the Amazon have been dated as far back as the mid-13th century, leading the team to conclude that “an 1800 km stretch of southern Amazonia was occupied by earth-building cultures living in fortified villages [circa] C.E. 1250–1500.”

According to the study authors, the team believes that settlements during this period were even more wide-ranging than historical accounts indicated. Using a computer model, researchers estimated that there could be as many as 1,300 geoglyphs across 400,000 square kilometers (154,441 square miles) of the southern Amazon rainforest. Between 500,000 and 1 million people may have lived in the region, the models suggest.

The new findings from the Upper Tapajós Basin indicate that the stretch of settlements along the southern Amazon was home to an array of cultures. Communities in the region shared some practices, like soil enrichment and fortification techniques. But their ceramic styles and architectural traditions were diverse.

“We are so excited to have found such a wealth of evidence,” José Iriarte, professor of archaeology at the University of Exeter and one of the authors of the study, said in a statement. “Most of the Amazon hasn’t been excavated yet, but studies such as ours mean we are gradually piecing together more and more information about the history of the largest rainforest on the planet.”

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