Living roofs, green walls, urban gardens: our towns and cities are dominated by concrete, glass, and steel so we are compelled to invent ever-more imaginative ways to bring plants into our lives. Plants are beneficial for our physical and mental wellbeing, and for the future of the environment. We have been reliant on the extraordinary properties of plants throughout the millennia of human existence as they have provided us with crucial resources such as oxygen, water, food, and construction materials, among others.
52 plant species for the construction of houses
Amazonia and its Indigenous inhabitants provide a perfect example of how people can exploit plants sustainably. To provide shelter, for example, the Yanomami build large circular wooden dwellings, thatched with palm leaves, which house the entire community. A single large lowland roundhouse uses at least 52 plant species, including Geonoma palm leaves for thatching and house posts made from Manilkara huberi and Centrolobium paraense. These are both known by the Yanomami to be the most resistant to rot and attacks by termites – and consequently valued for their durability in the timber trade. Traditionally, the Yanomami move on from the site after a few years to allow the forest to recover.
Sustainable forest management to protect our natural resources
We are increasingly aware that the use of plant-based assets in Amazonia (and worldwide) is far from sustainable, threatening not only our natural resource supplies but the entire environment that we all inhabit. Sustainable forest management and certification schemes have made some progress towards better husbandry of the world’s forests, but the problem is a long way from being solved.
Fifty years from now the built environment will be substantially different and the land and its ecosystems and habitats will be more impacted than ever. Energy efficiency will become critically important, and renewable plant resources will play an increasingly important role in human life. As the global environment changes and species extinction increases, the need to find new, sustainable solutions to counter these processes is even more crucial than it ever was.
End illegal deforestation by 2028
In Amazonia, Indigenous peoples remain the greatest protectors of the remaining forest. At the COP26 meeting in Glasgow, Brazil stated that they would cut the country’s carbon emissions by 2030, achieve net-zero by 2050, and end illegal deforestation by 2028. Nevertheless, more parts of the Amazon Forest were burned in 2021 that in the last 15 years.
Meanwhile, politicians and businesses are trying to alter the laws to make mining and development legal in indigenous reserves. Currently there are approximately 20,000 illegal goldminers in the Yanomami area, polluting the rivers with mercury, infecting local people with COVID-19, and inciting violence and, in some cases, causing deaths. Amazonia is now believed to be reaching the ‘tipping point’ after which the ecosystem may never recover. It is time to step up now, before it is too late.