The Amazon Rainforest Is "on the verge of collapse"

(Vinicius Mendonça/Ibama – 28/08/2019)

“…climate models indicated that this point of no return, or tipping point, could be triggered with the loss of 20% to 25% of the Amazon rainforest…”

Carlos Nobre is a researcher at the University of São Paulo and co-president of the Scientific Panel for the Amazon, an electronic engineer from the Aeronautics Institute of Technology (ITA), with a Ph.D in meteorology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Nobre is a member of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society of Great Britain, and a former researcher at the National Institute for Research in the Amazon and the National Institute for Space Research.

Amazônia colapso

Carlos Nobre, researcher at USP

AgriBrasilis – Why do you consider that the Amazon rainforest is “on the verge of collapse”? What actions should be taken to reverse this process?

Carlos Nobre – What were scientific predictions about three decades ago are now evidence and observed facts: the Amazon is on the verge of a collapse. Predictions from climate models indicated that this point of no return, or tipping point, could be triggered by the loss of 20% to 25% of the Amazon rainforest, together with the impacts of climate change.

The Amazon has lost approximately 18% of its forest and another 17% is in various stages of degradation. More than 90% of the lost natural vegetation has been replaced by pasture areas characterized by low soil cover. This change in vegetation is responsible for the reduction of moisture production and surface cooling, critical services provided by the tropical rainforest.

The southern and southeastern regions of the Amazon are the most impacted by deforestation and degradation, which is reflected in their climate patterns. Since 1979, the temperature in the Amazon basin has increased by an average of 1.02°C and the dry season in southern part of the Amazon has been prolonged by about one week per decade, becoming 4 to 5 weeks longer, especially in heavily deforested areas.

The frequency of extreme weather events, such as droughts, has also intensified over the past two decades, with cases in 2005, 2010, and 2020 induced by warmer waters in the Tropical Atlantic Ocean north of the Equator. There was also the 2015-16 drought, caused by the El Niño phenomenon, which caused the death of more than 2 billion trees. These climatic extremes place the forest in an almost permanent state of disturbance and challenge its ability to re-establish itself.

More than three-quarters of the Amazon rainforest has lost resilience since the early 2000s. Immediate actions needed to prevent the collapse of the forest and its vital ecosystem services include: halting deforestation and degradation in the southern and southeastern regions and restoring the forest in the extensive unproductive deforested and degraded areas. In the medium to long term, a new bioeconomy based on keeping the forest standing and whole, and flowing rivers must be established to replace the current destructive and unfair extractive model, focused on benefits for a minority of the population.

AgriBrasilis – What is the economic potential of the Amazon? Can the bioeconomy, based on keeping the forest “standing”, be considered a solution?

Carlos Nobre – Studies show an average of US$ 422/year in profit per hectare only with non-timber forest products obtained from extractive activities.

The estimated average monetary value was US$ 5,264/year per hectare, based on calculations that include the provision of food, water, raw materials, genetic and medicinal resources, biological control and air, climate and erosion regulation services, in addition to benefits related to habitat and culture. These are called ecosystem services, and their economic potential is calculated considering the standing and healthy forest.

Agroforestry systems can reach up to US$ 1,000/year per hectare with genetic selection and forest management, being indicated by scientists and local populations as an economically viable alternative for land use. Neo-industrialization policies for products from the different terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems of the Amazon must be added to this, in order to add value to socio-biodiversity products. A developed country is an industrialized country.

AgriBrasilis – Is it possible to reconcile agricultural development and sustainability in the region?

Carlos Nobre – It is feasible to eliminate deforestation and forest degradation in the Amazon while promoting social and economic prosperity. According to estimates by the National Institute for Space Research, around 20% of the deforested area (approximately 170,000 km²) has been abandoned, and the forests have regenerated quickly.

The elimination of deforestation and forest degradation is compatible with the growth of agriculture and mainly of agroforestry systems, through the implementation of regenerative practices and the restoration of deforested and degraded areas.

AgriBrasilis – How are soil carbon emission estimates and possible environmental impacts estimated in the Amazon?

Carlos Nobre – The balance of carbon in the soil is determined by inputs from photosynthesis and losses caused by respiration.

Approximately 4% of global carbon is stored in the soil. When agricultural land is well managed, there is the ability to increase its carbon stock. For example, studies conducted by the University of São Paulo and by Embrapa Pecuária Sudeste showed that managing animals in Voisin Grazing or Rational Intensive Grazing resulted in an increase in the input of fresh organic matter.

Concrete policy incentives to prevent soil carbon dioxide emissions or to increase net soil carbon sequestration are still rare. In Brazil, soil carbon emissions are not yet considered in the national inventory of carbon emissions.

AgriBrasilis – In what ways do deforestation and changes in land usage and occupation interfere with CO2 emissions?

Carlos Nobre – Carbon emissions in the tropics are associated with deforestation for converting natural forests to agricultural land.

Between 1994 and 2010, changes in land usage and land cover in the Amazon biome were primarily responsible for around 74% of national emissions (results still in public consultation, MCTI, 2019).

In percentage terms, deforestation in the Amazon was responsible for 25.7% of the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions in 2018, and 59% of emissions from the Land Use Change category – MUT.

Between 2007 and 2018, the total emitted by deforestation and forest degradation was 8.23 GtCO2eq [gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent], which is equivalent to approximately 34% of the total national emissions in the same period (24.4 GTCO2eq).

The Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of Deforestation in the Legal Amazon – PPCDam showed significant results in reducing deforestation and emissions associated with the MUT in the Amazon in the period of great reduction in deforestation between 2004 and 2012-2014. Between 2012 and 2015 (3rd phase of PPCDam), low rates of deforestation and forest degradation reduced emissions from deforestation to 300 MtCO2.

AgriBrasilis – You defend the demarcations of Indigenous Lands, claiming that they are weapons against global warming. What is the temporal framework and how does it relate to this issue? What is your position on the temporal framework?

Carlos Nobre – Indigenous lands in the Amazon region act as a shield against deforestation. They are important for carbon reservoirs and the protection of biodiversity and even for the prevention of the emergence of epidemics and pandemics.

The indigenous population of the Amazon was once 8 to 10 million when Europeans arrived 500 years ago. Today, it is estimated at approximately 2.2 million, because of land conflicts and diseases brought by contact with the white population.

Bill No. 490/07 is known as the Temporal Framework in Indigenous Lands and was proposed in 2007. Since then, it has incorporated changes in its original text. The bill puts the rights of indigenous peoples at risk, violating the Federal Constitution itself, which deals with the rights of these people in Brazil.

The bill is known as Temporal Framework because one of its main proposals is to prohibit the expansion of territories already demarcated and place as a temporal framework the lands occupied when the Federal Constitution was enacted, on October 5, 1988.

There are many other proposals in this text that violate the Federal Constitution, the legal technical processes established and supported by the Federal Supreme Court, and violate international norms, such as Convention 169, of the International Labor Organization. Examples of these proposals involve the permission of various exploration activities without consulting the indigenous communities or the National Indian Foundation and the transfer of the power to demarcate indigenous lands from the Executive to the Legislative.

The proposal, mostly carried out by the bancada ruralista, the agribusiness lobby Parliamentary Group, with the lack of consultation by the indigenous people and the potential reduction of the rights of these people, makes bill No. 490/07 unconstitutional.

Indigenous people have been in the Amazon for almost 12,000 years and their territorial rights are legitimate and must be protected by the Brazilian State. Their territories were reduced to 13% of Brazilian land, while rural properties represent 41% of the national territory, with 20% being large estates. In some states, such as Mato Grosso do Sul, rural properties occupy 86% of the territory.

The bill of the Legal Framework for Indigenous Lands is yet another attempt to weaken power structures that impact the environment and collective rights. In most developed countries, agricultural areas have been decreasing over time (e.g., USA, European countries, Japan, China, etc.), while the production of these areas increases over time because of the increasingly efficient practice of agriculture. The same must happen with Brazil, particularly in view of the enormous potential for the generalization of regenerative agriculture, which is more sustainable, productive, and profitable.

Ownership of large, low-productivity large rural estates is a culture that must be abandoned immediately.

AgriBrasilis – What are the consequences if the rates of deforestation and fires in the country are maintained? How long will it take for agricultural productivity to decline, for example?

Carlos Nobre – The rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon is the highest on the planet among tropical forest countries, at 14,000 km2/year in the period between 1988 and 2022.

Approximately 800 million trees and palm trees are destroyed every year in the Brazilian Amazon. Currently, around 21% of the original forest area has already been deforested.

The immediate consequences of deforestation are: loss of biodiversity, regional climate change, and greenhouse gas emissions, making the forest more susceptible to fires caused by human activities.

The fire burned 120,000 km2 of forest between 2001 and 2018, degrading leaves, branches, tree trunks, as well as fruits and seeds, that could be consumed, sold, or regenerated. The combination of deforestation, global climate change, and fire is making the soil and atmosphere drier, especially in the southern and eastern regions of the Amazon, which has reduced agricultural and forestry productivity in the most deforested areas.

Fires generate a lot of pollution, bringing very serious impacts on human health and countless species of animals in the Amazon and even outside it, because of the transport of pollutants from the fires.

The impact of fires on human health is negative because of carbon monoxide and particulates from the smoke. Between 2010 and 2019, the number of respiratory and cardiovascular infections related to fire reached 1,429,134 cases in the 772 municipalities that make up the legal Amazon, an average of 586.87 cases per 100,000 individuals.

AgriBrasilis – What positive actions are being taken to preserve the Amazon?

Carlos Nobre – The Brazilian government from 2019 to 2022 worked strongly against the preservation of the Amazon. The deforested area grew from 7,536 km2 in 2018 to 13,038 km2 in 2021, representing a 73% increase in this period. In fact, a set of actions to control and combat deforestation was disrupted, empowering land grabbers and illegal miners by weakening environmental governance. This reality needs to be changed by the new Federal and State governments.

Public policies that encourage the preservation and sustainable use of the forest, the expansion of inspection, and punishment of those responsible for illegal activities are some of the positive actions that must be taken. It is necessary to strengthen the participation of indigenous people and local communities in the management of the Amazon territory.

Unprecedented investments in science, technology, and innovation are needed. Many public and private organizations inside and outside the Amazon have pointed to the bioeconomy as a way to generate lasting social changes.

Scientists researching the Amazon are seeking support to implement the so-called Amazon Institute of Technology – AmIT. AmIT was inspired by the US Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is designed to enable nature-based solutions to be implemented at scale in the region. The Amazônia 4.0 project is an example, which seeks to incorporate science, technology, and socio-biodiversity into new products with high added value and a strong aspect of sustainability. The Arcos da Restauração project is another example, which seeks to provide US$ 20 billion for the forest restoration of more than 500,000 km2 of deforested, degraded, and abandoned land in the Andean Amazon (Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru) and on the eastern and southern edges of the forest between Brazil and Bolivia.



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