Trace the points that led to the Amazon tipping point

Scientifically, it is indisputable that the Amazon is on the way to ceasing to become a tropical forest.

The “lungs of the earth” which store some 200 billion tonnes of carbon now emit more carbon than they capture, accelerating climate change which is further damaging the forest.

Mysterious forest soils and canopies vibrate with a tenth of all known life forms over an area twice the size of India and are silenced by forest fires and deforestation.

The ancient home of more than 400 of the most historically rich indigenous cultures sees the lands of its peoples degraded, stolen and converted for mining, dams and agriculture.

The first of three days devoted to examining the critical state of the Amazon biome during GLF Amazonia: The Tipping Point, a digital conference hosted by the Global Landscapes Forum, heard a chorus of voices – indigenous leaders, scientists, politicians, economists, heads of organizations, young people – sharing the pressures they see and how to address them.

The objective, as the sub-title of the conference “Solutions from the inside out” indicates, must then be to weave these realities into a strategy stronger than the arrows of the challenges coming from all directions. .

“We are at the tipping point in the Amazon,” said Luciana Gatti, senior researcher in climate change for the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research (INPE). “It’s reversible.”

To go straight to the point

In the context of ecology, a “tipping point” is a junction in an ecosystem or natural cycle that, once crossed, cannot be reversed. As Antarctic glaciers break apart and melt more and more, sea levels rise to a point that could cause West Antarctica to collapse completely. As glacial meltwater and precipitation increase due to global warming, the Gulf Stream and other weather-regulating currents are upset. As arctic permafrost melts, greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere, causing these processes.

For the Amazon, as these changes in the global climate are increasingly accompanied by rising temperatures, seasonal instability, wildfires and deforestation, the biome is struggling to produce its own rain and shows signs of dieback – drying out into a prairie-like ecosystem. It is the Amazon’s tipping point, and its beginnings are underway.

“Where we have more problems than we realize is that these tipping points are interdependent – they are not independent,” said Robert Nasi, director general of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and director General of CIFOR-ICRAF, at the opening of the event. “These things are very dangerous because they can create cascading effects that will impact the entire base of the biosphere and the survival systems of life.”

“I want people on the outside to hear us and know that we are fighting for our lives – not only our life, but that of humanity,” said Nemonte Nenquimo, leader of the Waorani people of the Ecuadorian Amazon. long to maintain this balance [with nature] in climate change.

Context points

The Amazon tipping point in particular began to be seriously investigated in 1992, when Brazilian scientist Carlos Nobre and American scientist Thomas Lovejoy, both of whom will be speaking at the GLF event, launched a project called ” Large-Scale Biosphere Atmosphere Experiment in Amazonia ”to intensively examine the atmosphere-biosphere-hydrosphere dynamics of the biome. Their conclusion, years later, was that the Amazon would reach its tipping point and dry out when it was 40% deforested and climate change continued in a business-as-usual scenario.

However, in 2018, scientists significantly lowered that initial estimate to 20 to 25 percent, in part due to the increase in fires, which are now triangulated in the tipping point equation with deforestation and climate change. .

Currently, the Amazon is more than 17% deforested and, at current rates, will reach 27% by 2030 – hence the urgency of figuring out how to interrupt the trajectory of this critical ecosystem.

MapBiomas infographic showing the results of their mapping of fires in Brazil over 16 years. Courtesy of MapBiomas

In July of this year, Gatti led the authorship of a study that made headlines around the world and found that parts of the Amazon now emit more carbon than they capture each year.

The eastern part of the Amazon, which is around 27% deforested, emits 10 times more carbon than the western part, which is only around 11% deforested. The southern Amazon is now a net source of carbon. The data collection that fed the study ended in 2018, so today’s emissions are still unknown, and likely more.

Ane Alencar, scientific director of the Amazon Environmental Research Institute, extrapolated the different models of fires in the Amazon based on a map from the MapBiomas initiative that shows areas of the Amazon burned at least once in the past. Last 36 years, together amounting to 16.4%. of the biome. The southern regions of the Amazon suffered the most burns, with the southeast becoming particularly fragmented due to the fires, as evidenced by the particularly high emissions from the south from burnt biomass, described in Gatti’s study.

“These fires are quite dangerous because the changes [in the ecosystem] usually occur slowly over several decades, but if the fire enters the forest, these changes are more abrupt, ”said Paulo Brando, assistant professor in the Department of Earth System Sciences at the University of California-Irvine. “We don’t know how much carbon we’re losing – and we’re not losing it throughout the Amazon region – but with fire the amount is going to be more.”

“Over the past 50 years, the Amazon region has lost 17 percent of its forest,” she said. “Last year it was around 1.5%. It’s too much, and we’re on the verge of collapsing, very quickly. We need urgent action. We need general measures to end deforestation and control deforestation during dry seasons and also to find other ways to manage agriculture and restore the ecosystem.

Management points

A tree frog hanging from a branch in the Peruvian Amazon at night.  The Amazon is home to 10% of all known life forms.  Ulrike Langner, Unsplash
A tree frog hanging from a branch in the Peruvian Amazon at night. The Amazon is home to 10% of all known life forms. Ulrike Langner, Unsplash

While the Amazon is often seen as an expression of the wildest nature, the statistics tell a different story. Take, for example, the figures on Brazil’s forests, broken down by Alison Castilho, a biologist at the Observatório do Manejo Florestal Comunitário e Familiar: of the 311 million hectares, almost all located in the Amazon, 73 percent are managed collectively. in some ways, whether through state-owned operations, federal conservation units or indigenous territories, he said.

This is exemplified by initiatives such as RedParques, which presented at the event and is a network of Latin American and Caribbean countries collaborating to better manage their protected and conserved areas, supported by technical advice from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

The question then arises: how to manage the Amazon in such a way as to preserve its ecological integrity?

The most sustainably managed parts of the Amazon are those owned by indigenous peoples and local communities, who depend on the forest’s resources for their survival. The rights of these groups will be discussed in detail during the second and third days of the event, but methods of adapting to the changing Amazon landscape were highlighted throughout the first day.

In response to the fires, Caroline Nobrega, CEO of Aliança da Terra, explained how her organization is training local communities and farmers on the border of the Amazon and Cerrado to contain the fires. Traditionally, fire has been used to clear land for agricultural plantations in this region, but drought and higher temperatures now increase the risk of burns getting out of hand. “The fire is very complex and the brigade must not only watch the fire but also take into account the wind, vegetation and other factions,” Nobrega said.

In other parts of the Amazon, fire is completely omitted from agricultural practices. In the northeastern state of Pará in Brazil, farmer Leiliane Martins Batista proudly described how she converted an old yucca plantation into a thriving agroforestry garden without resorting to burning. Now her plot of land is mixed with dendê palms for oil, cocoa and peppers, and “the soil is richer too, contributing to species diversity,” she said.

In fact, the slow diffusion of agroforestry in the Amazon is a revival of old practices, as the speakers of a session on agroecology, archeology and anthropology explained. “Agroecological strategies led to the Amazon we know now,” said Eduardo Góes Neves, professor of Brazilian archeology at the University of São Paulo, describing how indigenous cultures cultivated and domesticated plants like cocoa, yucca and acai, now ubiquitous in the biome. . Before colonization, some 10 million Indigenous people lived in the Amazon, but 90% died in the centuries after the Portuguese arrived in Spanish, leading to the Amazon narrative as a largely uninhabited habitat. and virgin.

Likewise, Márcio Augusto Freitas Meira, anthropologist at the Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi, spoke about the ancient tribes of the Rio Negro region, who managed their landscapes on the basis of the relationships between humans and all non-human things, rocks, soil and water at beginnings, constellations and annual life cycle. “Indians call this holistic approach ‘managing the world’,” he said.

“The situation of indigenous peoples not only in Rio Negro but in general is extremely vulnerable,” he summed up. “And the sustainable cultivation of indigenous lands should be one of the main policy instruments – allowing communities to govern on the basis of their own models. “

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