Twenty-six percent of the Amazon rainforest has already reached a “tipping point” as it shifts from forest into grassland because of a combination of deforestation and degradation.
That’s one alarming finding from a new report titled “Amazon Against the Clock: A Regional Assessment on Where and How to Protect 80% by 2025.” The report, written by a coalition of scientists and Indigenous leaders, maintains it is not too late to save the ecologically important rainforest, but we must act now.
“It reveals new evidence that demonstrates that the Amazon already finds itself in crisis,” contributor Jessika Garcia of the Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon River Basin (COICA) said in a September 5 press conference announcing the findings. “The point of no return is not in the future; it is now.”
Against the Clock
The new report comes one year after the Congress of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) passed motion 29 to protect 80% of the Amazon rainforest by 2025. It was researched by the Amazonian Network of Georeferenced Socio-Environmental Information (RAISG) and put together with the help of the “Amazonia for Life: protect 80% by 2025” initiative and advocacy groups COICA and Stand.earth. The findings were unveiled at COICA’s 5th Summit of Amazon Indigenous Peoples.
Overall, the findings emphasize the importance of protecting a significant portion of the Amazon by 2025, not 2030, as some entities have suggested.
“[A] horizon of 2030 could be catastrophic for the largest continuous forest on the planet and for more than 500 distinct indigenous nationalities and groups that inhabit it, and for humanity,” the study authors write in its Executive Summary.
The most concerning part of the new report involve the percentage of the Amazon that has reached the tipping point at which it transitions from forest into savanna. If the entire forest breached this threshold, the area would transform into grassland and switch from storing carbon dioxide to releasing it, further contributing to the climate crisis.
The data, which covers 1985 to 2020, found that 26% of the Amazon was already deforested or degraded enough to reach this tipping point, with 20% subject to “irreversible land use change” and the other 6% extremely degraded. Ninety percent of these at-risk areas were located in either Bolivia or Brazil, with Brazil responsible for 82% of the degraded forest. Thirty-four percent of the Brazilian Amazon is either altering or extremely degraded.
“This reality threatens the entire region as Brazil is the country that is home to two-thirds of the Amazon,” the study authors wrote.
Overall, agriculture—and especially cattle grazing—is the leading driver of Amazon deforestation. The amount of forest area now devoted to farming has increased threefold since 1985, and clearing rainforest to raise cattle is responsible for almost 2% of yearly greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.
The Brazilian Amazon specifically has come under additional pressure in the last three years under the leadership of right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro, who has promoted the extractive industries over environmental protections and Indigenous rights.
“In Brazil we are witnessing a government with a blatantly anti-indigenous state policy that seeks, in every possible way, to legalize what is illegal,” Nara Baré, former Coordinator of Coordination of the Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon said in a press release shared with Treehugger. “The rampant destruction and greed aimed at our ancestral territories, our Amazon, in the north of the country, is the visible face of the historical violation of rights to which we, the indigenous peoples of Brazil, have been subjected for decades.”
Yet while the situation in Brazil is perhaps the most urgent, 66% of the forest is menaced by either legal or illegal stressors in the form of agriculture, mining, fossil-fuel extraction, or dam and road building.
“The Amazon plays a fundamental ecological role, and in the last 20 years, land-use change and deforestation have reached extremely high levels with more than 500 million hectares of forest eliminated,” report lead-author Marlene Quintanilla of RAISG said in the press conference.
Another alarming trend in the last 20 years has been the rise of fires in the Amazon, which have impacted more than 100 million hectares of forest in the last two decades, and this has only increased in recent years, with fires burning through 27 million hectares of forest in 2020 alone.
Hope for the Forest
That said, the report authors affirmed that it is still possible to protect 74% of the remaining intact Amazon and restore the degraded 6%. To achieve this, political leaders must heed the growing body of evidence that respecting the land rights of Indigenous peoples is the best way to protect the biodiversity contained in their territories.
“We are the people, the nations, the nationalities that are proposing that humanity continue to exist,” José Gregorio Díaz Mirabal, a member of the Wakuenai Kurripaco people of Venezuela and COICA’s elected leader, says in the press conference.
The report found that 86% of deforestation occurred outside of Indigenous Territories or Protected Areas and that 33% of these unprotected areas were already transitioning to savanna, six times more than in protected areas and more than eight times more than in recognized Indigenous Territories.
“This should indicate to us that we must strengthen Indigenous Territories to protect the Amazon,” Quintanilla said in the press conference. “The fight against climate change must recognize the equal role of Indigenous Territories and the Amazonian countries.”
Indigenous communities shield 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity, yet they need shielding themselves. A staggering 232 Indigenous leaders were murdered between 2015 and the first six months of 2019 in disputes over land and resources in the Amazon region, according to the report.
“The Amazon already finds itself in crisis. The point of no return is not in the future; it is now.”
Forty-eight percent of the Amazon is currently either a recognized Protected Area or Indigenous Territory, but 52% is not and is therefore in danger of disappearing without action. The study authors called for ensuring the protection of both biodiversity and Indigenous rights by recognizing the approximately 100 million hectares of Indigenous Territories that have been identified but are disputed or are not officially protected. They also recommended that the remaining forested area be governed jointly with Indigenous and local communities and that each Amazonian country should come up with an action plan for meeting the 2025 target.
The international community can assist in part by conditionally forgiving the debt of Amazonian countries.
“The foreign debt of Amazonian countries must be understood as a systemic driver and fuel for extractive activities throughout the region. As a coalition, we propose the cancellation of this debt as an immediate protective measure to alleviate the economic challenges facing our countries. This cancellation would be conditioned to the protection of 80% of the Amazon. Industrialized countries and international financial institutions would assume responsibility for safeguarding the planet, mitigating climate change, and alleviating pressure on the Amazon with the leadership of the Amazonian countries,” Vice Coordinator of COICA Tuntiak Katán said in the press release.
Further, companies, governments, and consumers in wealthy countries should pay attention to the origin of the products they make, import, or enjoy.
“The drivers of the destruction of the Amazon are principally the supply chains of the industrialized countries,” Alicia Guzmán, the co-coordinator of the Stand.earth Initiative, said in the press release. “Without knowing it, we eat, transport, and dress ourselves with products that destroy the Amazon. We cannot afford to lose another hectare. The future of the Amazon is everyone’s responsibility.”
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