Amazon rainforest | The scramble to save the planet’s lungs

Brazil and other Amazon countries come together to promise concerted efforts to arrest deforestation by illegal mining and logging and protection of the rights of Indigenous people, but fail to advance clear goals

Updated - August 13, 2023 03:28 pm IST

Published - August 13, 2023 02:02 am IST

On August 9, executive leaders and Ministers from Bolivia, Colombia, Peru, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname and the French Guiana met with a Brazilian delegation — all of whom are part of the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization (ACTO) — in Belem do Para, Brazil. The outcome of this meeting was the “Belem declaration”, which called for cooperation between the countries to ensure the survival of the humongous Amazon rainforest, that constitutes a significant portion of these countries, by conserving its biodiversity and natural resources.

It called for the advancement of debt-for-climate action, financed by developed countries. It promised concerted efforts to arrest deforestation by illegal mining and logging, bring about integrated fire management, besides law enforcement for protecting the rights of Indigenous people inextricably linked to the rainforest ecosystem. It called for inviting development banks in the region to work together by pooling funds into a green coalition and which shall provide for conservation and employment and income opportunities for poorer people linked to the Amazon’s economy. Besides other measures.

But it fell short of collectively advancing clear goals such as the protection of 80% of the forest from deforestation and degradation (as proposed by Colombia) or zero deforestation by 2030 even if some constituent nations of the ACTO like Brazil have done so already. Clearly, these countries were not ready to evince a decisive shift from their dependence on extractive industry-driven economics, which would follow from such a commitment.

On the next day, August 10, the ACTO’s representatives met with their counterparts of fellow rainforest nations — the Republic of the Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo from Africa and Indonesia from Asia. In another declaration, “United for our Forests”, the governments of these countries reaffirmed the imperatives from the previous declaration related to arresting deforestation and the need for sustainable economic practices to go with environmental protection. Tellingly, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio ‘Lula’ Da Silva, who has been the catalyst for these meetings, spoke of the need for climate financing to be provided by the developed world for “its nature that needs money.. [and] it’s nature that needs financing”.

It is clear that Lula has been the lynchpin of these initiatives and his coming to power on January 1, 2023 has turned the page decisively from the controversial presidency of Jair Bolsanaro during whose tenure there was rapid dismantling of environmental protections that allowed for rampant exploitation of the Amazon. In the first seven months of Lula’s latest tenure, deforestation reduced by 42% compared to the previous year.

Yearly deforestation

According to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE), the total deforestation of the Amazon rainforest from August 1, 2019 to July 31, 2021 alone amounted to 34,018 sq. km, and this does not include losses due to natural forest fires. This marked a 52% increase compared to the previous three years. Yearly deforestation of the Amazon, according to the NIPE, fell from more than 25,000 sq. km in 2004 to less than 5,000 sq. km in 2012 during Lula’s previous tenures. This more than doubled to nearly 13,000 sq. km in 2021 alone — a legacy of the Bolsanaro regime’s policies.

These numbers are stark even if the total landmass area of the Amazon rainforest is considered 6.7 million sq. km, just more than twice the total landed area of India (3.3 million sq. km). The Amazon rainforest or Amazonia constitutes close to 1.3% of the planet’s surface and 4.1% of the earth’s land surface, but as a biome, the Amazon is host to 10% of the world’s wildlife species and some more, as we are still discovering new species in this epic mass of life in Latin America. Some of the species found in the Amazon are not found anywhere else. The Amazon itself is the largest river by volume of water in the world, draining from Iquitos in Peru, across Brazil and discharging into the Atlantic ocean.

Amazonia and its massive Amazon river basin straddles the countries party to the ACTO — close to 60% of it is in Brazil, 13% is in Peru, 8% in Bolivia, 7% and 6% respectively in Colombia and Venezuela, and nearly 3% each in Guyana and Suriname and around 1% in French Guiana and Ecuador.

It is also a heterogeneous ecosystem with tall canopied rainforest occupying 50% of the region besides mountainous grasslands, mangrove forests, dry semi deciduous forests, bamboo forests, floodplains, etc. Tropical rainforests are the “lungs of the earth”; they draw in the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and breathe out oxygen. They also sustain large, complex ecosystems that ‘fix’ a considerable amount of carbon in biomass. In all, by storing around 76 billion tonnes of carbon, the Amazon rainforest helps stabilise the world’s climate. As Brazilian scientist Eneas Salati pointed out in the 1970s, the Amazon also generates its own rainfall by recycling moisture from air from the Atlantic Ocean. Moisture from the Amazon is responsible for rainfall for many parts of Latin America, contributing to agriculture, storage of water in urban reservoirs as well.

Rapid deforestation in recent years has contributed to the ecosystem teetering on the brink of disaster by affecting the resilience of the Amazon rainforest. A paper in Nature pointed to the loss of resilience (ability to bounce back from droughts or extreme weather events) in more than three fourths of the Amazon rainforest since the early 2000s. It points out that this risks “dieback” of the forests with profound implications for biodiversity, carbon storage and climate change at a global scale. Scientists have long warned of a point of no return in the Amazon — more warming could result in an irreversible transition to a new form of ecosystem.

‘Death of the forest’

“If 20% or 25% of the forest is destroyed, the forest will enter a process of savannization … and that would represent the death of the forest” said Marina Silva, Brazil’s Environment Minister, after the ACTO summit. The alarming situation notwithstanding, the lack of a united agreement by the ACTO countries on regulating the role of extractive industries in the destruction of the rainforest was telling. An investigation involving The Guardian , for example, revealed that 800 million trees had been felled in six years to serve Brazil’s beef industry, as “1.7 million hectares of the Amazon was destroyed near meat plants exporting beef around the world”. Mining and oil industries are also driving the destruction.

Yet, the realisation of the scale of dangers ahead due to deforestation by the new regime in Brazil and the keenness towards coordination and cooperation with other ACTO promise the first steps in the reversal of the destruction, even as advanced and developed countries should take the lead in financing the change in the economic trajectories in the ACTO countries, which are currently dependent upon extractive industries and the export of their products.

A new EU law that requires EU-based companies to ensure their imports are “deforestation-free” marked an important moment when it was passed in the European Parliament in April. Similar legislation in other consuming nations such as the U.S, China and even India could emulate this benchmark law. After all, the lungs of the world need to be protected for the sake of the future of the universe’s only known planet with living beings.

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