Politics of the Amazon

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The impending tipping point

A major concern is that years of intense deforestation are bringing the Amazon region close to, or even past, a major tipping point after which many existing environmental changes will become irreversible. The nature of the tipping point, how it might manifest itself, and what the area currently occupied by rainforest might look like in future are all still being debated by scientists and environmental experts.  

According to an October 2022 report by the Rede Amazónica de Informação Socioambiental Georreferenciada (RAISG), a civil society research group, something like 26% of existing Amazon rainforests have already been destroyed or degraded. It suggested 20% have suffered irreversible loss and 6% should be classed as “highly degraded”. In 2007 academic studies by scientists Thomas E Lovejoy and Carlos Nobre said the tipping point occurs when the combination of deforestation and degradation reaches a 20%-26% range. On some numbers Brazil may therefore in fact be well beyond that point with 25% deforestation and 9% degradation. Of the nine Amazon region countries, Brazil and Bolivia have experienced the greatest destruction. RAISG argued that the rainforest is receding and will be replaced by dry shrublands, a process known as savannisation.

The report warned that the Amazon as we know it today will “not reach 2025”. Over the last 20 years at least 50m hectares of the Amazon basin have been transformed, equivalent to a territory larger than Spain. In Bolivia, rainfall has fallen by 17% and the temperature has increased by over 1ᵒ Celsius. José Gregorio Díaz Mirabal of Coordinadora de las Organizaciones Indígenas de la Cuenca Amazónica (COICA), who was also involved in preparing the RAISG report, said: “We are destroying water, biodiversity, food. Humans, extractive industry companies and governments continue to pursue a fossil fuel economy, destroying both our present and our future.“

There is no detailed consensus on what life beyond the tipping point might be like. However, most analysts say the Amazon will be impaired in its role as one of the world’s most important carbon sinks. Rather than sequestering carbon from the atmosphere, forest fires and the destruction of trees will turn the region into a net carbon emitter, something that has already begun to happen in various areas. Temperatures will be higher, the surviving shrublands will be dryer, and the area will become more vulnerable to extreme weather and periodic droughts

Many scientists say it is still too early to make hard and fast predictions. Their computer models struggle to capture the complexity of the Amazon eco-system. There may be no single tipping point but many smaller changes with cumulative effects. Nobre’s theory about the savannisation of the former rainforests has been questioned. It suggests that the border between the rainforest and the existing savannah known as Brazil’s cerrado region should be moving south, but there is as yet no consistent evidence showing that it is doing so. The full impact of different types of rainforests is also unclear – these include várzeas (dense forests often flooded with nutrient rich waters) and igapós (swamp forests that are flooded with nutrient-poor waters).

What is clear however is that a failure to protect the Amazon from deforestation, from unregulated farming and cattle ranching, and from illegal mining and wider criminal activity will have a highly negative effect on the countries involved and on the wider world. It is not an exaggeration to say the Amazon could suffer an unprecedented environmental catastrophe within the next 10 years. Averting that possibility will require political will. The question then becomes whether political parties and other social and economic groups have the capacity and foresight to unite around an effective climate change/energy transition agenda.

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