The fight for the Amazon: How we can safeguard our future

The Amazon is a crucial stabliser for our planet, keeping our water cycle and climate in check, while also being home to a high volume of unique flora and fauna.

The Amazon rainforest is one of the world’s largest, spanning no fewer than 6.3 million square kilometres, equivalent to four percent of the Earth’s surface. It has existed for the best part of 10 million years, and is home to 390 billion trees. That amounts to 50 trees for every human alive today, and their contribution to our survival is more deep-rooted than we ever knew.

The Amazon Rainforest stores 100-120 billion tonnes of carbon, and removes between one to two billion tonnes of carbon annually… Unfortunately, it is now emitting more carbon than it can capture.

– Francisco Oliveira PhD, Amazon Scientist

Francisco Oliveira has had the opportunity to study and aid conservation efforts in the Amazon Rainforest for over 20 years, arguably the most pivotal 20 years in the rainforest’s long history. It is an environment which is home to 30 million people in total, half of whom live below the poverty line. It also consists of 100 separate communities living in relative isolation.

Deforestation and fires have done much to threaten a delicate balance which took millions of years to be established here. Human behaviour is behind much of the damage, so we spoke to Francisco to discover more about this leafy treasure of our world, and what we can do to safeguard it for future generations.

The roots of conservation

Francisco Oliveira’s experience in conservation is as deep rooted as the tallest trees in the Amazon Rainforest itself. In his late teens, Francisco made a chance visit to the Natural History Museum, opening his mind up to the beauty of nature itself. “At that point, I decided to become a biologist”, he tells us. Intent on becoming a biologist, Francisco pursued a relevant degree at university, staying up to date on the state of the latest news when it came to the Amazon.

His passion for biology led Francisco to pursue a Master’s degree in the Amazon region of Brazil itself, “to try to understand different patterns of land use”, he explains. From 1997 onwards, Francisco was closely engaged with the Amazon as a field of study and conservation. “I clearly remember the day when I was flying over the Amazon rainforest; I could see that I had been flying for over two hours and all I could see was just a green carpet of forest.”

Born in Brazil himself, Francisco has something of an inside track about what’s happening to the Amazon, as his own country’s government plays an integral role in determining its future. His work in conservation has led him to complete a PhD in Amazon conservation at the University of Cambridge. A glance of his CV underlines his impressive work and how far he has come, with one of his roles being Director of Policies to combat deforestation itself as part of the Brazilian Ministry of Environment. He held this role in the said ministry as part of the Brazilian government under President Dilma Rousseff between 2012-15.

Francisco estimates that modern mass-scale deforestation in the Amazon became a pressing issue from the early-1960s onwards. “The military government decided to integrate the Amazon with the rest of the country…they were saying, let’s move people with no land to the land with no people. [PA1] With that kind of advertising, they created lots of settlements for smallholders that had no lands in other regions of the country.”

This was one of the first waves of Amazonian deforestation, with just one to two per cent of the rainforest destroyed. By today’s estimates, 17 per cent of the Amazon Rainforest has been destroyed, leaving a gaping hole in this luscious green environment. That comes at a tremendous cost to our planet, especially given the fact that the Amazon has traditionally been a significant naturally-occurring tool in helping hold back the advances of climate change. According to Francisco, the Amazon Rainforest stores 100-120 billion tonnes of carbon, and removes between one to two billion tonnes of carbon annually. While earlier waves of deforestation concerned the introduction of settlements by smallholders, more recent waves have occurred as part of a more business-led movement to exploit the commodities and resources of the region.

Bean counting and palm oil

It’s easy to see the situation regarding the Amazon as a simple case of Brazil making economic gains at the expense of its natural environment, the rainforests included. When we think of modern deforestation, we think of the large amounts of soybeans being grown in land formerly belonging to the heart of the rainforest itself. However, as Francisco points out, Brazil began its mid-20th century burst of economic growth as a major importer of commodities.

Innovations in the last half-century have allowed Brazil to reduce its reliance on overseas imports in favour of growing its own crops and rearing livestock in both the Brazilian savanna and the rainforest biomes. “There was a correlation…people used to say that deforestation was necessary to the improve production”, says Francisco.

However, from the late-1990s and the early 2000s, Francisco claims productivity in agriculture has helped lessen the need for clearing larger patches of land to sustain farming production. Higher yields of soy have since been observed and farmers have started ensuring more cows per hectare, boosting production while minimising the amount of clearance needed. Francisco credits these technological improvements with helping reduce deforestation from the mid-2000s onwards, breaking the link between Brazilian economic (and agricultural) development and the health of the rainforests.

Palm oil is another commodity which people point to as an area of concern when it comes to the Amazon. Francisco admits the industry of palm oil production is growing, but from a lower base, certainly when concerned to South East Asian producers. “The way people are trying to manage these commodities in the Amazon is moving from an unsustainable mode of production from SE Asia to a more sustainable one.”

Indigenous people are the original people of the Amazon… [Such areas they inhabit are safeguarded so well] that just two per cent of Amazon deforestation occurs within these protected territories.

– Francisco Oliveira PhD, Amazon Scientist

Francisco adds this move towards more sustainable agri-business methods came not necessarily due to the businesses themselves leading the charge, but the power of the markets taking charge. Brazil’s palm oil producers faced greater scrutiny from more environmentally-aware consumers looking for more ethically-sourced, greener palm oil than they had previously bought. One of the ways Brazil has moved to limit the damage done to the Amazon through soy farming is through the introduction of what Francisco refers to as the Amazon Soy Moratorium (ASM). Under the ASM, traders began to make good on agreements to avoid wholesale purchase of soybeans traced back to areas which had been deforested from 2008 onwards. From 2016 onwards, the ASM was implemented indefinitely, and appears to have been victorious in its intent. As of 2018-19, less than two per cent of the land used to farm soybeans was found to be non-compliant with the ASM, a marked improvement on where things stood a decade before.

The Amazon laid bare

Improved agri-business productivity, moratoriums and pressure from international consumers to make supply chains more sustainable are one thing, but if you’ve been watching the news lately, you’ll find it hard to avoid one headline in particular. The Amazon Rainforest is phenomenally good at sequestering CO2 from our atmosphere, but unfortunately, it is now emitting more carbon than it can capture. Forest fires are a leading cause of this phenomenon, and as Francisco explains, once humans start fiddling with the delicate balance of nature, nature answers back and can accelerate certain trends.

Francisco places the situation in the correct context, revealing that in the eastern region of the rainforest is the place of greatest concern. Here, there is a so-called ‘Arc of Deforestation’, a curved arc visible from space, showing the clear progression of levelled rainforest, to be used for the growing of crops, rearing of livestock or for timber sourcing.

“Through degradation of the Amazon by selective logging, you make the Amazon drier. Imagine you have a forest with large trees covering it. When you have a canopy, you can keep moisture under the forest. But if you start clearing or cutting the valuable timber, you create holes in this roof of the forest, and more sunlight penetrates deeper into the forest. [PA1] The underside of the forest becomes drier and more susceptible to these fires.”

Fewer trees due to human activity limits the ability of the Amazon to store moisture beneath this protective canopy, placing the ground level at higher risk of catching fire during the hotter, drier times of year. The more we poke holes in this protective green shield of leaf cover, the worse it gets as nature takes its course and allows fires to rage out of control. All is not lost, according to Francisco, but it requires a change in approach from increasing encroachment on the rainforest, towards making do with existing cleared land.

“It is possible to reverse that”, he claims, “but action must be taken on recovering the forest and not deforesting another single hectare in addition to what we have, because we have the technology to increase productivity on the land that’s already open.”

The approach of indigenous tribes living within the Amazon offers a roadmap towards how it is possible for humans to live within the confines of the rainforest and prosper without needing mass clearance of vast hectares. “Indigenous people are the original people of the Amazon, and Brazil recognises these people by creating areas, indigenous territories, where they can live.”

Such areas are protected by these tribes so well, in fact, as Francisco says, that just two per cent of Amazon deforestation occurs within these protected territories. “They protect the forest, because, as they say, the forest is their home, their labour, their pharmacy, it’s everything for these people. I think we should learn from the way they manage the forest.” Francisco goes as far as to say that, if the Portuguese had not arrived in Brazil and colonised it, deforestation rates would be at a fraction of their existing levels by now, thanks to the more intrinsically forest-friendly ways of the indigenous tribes.

A world without the Amazon

As previously mentioned, 17 per cent of the Amazon Rainforest is now lost to us already, but it’s undeniably better to have some of it than nothing at all. To understand the full value of the Amazon, one must ask the question, what would a world without this rainforest actually look like? In short: it’s a situation that hardly bears thinking about. A world without the Amazon Rainforest would mean life on Earth getting that bit harder to sustain. As Francisco explains, this particular rainforest is our secret weapon in holding back the advances of devastating climate change.

“A good way to see it is to imagine the worst-case scenario of the IPCC report which just came out…we would release a huge amount of carbon into the atmosphere and this would increase global temperatures. In the Arctic, the temperature would rise eight degrees Celsius.”

Assuming the Amazon vanished overnight in a puff of smoke, such a rise in temperatures would melt the Arctic, raising sea levels worldwide. While this deluge would threaten the rest of the world, in the Amazon delta itself, the effects of losing the rainforest would be even more devastating but in a different way. A loss of the canopies would cause moisture to evaporate from the soil far more easily, leaving this tropical region barren, dry and dusty, more prone to intrinsically higher temperatures and less rainfall. Where trees grow, water follows; removing the rainforests simply causes water to boil away easier and simply go elsewhere.

As we previously discovered from recent findings in Europe, trees planted on old farmland have been proven to increase rainfall in a localised way. With this in mind, we can only imagine what impact the Amazon Rainforest has on the hydrological cycle on Earth. “The planet is a living system”, Francisco is keen to iterate. “It has changed over millions of years, but with natural events. The level of change that we are causing is huge.”

Francisco reveals that the Amazon Rainforest changed profoundly. Back when the Amazon Rainforest first emerged 10 million years ago, the Amazon River flowed backwards based on how we would know it, originally flowing east to west. Theories abound about why the river flipped to flowing west to east, but this is just one way of showing how profoundly the natural environment around this rainforest has changed in its long life. Our current era of world history, the Anthropocene, has seen an artificial acceleration in change to the natural environment, and a forest which took 10 million years to evolve, to grow and develop has already sustained damage. That doesn’t mean nothing is being done to protect the remaining 83 per cent that is still standing.

A few of the diverse animals only found within the Amazon Rainforest

Francisco tells us of The Amazon We Want, a scientific panel which has been flagging up the importance of protecting the Amazon Rainforest’s biodiversity. The Science Panel for the Amazon for this group has appealed directly to world leaders at a keynote address to the United Nations in 2019, and published a preamble in 2020, detailing precisely why the Amazon must be protected at all costs. Not only is the Amazon vital to our survival as a species, but great value can be gained from harnessing the power of its biological and biomimetic assets, as the panel call them.

Harnessing the information locked in the genomes of the various species observed in the rainforest, great bioeconomic potential lies in keeping as much of the Amazon extant as possible. The bioeconomy, as defined by the European Commission, is based on the production of biological-based resources in a renewable way. Nothing in theory is intended to go to waste, creating value-added products including foodstuffs, biologically-sourced products and cleaner energy sources like biofuel.

The Amazon has great bioeconomic assets to be preserved for future generations, but other innovations are possible too. New methods of sourcing commodities such as soy, beef and palm oil sourced in the vicinity of the rainforest have been developed through tools such as Trase. Trase is able to drive more sustainable trade practices, making supply chains more transparent and is directly using its resources to reveal the extent of the role finance plays in the deforestation of this region, to bring about necessary changes once and for all.

Knowledge is power, and Francisco also informs us of an imminent summit expected to be held in the heart of the Amazon Rainforest itself, the World BioEconomy Forum. Held at the mouth of the Amazon River in Bélem, Brazil between 18th-20th October, this forum brings bioeconomy stakeholders together to propose ‘bio-based’ solutions to ensure a healthy, vibrant bioeconomy while mitigating climate change. These stakeholders will include policy makers, the chemical and forestry industries as well as various associations and institutions.

The Amazon has already been encroached upon, impacting the natural environment and the people who live within the rainforest. However, a vast expanse of greenery remains untouched at present, and could remain so, so long as we make do with the land we already have and continue to boost productivity in a sustainable way. There are encouraging signs that it is possible to live sustainably alongside the rainforest, especially based on Francisco’s observations of indigenous tribes avoiding large-scale clearances for generations.

Supply chains for commodities sourced from this region of the world are moving in the right direction, with more scrutiny than ever on whether products were produced in the right places. However, threats to the health of this natural gem remain front and centre in our minds, with forest fires becoming increasingly common as canopy cover vanishes and water retention dries up. Our behaviour towards the Amazon hasn’t been ideal, but we need to be thankful that the forest still exists in some shape or form. The role we can play in other countries is using our purchasing power to limit the profitability of those wishing to exploit this rainforest, and empower those who produce bio-products sourced sustainably from the region.

As with many things in life, the destiny of the Amazon comes down to money, and what millions of us plan to do with it when we spend it. The future is literally in our hands, so the fate of the Amazon hangs in the balance, waiting to see what we do next.

Main image Photo credit: IBAMA (The Brazilian Environmental Agency)

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