The next crisis? Losing the Amazon

If too much of the forest were to be degraded or lost, scientists worry that the whole area could be transformed into a savannah.

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If there was one thing that many of us hoped might come out of the lockdowns that closed much of the world for the past three months, it was that, while preserving human lives, they might also slow carbon emissions, deforestation and other man made ills that contribute to the slow moving disaster of climate change. Unfortunately, while there were signs of the natural world beginning to rebound in some areas, the actual impact will be minimal.

As reported by National Geographic, despite empty roads and skies, this past May, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere went up to 418 parts per million, the highest concentration in, “three million years”.

Before the health crisis, momentum seemed to be building from the student strikes to the civil disobedience of groups like Extinction Rebellion to force governments to act on climate change before it’s too late. While these groups have done admirable jobs of keeping their activism alive online throughout this difficult time, the rush to return to ‘normal’ in most places may prove more powerful than the need to mitigate a much slower moving disaster than a rapidly spreading pandemic.

Perhaps even more alarming, there is also a marked chance of record losses in the Amazon rainforest this year due to widespread deforestation that’s left behind large numbers of felled trees, which could act as an additional accelerant for wildfires like those that alarmed the world last year. If current trends continue, the World Wildlife Fund has said that 25% of the trees in the forest will be gone by 2030.

The forest, which reaches into eight South American countries but over 60% of which is controlled by Brazil, plays a vital role globally as a carbon sink. Although there’s still disagreement on exactly how much it absorbs and stores, a ten year study by a group of scientists led by Luciana Gatti, a researcher for the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research (INPE), showed that already deforested areas are emitting more carbon into the air than they absorb, a bad sign for the future if the pillaging of the Amazon continues.

According to a separate INPE study, in April alone, 156 sq miles of forest were lost as compared to 95.7 sq miles in 2019, itself a record setting year for deforestation in the Amazon, especially in Brazil..

If too much of the forest were to be degraded or lost, scientists worry that the whole area could be transformed into a savannah, affecting annual rainfall in the entire region and creating a feedback loop that could greatly accelerate climate change, perhaps dooming future generations to an inhospitable, and, in some places, uninhabitable, world.

This dangerous time for the Amazon comes at a moment when Brazil has become the global epicenter of the novel coronavirus pandemic, placing the country at the intersection of three overlapping crises: one environmental, another related to public health and a third to human rights. It is also led by a man, Jair Bolsonaro, who denies the first, downplays the second as a “little flu” and seems to view the third as ‘political correctness’ to be dismissed, often in the most vulgar and insulting terms.

Alongside this, shelter in place orders that Brazil’s president has undermined throughout the health crisis, and earlier executive orders that stripped protections for the Amazon, especially in indigenous territories, have reportedly given licence to some of the worst actors in the region, such as illegal loggers and miners, who often seem to do the work of clearing vast stretches of forest for bigger interests such as agribusiness, always eager to exploit newly cleared lands for cattle grazing and soy production.

As Givanildo dos Santos Lima of the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Natural Renewable Resources (IBAMA) told journalist Scott Wallace in 2019, “The extraction of timber is generally what finances desmatamento—forest clearing. A guy will sell the most valuable trees and with that money he pays to clear the forest. It isn’t cheap to deforest.”

In terms of human rights, those at greatest risk from both the virus and the loss of the forest that they call home are the region’s indigenous people, many of whom, contacted and uncontacted, are imperilled in a way that hasn’t been seen in decades if not centuries.

As reported by the web-site Mongabay.com, as of June 7th, 218 indigenous Brazilians had fallen to Covid 19, although experts believe the number is likely much higher. The state of Amazonas, where these communities reside, is already the hardest hit in the country by the pandemic, having the highest rate of deaths, although because of a lack of testing, this number is also probably much higher than the official count.

Among those lost to the novel coronavirus in indigenous communities were at least 5 elders, a further disaster for these vulnerable communities as explained to Mongabay by Bruna Rocha, an archeologist and university lecturer, in the link cited above, “Besides being knowledge repositories on the environment, history, territory, production of specific artifacts and medicines, these elders provide political and spiritual guidance, being fundamental in the struggle for territorial recognition. They remind their peoples of who they are in a fast-changing world. The sudden death of a number of elders from the same community could be compared to torching national museums, libraries and parliaments all at the same time.” 

As in nearby Bolivia, whose indigenous, leftist president, Evo Morales, was overthrown in a military coup late last year, rightwing evangelicals have become more vocal in demonizing indigenous populations and dismissing the physical violence they face in protecting their territories. On coming into office with the support of these fundamentalists, Jair Bolsonaro created an executive order, “transferring the regulation and creation of new indigenous reserves to the Ministry of Agriculture,” long believed to be in the pocket of the largest agricultural interests that is one of the greatest threats to their traditional lands.

Beyond the suffering of these communities there is yet another risk from the loss of their rainforest homes that could impact the whole world. As the forest is burned and degraded, the many animals from primates to bats and reptiles that live within its confines are forced into smaller areas and will come more into contact with humans. This increases the risk of new coronaviruses and other diseases transferring from them to us. The loss of the Amazon forest risks repeating the experiences of pandemics from AIDS to Covid 19 at an even greater scale.

“When you create ecological disequilibrium… that’s when a virus can jump’ from animals to humans… That’s one more reason not to use the Amazon irrationally, like we’re doing now,” ecologist David Lapola recently explained to the British Daily Mail.

Barring his removal from power, Bolsonaro may yet turn out to be an even more dangerous leader than his seeming idol, the current U.S. president, whose pronouncements on issues from deregulation to the novel coronavirus he has followed with a slavish devotion. While the Brazilian president has already been a tragedy for his country, especially its poorest and most marginalized communities, it still remains to be seen if his actions in terms of the Amazon will turn into one for the whole world.

As Tasso Azvedo, of MapBiomass, an open source initiative mapping changes to the natural environment throughout Brazil, told Bloomberg news this week,”Deforestation is almost entirely a reflection of public policy signals from Bolsonaro’s government. And what he’s signalling is that illegal actors won’t be punished.”

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