As thousands of fires raged throughout the Amazon in the summer of 2019, clouds of smoke darkened the sky, engulfing Brazil’s most populous city, São Paulo, thousands of kilometres away, in toxic air.
The catastrophe highlighted how the world’s largest tropical rainforest is not only ecologically and environmentally valuable for the people of Brazil, but is also a source of clean water and air, a provider of economic and trade opportunities, a means of regulating temperatures and a driver of rainfall. For the rest of the world, the Amazon is a buffer from climate change by absorbing and storing carbon in its forests. But deforestation reverses this critical function.
The fires illuminate the importance of protecting tropical environments in order to combat the local and global effects of climate change. Giving indigenous groups greater oversight of land management and creating greater networks to combat illegal deforestation can ensure greater protection of these all-important ecosystems.
Pushing the Amazon to the brink
Unlike when forests ignite naturally during the dry season, scorched forests take centuries to recover. Fires can alter the composition of the forest disturbing natural ecosystems. Lush vegetation destroyed by the flames will be replaced with drier trees.
Scientists estimate that regenerated forests that were once burned hold a quarter less carbon than they normally would. Although a significant amount of the trees can be regrown within a span of 20 years, after half a century the Amazon won’t recover species it lost.
And Brazilian scientists estimating in 2018 that irreversible damage would be done to the Amazon once 20 to 25% of the forest is cleared. It has currently lost between 15% to 17% of its trees.
“The richness of ecosystems is fragile, and once you start to cut and exchange this type of vegetation for dry forest, the balance, adaption process and endemic species developed over thousands of years are lost – and it’s difficult, almost impossible to reproduce in a few years,” said Carlos Durigan, Brazil Country Director at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).
Durigan labelled the fires a “sad situation”, caused by fragile public policy mechanisms due to administration changes.
Laws that were once instituted to protect indigenous groups and the Amazon have now become more relaxed as the government and public opinion shift from having environmental protection laws in place to permitting deforestation for economic opportunities.
Why tropical environments are important
Deemed the “lungs of the Earth”, tropical rainforests are crucial for capturing carbon and releasing oxygen. Currently, the Amazon holds ten years’ worth of global emissions but once the forest is cleared, the ability to store carbon is diminished, and what’s already there is released into the atmosphere.
The Amazon emitted 228 megatonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in the first five months of the fires, according to the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring System (CAMS), the EU’s atmospheric monitoring system.
Durigan noted that although this is a key component of what makes tropical environments in general — and the Amazon in particular — so important, people fail to recognise that the Amazon also regulates climate cycles, which has regional and global significance.
For example, the Amazon’s ability to recycle moisture determines the air circulation and weather patterns in countries in South America, he said.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that changes in land conditions in tropical environments can affect temperatures and rainfall in areas hundreds of kilometres away.
Yale scientists estimate that if large areas in the Amazon dry out due to deforestation, it could have a significant effect on the rainfall pattern in Argentina and even affect parts of the Midwest in the United States.
The IPPC also reports that changes in the composition of land in tropical environments can increase global warming leading to more frequent and intense extreme weather events.
“In tropical regions, under medium and high GHG emissions scenarios, warming is projected to result in the emergence of unprecedented climatic conditions by the mid to late 21st century,” said the IPCC report Climate Change and Land.
“Unprecedented climatic conditions” were defined as weather events that have never before occurred in the 20th century.
In addition to being crucial in mitigating a climate emergency, tropical rainforests hold an estimated half of the world’s plant and animal species. Meanwhile, many plants found in tropical environments and can’t be grown elsewhere are used to create medicine.
Protecting the rainforest with community groups
Preventing large scale destruction was core to a pact signed by Presidents from Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Guyan, Suriname and Columbia in September 2019. The pact signifies a desire to establish networks of government agencies and stakeholders to prevent the Amazon’s further destruction.
The countries agreed to collaborate and share information on illegal deforestation, which they will collect through increased monitoring and satellite imaging. The agreement also called for increasing the role of indigenous groups to protect and conserve rainforests.
Indigenous communities are often the best at defending and protecting the areas they live.
For example, REDD+ Amazon Indigenous program, which funds effective land management, works with indigenous people in Peru to monitor and measure carbon emissions and biodiversity loss. Indigenous groups are paid for their efforts to properly manage forests.
The Australian government has a similar initiative and extended Indigenous Protected Areas – areas where indigenous groups manage and own the land – which has helped Australia conserve and protect biodiversity.
Durigan said that creating a network between environmental groups, government officials and community groups is one way to ensure that natural environments are protected.
Costa Rica increased its forest cover by 25% in a few decades by devising a payment for environmental services (PES), which offers a monetary incentive to rural landowners to conserve and sustainably manage land, preventing degradation.
Exploiting the Earth’s natural resources, such as the Amazon, poses threats to not only local regions but has implications for the global community. As the fires fade, the areas of the Amazon that was engulfed by fires will take centuries to regenerate, but involving indigenous people and community groups may be the forests best chance at survival. – Amelia Axelsen
(picture credit: unsplash)