Rainforests are unique ecosystems of immense complexity that nurture an incredible diversity of plants, animals and micro-organisms. Bulldozers and chain saws don’t care about that.
Some people think of rainforests as faraway places that have little to do with their day-to-day existence. But millions of people live in cities and settlements throughout the Amazon. Many endure precarious conditions and become sources of cheap labor. The forest is sometimes destroyed in their name, with the justification that it develops and improves the economy. In Brazil, deforestation rates are breaking records. And if we continue to destroy the forest, we can expect dire consequences — not just for the region, but for the planet.
Over the past 50 years, human intervention has been increasingly disrupting the ecological balance of the Amazon. Climate change has led to an increase in temperatures of 1.5 degrees Celsius across the basin, and to more frequent severe droughts. The droughts of 2005, 2010 and 2015-16 were among the worst in more than 100 years. Since 1980, there’s been an increase in the duration of dry seasons by three to four weeks in the more degraded areas of the Amazon.
Rainforests also increase evaporation and keep surfaces cool. Deforestation could cause temperatures in the basin to increase by 2 to 3 degrees Celsius by 2050. It reduces rainfall, because trees cycle moisture back into the atmosphere.
This combination of higher temperatures, more extreme droughts and the continued use of fires to clear land for farming or cattle is turning the previously fire-resilient forest into a more vulnerable ecosystem. And we are seeing forests burn.
As a result, the Amazon may be not far from the tipping point when large portions of the forest turn into tropical savannas.
A study that one of us published in the journal Science Advances estimates that if deforestation rates over the entire basin exceed 20 to 25 percent of the forest area, it would lead to an irreversible process of savannization. Today roughly 17 percent of the forests have already been clear-cut and deforestation rates have increased since 2015 in most Amazonian countries. In Brazil’s Amazon, more than 5,000 square miles of forest (the size of the state of Connecticut) will likely be destroyed this year alone. At this rate, we could hit the tipping point within 20 to 30 years.
The effects of this process won’t be limited to the basin alone. Warmer temperatures would be spread southward by the hotter air, affecting the large agriculture region south of the Amazon.
The moist air that normally flows south out of the Amazon — known as aerial rivers — would be reduced, very likely affecting rainfall in the La Plata river basin in southeastern South America.
Savannization of large portions of the Amazon would induce a massive loss of species of plants and animals, and be devastating to Indigenous cultures. Savannization of more than 50 percent of the Amazon would also result in emissions of more than 200 billion tons of carbon and, at the same time, lead to a dramatic reduction in the forest’s crucial role as a carbon sink for the planet.
Last but not least, the disturbance of this ecological balance could generate a spillover of viruses, bacteria and parasites, posing even higher risks of future pandemics.
How can we develop sustainable pathways that would allow us to avoid this tipping point in the Amazon?
Amazonian inhabitants can lead the process of making deep socioeconomic transformations, fostering more responsible development and conservation strategies for the region.
In the last decades, the policy debate on the development of the Amazon has been dominated by two irreconcilable views. On the one hand, there is a vision for conserving natural areas as Indigenous territories and public lands. On the other, there is a push to develop the land and use its natural resources for agriculture, energy and mining, which causes rapid cycles of degradation.
The first model could work from an ecological standpoint, but the region’s challenges are now also of an urban nature. More than 30 million people live in the Amazon, a vast majority in cities and towns marked by poverty. These people need livelihoods.
There are new initiatives adhering to the principles of an innovative, decentralized bioeconomy rooted in the Amazon, in contrast to treatment of the forest only as a producer of commodities for industries based elsewhere. The region can be a home to humans and biodiversity.
That means investing in crops that can be sustainably grown in the forest, like Brazil nuts, cocoa and acai berry, instead of soy and cattle. It also means making sure the profits stay with local people who act as guardians of the forest.
Locals are already active in the early stages of processing products extracted from forests and rivers or cultivated in agroforestry or aquaculture systems. In Mato Grosso, for example, Indigenous communities harvest Brazil nuts that they sell for 50 cents a pound to a local cooperative. After being processed and packaged, the same nuts are sold at $4 a pound, while a consumer in a major city is likely to pay around $13 — about 26 times the value of the sale of the raw material.
One forest product — the açai berry — has reached global markets and is more profitable than crops like soy or cattle that require destroying the forest. It generates over $1 billion a year to the Amazon economy and has improved the livelihoods of more than 300,000 producers in the region.
Yet to change the economic dynamics more significantly, you also need to develop bioindustries in the Amazon — and we now have technologies to create mobile, compact and ecologically sound factories in the rainforest.
You might call it Amazon 4.0, harnessing the technologies of the fourth Industrial Revolution. The main objective is to unleash new economic, and inclusive, opportunities for the protection of ecosystems and communities throughout the region, including Indigenous and traditional forest peoples, who are its guardians, as well as urban populations.
One of us is working on a project that brings together nongovernmental organizations, investors, public universities and Amabela, the Women’s Association of Rural Workers of Belterra, in Pará, Brazil. The idea is for this group to produce artisanal chocolates using cupuaçu, an Amazonian fruit. They won’t just harvest the ingredients, but also process and package them. The group is building a “biofactory” in their community, with equipment like three-dimensional food printers, solar cookers and computers.
Cheaper solar power and digital communications will make it possible for minifactories like these to operate in remote areas. An app can provide access to global markets, and traceability software that is being developed can ensure that production complies with environmental standards. Locals can be taught how to operate these technologies in just a few weeks.
Other “biofactories” in the works involve gourmet oils and Brazil nuts, a multimillion-dollar industry. Local harvesters could produce Brazil nut flour, vacuum-sealed roasted nuts and cold-pressed nut oil, for example. There is also potential for mobile genomics labs, with portable genome sequencers, which can be of inestimable value to science and medicine. Forest communities can learn to sequence the genome of plants, animals, and even microorganisms, based on their knowledge of species with particular properties, which they could then register through blockchain systems. A genetic library of microorganisms would be key to tackling pathogens out of the Amazon.
We cannot take the rain forest’s resilience for granted. We are on path to destroying the Amazon. Turning it into a savanna would get us closer to an uninhabitable Earth. Instead, we can create a standing-forest, flowing-river bioeconomy that fuses scientific and traditional knowledge, preserving biodiversity and improving livelihoods for generations to come.
Bruno Carvalho is a professor and co-director of the Harvard Mellon Urban Initiative and the Brazil Studies Program at Harvard University. Carlos Nobre is a senior scientist at the University of São Paulo’s Institute of Advanced Studies.
Cover photo by Meridith Kohut for The New York Times, Cover inset by Victor R. Caivano/Associated Press
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