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Antonio Donato Nobre: “The forest is sick and losing its carbon-sequestration capacity”

  • A researcher at the INPE Center of Land System Science, Antonio Donato Nobre, describes the state of degradation threatening the future of the Amazon rainforest in an exclusive interview with Mongabay.
  • Nobre fears the forest is nearing what he describes as a “tipping point,” after which it will no longer be able to regenerate on its own, thus embarking on the path to desertification. “This is not about protecting the forest simply to please environmentalists. The living forest is essential for the survival of human civilization,” he says.
  • In order to reverse the current state of destruction, Nobre proposes the development of a forest economy – capable, in his opinion, of generating nearly 20 times as much revenue as extensive cattle ranching. As an example, he cites the project Amazônia 4.0, which defends the use of technology for the sustainable exploration of biodiversity.

“We are almost losing the inhabitability of the planet,” states Antonio Donato Nobre, who recently traveled to Altamira, in the state of Pará, to participate in the Amazon Center of the World conference. In November, at the so-called Terra do Meio, situated between the Xingu and Iriri Rivers, scientists and environmentalists met with indigenous and riverine peoples to create an alliance for the Amazon and, together, find a way out for the most important organ in the planet’s climatic metabolism.

Nobre knows the Amazon well. The agronomist who holds a master’s degree in biology and a PhD in earth science lived in Manaus for 14 years and worked as a full researcher at the National Research Institute of the Amazon (INPA) for 33. In 2014, he published the report “The Future Climate of Amazonia,” which details the mechanisms by which the forest helps to regulate the atmosphere and proposes actions to avoid a climatic collapse.

Five years after the publication of the report, this future appears particularly somber. According to Nobre, changes in the global climate and the Brazilian government’s hostility toward the Amazon could be driving the forest to the “tipping point” toward an irreversible path to desertification.

Currently a researcher at the National Institute of Space Research (INPE), Nobre has also become an activist: soon after participating in the Amazon Center of the World conference, he went to Norway to talk with the Minister of the Climate and Environment about the Amazon Fund and evaluate the possibilities for their cooperation with Brazil.

In this exclusive interview with Mongabay, he shares the news he took away from Altamira and Oslo and comments on the current scenario of environmental degradation that threatens the future of the Amazon Rainforest.

Mongabay: Please tell us about your recent trip to Altamira for the Amazon Center of the World conference.

Antonio Donato Nobre: It was very instructive, especially getting to know how the peoples of the forest protect the Amazon efficiently and lucratively. The Amazon is indeed the center of the world. It’s the most important organ in the climate’s system of metabolism, guaranteeing the stability and environmental comfort. In the Terra do Meio, a large part of the forest is in ruins. What remains is within the conservation areas, indigenous lands and the so-called Resex, which are reserves of sustainable extractivism, where the forest is in recuperation. But in that eastern portion of the Amazon, due to the deforestation and the degradation, the remaining forest may already be passing the tipping point.

Are there visible signs of the tipping point?

The native forests have a certain resilience to climatic adversities. But they do not have any capacity to resist chainsaws, tractors with chains or fires set on a large scale. These malicious inventions and their barbarous attacks create a real climate of definitive destruction. [In addition,] the air, previously always humid, has gotten progressively drier, making the forest flammable. The rains are arriving later and later each year and the carbon sequestration, previously accomplished by the forest, has diminished at the same time the mortality of large trees has increased. The people there in the region are fighting against climate change. The Brazil nut trees have a cycle: they produce more nuts one year, then produce less the next. But for a number of years now, production has plummeted due to the droughts. These losses have a connection with the change in the climate and testify to the degradation of the forest. Scientific studies published in recent years leave no doubt about the climatic change associated with the forest’s destruction.

Preliminary numbers, recently announced about deforestation in the Amazon, referring to the period of August, 2018 to July, 2019, show an increase of 29.5% in relation to the previous year. The government is defending itself, but the deforestation rate in August 2019 grew 222% in relation to the same period in 2018. How do you see this situation?

It’s a catastrophic situation! A large front of destruction was opened up this year, exacerbated by the actions of the federal government, whose rhetoric recruits  mainly land grabbers on the front lines of deforestation. These thieves invade public lands and conservation areas, they occupy, and later sell the land to cattle breeders. The cattlemen expand the deforestation and sell the areas to soybean farmers, who consolidate the devastation. It came to the point that the loggers planned the “Day of Fire” as a way of expressing their glowing thanks, visible from space, for the new policy for the Amazon.

Since the beginning of the year there’s been a very clear manifestation of hostility from the authorities regarding the issue of the environment. The first sign that the new administration was going to stimulate deforestation came right at the beginning with the announcement: “we’re going to get rid of the fining industry.” But there was no such thing as the [environmental] fining industry, there was a serious work of control that resulted in a reduction of deforestation in past years, like from 2005 to 2012. This is not a mere interpretation: the official rhetoric, admitted by the man in charge as his new policy for the Amazon, has intensified the deforestation.

Surprisingly, this rhetoric resembles a statement Lula made in 2003, early on in his first administration, when he said that the forest wasn’t a sanctuary and that his government was going to develop it. 2004 was one of the worst years for deforestation in history. Signs suggest that deforestation could be even higher in 2020. So, the ideology that comes out of the mouth of those in office directly influences what goes on in the forest.

Illegal logging operation in the Amazon. The Pirititi Indigenous Territory in Roraima, May of 2018. Photo: Felipe Werneck/Ibama

What’s the difference between that period and the present moment?

Despite Lula’s ‘developmentalist’ rhetoric, his Minister of the Environment, Marina Silva managed to do extraordinary work with the PPCDAM [Plan of Action for the Prevention and Control of Deforestation in the Legal Amazon], which resulted in an acclaimed control of deforestation. Compare the respected minister with the current one. All the former ministers of the Environment have denounced the current minister as an enemy of the environment. In less than 12 months he accomplished the feat of undoing decades of hard work done by the respected Brazilian environmental protection system. As a consequence, the ongoing environmental destruction is unprecedented and threatens the climatic system with desertification.

What is this desertification?

In 2003 and 2004 the forest was already quite altered, but it still wasn’t near the point of no return. Recent studies show that the air over the eastern portion of the forest is drier. This means increased vulnerability to fire and higher tree mortality, and therefore a lower capacity for producing environmental services for the climate and lower resistance to climate change. The forest is sick and losing its carbon-sequestration capacity. Every year, the dry season is getting longer: in the past, the rain would start at the end of September. Now, in the middle of November, the rain still hasn’t started in much of the Amazon.

In 2002, Carlos Nobre and Marcos Oyama conducted computational simulations of equilibrium between climate and vegetation and they discovered that, once it arrives at a certain limit, the remaining forest cannot resist the change in the climate, becoming more susceptible to fire. When the fire enters, the forest loses its humidity and it shifts more toward savannah conditions. Recent data shows that this process is already underway. If the process of ‘savannization’ comes to pass and the biotic pump (a theory that explains the forest as a potency that propels the canalized winds through aerial rivers, functioning like a heart of the biological cycle) stops functioning, the winds could change direction and, instead of blowing from the sea inland, start blowing from land out to sea. This is when desertification takes place. Regions like the Arabian Peninsula were once forest and now are deserts. This aridity is being produced now, with the artificial destruction of the forest.

The above image translates 10 years of data on the photosynthesis of plants on all continents. Each pulsation represents a year of observation conducted by satellite. The chart reveals the vital importance of the forests in the equatorial region to the global climate’s functioning. Africa and Southeast Asia do merit attention, but the Amazon represents most of the carbon metabolism. Source: Professor Yadvinder Mahli’s laboratory at Oxford University in England

You recently arrived from Norway. Is there any possibility of them resuming their commitment to the Amazon Fund?

I talked with the Norwegian Minister of the Climate and Environment and they are concerned about the posture of the Brazilian government. Norway had put $US 1 billion into the Amazon Fund. Along with Germany, they were attending a solicitation that the Brazilian government itself made. This money was producing some very beneficial results, not only for the protection of the forest, but for the development of the local economy. The contract with these donating countries was based on efforts made by the Brazilian government to reduce deforestation. Deforestation is once again rising sharply and this violates the terms of the contract. So, coherently, they are holding onto the designated resources in order to send them to Brazil as soon as deforestation once again trends toward reduction.

The report “The Future Climate of Amazonia,” which you published in 2014, described large belts producing grains and other agricultural commodities receiving rain-forming vapors from the Amazon rainforest, the so-called “aerial rivers.” What is the position of agribusiness in terms of the forest’s state of degradation?

Some leaders have reacted. Senator Kátia Abreu, who was president of the National Confederation of Agriculture, led a strong opposition to scientists in 2010 and 2011 on the occasion of the change in the Forest Code. But she recently changed her position, and declared as much. Blairo Maggi, ex-governor of Mato Grosso, over 10 years ago he was given the Gold Chainsaw Award (by Greenpeace) for his actions encouraging deforestation. But this year even he came out against the new scorched-Earth policy for the Amazon.

Several other voices from the agribusiness sector, which produces grains and meat, are quite alarmed. Many are concerned with losing markets because the world will inevitably complain about the loss of the Amazon. If we lose the Amazon, the Paris Accord will be irreparably compromised. We will no longer be able to afford to reach the goals because of the huge carbon emission and mainly because of the loss of services to the climate.

We are not just making room for another farm. We are crippling the functioning of the planet’s body with major consequences for everyone, not just the Brazilian people. So, this is a very serious issue. What has most disturbed me throughout my nearly 40-year career in the Amazon was seeing the immense wealth of life and the opportunities for tracing respectful, intelligent paths get thrown into the trash. This is not about protecting the forest simply to please environmentalists. The living forest is essential for the survival of human civilization.

Antonio Nobre in Norway in 2015, during the event promoted by the Minister of the Climate and the Environment (Reproduction/Personal Archive)

What is this wealth we’re talking about?

Recently, the work of some of my colleagues from the Federal University of Minas Gerais, led by Raoni Rajão and Britaldo Soares, showed that a hectare of preserved forest, considering assets and basic services alone, generates over US$ 700 per hectare (US$ 280 per acre) per year. The average production of extensive cattle ranching in the Amazon generates something like US$ 40 per hectare (US$ 16 per acre) per year. If we consider a longer list of assets and services provided by the forest, as Bob Constanza – one of the founders of the Ecological Economy area – did, this value exceeds US$ 5,000 per hectare (US$ 2,000) per year.

Take the rain, for instance. Without rain, you have to irrigate. How much will it cost to set up irrigation? And if there were no water, the water from the sea has to be desalinated, as is done in arid countries. And what are we doing? By cutting everything down, setting it on fire and replacing it with an industry that produces US$ 40 per hectare (US$ 16 per acre) per year, which is the lean cattle industry to produce red meat, something the World Health Organization has categorized as carcinogenic.

We continue on destroying the heart of the world, which produces all the services for the climate, and that includes services for agriculture. Once the Amazonian system starts to falter, and this is already starting to happen, the initial impact will fall precisely upon agribusiness, because there’s no such thing as agricultural production without rain, and only a preserved forest can bring rain.

And what kind of opportunities does the preserved forest offer?

The program Amazônia 4.0 (proposed by his brother Carlos Nobre) shows the potential of bringing technology into the forest, generating development and wealth for the peoples of the forest and making virtually miraculous products available to humanity.

The açaí industry in the Amazon, for example, already moves US$ 1 billion per year. Soon enough it will surpass the meat industry. At Inpa (the National Institute of Amazon Studies), in the area of fruit trees, decades before açaí became so successful, the researcher Charles Clement cataloged the fruits of the Amazon that had commercial potential and were unknown outside the region. The total was a sum of 89 fruits. So, with açaí being just one single fruit and giving way to a billion-dollar industry, with another 89 fruits we have US$ 90 billion and we maintain the forest.

Not to mention biomimetics, a revolution in technology that consists in looking at how nature solves problems. You take the wax that covers the leaf of a plant in the Amazon and which has properties similar to that of teflon. Nothing sticks to it. The paint industry is copying this wax. You paint a car or a house and they won’t ever get dirty. The dirt doesn’t stick. Let alone the medicine and all the cosmetics. The value of these technologies in nature is incalculable. It’s a universe of solutions, wealth and wonders.

This story was first reported by Mongabay’s Brazil team and published here on our Brazil site on Dec. 13, 2019.

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