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As Amazon forest-to-savanna tipping point looms, solutions remain elusive

  • Leading scientists project that if an additional 3-8% of rainforest cover is lost in the Amazon, it may overshoot a forest-to-degraded-savanna tipping point. That shift could mean mega-drought, forest death, and release of great amounts of stored carbon to the atmosphere from southern, eastern and central Amazonia.
  • Despite this warning, Brazilian Amazon deforestation hit an 11-year high in 2020. Government clampdowns on environmental crime greatly decreased deforestation in the past, but Brazil is now facing a political backlash led by President Jair Bolsonaro, resulting in agribusiness and mining expansion and deforestation.
  • Market efforts to create incentives have been ineffective. A public-private plan to cut deforestation led by Mato Grosso state has not met its environmental targets, even as agricultural lands increased. Amazonas, Acre and Rondônia — Bolsonaro-aligned states — are pushing for the creation of a new agriculture frontier.
  • Indigenous communities, because they’re the best land stewards, should be at the forefront of public policy to conserve the Amazon, say experts, but instead they face poverty and marginalization by the institutions responsible for securing their land rights. International response to the Amazon crisis has also lagged.

When a swarm of bees attacked Acrísio dos Reis, something within him shifted. “Nature was lashing back at me,” he remembered, as he spoke by phone with Mongabay from his small rural farmstead in the Brazilian Amazon.

The bee assault befell dos Reis as he drove a heavy-duty tractor through the rainforest, knocking down many dozens of trees — a field clearing process he’d carried out for 25 years. But that particular morning marked a sea change: the first time he realized the true harm of deforestation.

Today, having given up bulldozing trees, dos Reis runs a sustainable family agroforestry business in his hometown of Canabrava do Norte, in Mato Grosso state. He detects with alarm the growing impacts of climate change on the region, as local water levels fall and tropical heat intensifies.

Scientists back up his observation; the Amazon Basin climate is already in flux due to regional deforestation and fires, combined with planet-wide warming, resulting in much less rain, higher temperatures, and a longer dry season at the southern edges of the Amazon forest.

Dos Reis and researchers believe they’re seeing the first signs of a climate and biome tipping point, as the Amazon becomes less like a rainforest and more like a degraded savanna.

This news is bad for everyone: for crops and farmers like dos Reis, for forests and wildlife, and for faraway urban populations reliant on the Amazon for the rainfall that supplies São Paulo and other Brazilian mega cities with water.

A bulldozer uses a chain to clear tropical forest in Brazil. Image courtesy of IBAMA.

The search for solutions

A year has gone by since I first reported on an urgent plea from renowned Brazilian climate scientist Carlos Nobre and U.S. conservation biologist Thomas Lovejoy, warning that the Amazon biome was teetering on its tipping point.

“We stand exactly in a moment of destiny: The tipping point is here, it is now.” they said. If the Amazon loses just 3% to 8% more of its tree cover, they wrote, it could trigger a rapidly unfolding domino effect turning more than half the towering rainforest into degraded grasslands. “We believe that negative synergies between deforestation, climate change, and widespread use of fire indicate a tipping point for the Amazon system to flip to non-forest ecosystems in eastern, southern and central Amazonia at 20-25% deforestation,” the pair wrote in a letter to Science Advances in 2018.

As a Brazilian journalist, observing the Amazon — one of Earth’s most biodiverse places, and the life source for millions of families in my nation — I’ve been hit close to home as nature’s bounty is exchanged for short-term profits from beef and soy exports.

So I spent recent months during the pandemic searching for signs of hope, studying the scientific literature, looking at government actions and inaction, and most importantly, hearing from small farmers, climate experts, policy experts, and nonprofits.

But in every instance, seemingly hopeful solutions dissolved like mirages; falling apart on deeper investigation, or lacking federal or state government backing, or lacking sufficient scale to address the urgent, impending tipping point, which since Nobre’s and Lovejoy’s plea, has only edged closer.

Illegal deforestation inside an Indigenous reserve in Roraima state, Brazil. Image courtesy of IBAMA.

Policing environmental crimes

For some, the solution is clear. Brazil doesn’t need to invent new solutions: just bring back the tough, iron-fisted federal environmental regulation that was responsible for an 84% drop in deforestation just a decade ago.

“We already know what to do,” one policy brief stated, while a letter recently published in Nature, Ecology & Evolution by six prominent Brazilian scientists urged that Brazil’s previously successful Action Plan for Deforestation Prevention and Control in the Legal Amazon — put in place by former environment minister Marina Silva in 2004, during president Luis Inácio Lula da Silva’s first term — be “urgently resumed.”

“We’ve solved this in the past, and we can solve it again,” agreed Oxford biologist Erika Berenguer, who witnessed a deforestation crackdown in Brazil’s Alta Floresta municipality in 2008, which swung the district from having one of the worst environmental track records to a model municipality for sustainable development. “It’s called punishing people who commit crimes,” she said.

Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon peaked in 2004. Then, largely thanks to aggressive federal environmental regulation and enforcement, deforestation rates fell until 2012, after which forest loss rates began to rise again — mostly, analysts say, due to relaxed policies, especially occurring under President Jair Bolsonaro from 2019 to the present. Image by Mongabay using data from INPE.

Daniel Nepstad, the president of the Earth Innovation Institute, foresaw the problems inherent in relying on long-term political will. The “command-and-control measures to fine and embargo illegal deforesters, and cut entire counties off from public agricultural credit, are precariously dependent upon the political will of the government to impose these measures,” he wrote in a 2014 issue of Science. Without enough incentives to keep deforestation under control, “a shift in politics could upend the strides towards eradicating deforestation,” he warned then.

A mere two years later, Nepstad’s concerns materialized, with the impeachment of Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff, and her replacement by Michel Temer, who began aggressively dismantling Brazil’s environmental regulatory safeguards. Then, within two years of Jair Bolsonaro taking up the presidency in January 2019, the number of environmental fines plummeted, and Amazon deforestation rates soared by 47%.

“Bolsonaro got elected with the huge support of the farm sector because the environmental movement overplayed its hand,” Nepstad told Mongabay in a phone interview.

President Bolsonaro officiates over the installation of his ministerial team in Brasilia. New Environment Minister, Ricardo Salles, signs document joining the administration. Salles has since been notorious for implementing environmentally harmful policies. Photo: Roque de Sá / Agência Senado.

Under Bolsonaro, the backlash was swift. Environmental agencies were gutted, with 2021 budgets reaching a 21-year low. Retaliation against efficient environmental agents by the administration became commonplace; those still keeping their jobs today are afraid to speak out.

To succeed, federal command-and-control operations need a big influx of money to support intelligence and long-term planning, in order to target criminals higher up on the deforestation chain of command, according to Liana Anderson, a researcher at Brazil’s National Center for Monitoring and Early Warning of Natural Disasters.

“We are in a unique moment in history. In the past, we didn’t have data. In 2003, we didn’t know exactly where [Amazon] deforestation was happening. But science and technology have evolved. When we see someone saying that the Amazon is too big and it isn’t possible to monitor everything, that is not the case anymore,” Anderson said. “We need investments in intelligence. It’s not about getting to Mr. John Doe with a chainsaw in hand, but the person who hired him.” However, achieving that fiscal goal appears more distant today under Bolsonaro than ever before.

One surviving tree amid a sea of soy. Photo credit: Jeff Belmonte on / CC BY-NC-SA.

State-led sustainability falls flat

With federal will failing, the best next hope lay with the Brazilian states, which once showed some promise of responding to the deforestation crisis.

In 2015, Mato Grosso state, in the southern Amazon, was lauded as a leader in the future of sustainable development. At the heart of that effort was an ambitious initiative called Produce, Conserve, Include (PCI), a public-private partnership between the state, NGOs and companies that included Marfrig, the second-largest beef producer in the world, and Amaggi, Brazil’s largest private soy exporter.

“PCI is a great example of good intentions,” recalled Alice Thualt, the deputy director of the Life Center Institute (ICV), an environmental NGO that is part of the project. “But [five years later,] we still don’t have the results.”

The promise then was that by 2030, deforestation in Mato Grosso — a soy-dominated Amazon state — would plummet and forest regeneration would skyrocket, all while agricultural production and profits increased.

Getting illegal deforestation to zero by 2020 was a central target. But that goal proved impossible. Last year, 88% of all deforestation in the state was illegal, according to ICV data analysis. And as the initiative failed to meet environmental targets, deforestation kept rising, reaching 1,767 square kilometers (682 square miles) in 2020, even as Mato Grosso’s agribusiness sector grow by 33%.

According to Thualt, the project struggled, then failed to access vital financial backing. “We projected that we would need 40 billion reais [$7.5 billion] in credit over 15 years for the [agricultural] production sector to make the necessary [environmental] changes. With a lot of effort, Mato Grosso was able to get 250 million reais [$38 million],” she said, adding that market actors were timid about taking risks for the environment that would not pay back in economic dividends.

“It’s disappointing. When you look at the [Amazon] tipping point, we know we have to revolutionize our [agribusiness] practices and our relationship with the forest over the next three or four years. It’s hard to be positive with the scenario we’re in.”

Similar stories are told in other Amazon states. In Amazonas, Acre and Rondônia, the Brazilian states of the western Amazon, the Bolsonaro-aligned state governments are pushing for the creation of a new agriculture frontier dubbed Amacro.

“Deforestation for us is a synonym of progress,” Assuero Veronez, the president of the Acre Agriculture Federation, responsible for Amacro’s creation, told Brazilian environmental news agency O Eco in March 2020 in a video interview. “[Acre] has some of the best land in Brazil, but the land has one problem: it’s covered in forest.”

When people think of the Brazilian Amazon, they often imagine vast tracts of uninterrupted forest. But as new roads penetrate the rainforest, fragmentation rapidly escalates. Image courtesy of NASA.

Environmentalists in the region are sounding the alarm. For Ivaneide Bandeira, the founder of Rondônia-based nonprofit Kanindé, the initiative threatens protected areas, citing a recent law proposal that seeks to reduce the size of two important conservation units by up to 77%. “I’m not against agribusiness as long as it’s done with responsibility, respecting Indigenous areas and the environment. If they were concerned with this, there would be Indigenous and environmental representatives in their committees, but they aren’t,” Bandeira told Mongabay. “It’s about development at any cost.”

In Pará state, which has the Brazilian Amazon’s highest deforestation rates, the tone is starkly different. In August 2020, Pará decreed a conservation program that aims to reach carbon neutrality by 2036 by reducing deforestation and increasing forest regeneration. “We need a well-designed and science-based set of public policies to solve a grave problem like deforestation that has so many associated variables,” Wendell Andrade, the special projects director at Pará’s state environmental agency, said in a statement released by Brazil’s Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa).

For the last two years, Pará’s deforestation rates have not shown signs of slowing, with estimated 2020 deforestation rising to 5,192 km2 (2,005 mi2), from 4,172 km2 (1,610 mi2) the year before.

While the Pará project is promising, says Embrapa researcher Joice Ferreira, the challenge will be guaranteeing its continuity. “In the past, one of our biggest problems is that many policies start off well but are discontinued once they finally get going,” she wrote to Mongabay.

An Indigenous boy near Manaus, Brazil. Around 900,000 Indigenous people in 305 Indigenous groups inhabit Brazil today, mostly in the Amazon. Brazil’s 690 recognized Indigenous territories cover about 13% of the nation’s land area and serve as buffers against deforestation. Image courtesy of World Bank.

Indigenous peoples sidelined

Researchers have repeatedly found that Indigenous people in Brazil are the best Amazon land stewards, outperforming federal and state entities. But they can’t do this conservation work if they aren’t empowered by the government.

Governments from those of Lula to Bolsonaro failed to make that bold alliance. In fact, Bolsonaro vowed to not recognize a single Indigenous territory during his time in power, despite the 237 Indigenous territories already in the process of being demarcated and still not officially recognized. For decades, Indigenous claims to ancestral lands, under a legal framework supported by the 1988 Brazilian Constitution, have been openly stalled by the federal government and the ruralistas — a politically powerful bloc of wealthy rural elite landowners.

“The whole world is looking for ways to protect the environment, looking to the near future of environmental catastrophe, and we’re here dealing with a government who is doing the exact opposite,” Sonia Guajajara, the president of the Brazilian Indigenous Association, told Mongabay.

Unsupported by government, and now devastated by the pandemic, some Indigenous groups are reaching a breaking point. Even though Indigenous communities offer the most effective conservation solutions, their unratified territories — totaling 97,000 km2 (37,500 mi2) — are being disproportionately deforested and invaded. 2019 alone saw the highest number of murders of Indigenous leaders in at least two decades. Meanwhile, the Brazilian government has continued scaling back funding for Funai, the national Indigenous affairs agency, with its budget declining annually since 2011.

Since 2019, Bolsonaro has remained committed to pushing a bill through Congress to open Indigenous reserves to industrial mining and agribusiness.

“Why are we the ones dying, after 500 years holding down the forest? The moment that Indigenous peoples say enough, and decide to exploit [territorial] resources, who’s going to hold them back? I’m very afraid that this will happen, that we will reach a breaking point when Indigenous people will get fed up,” Henrique Iabaday Suruí, a Paiter Suruí leader in Rondônia state, told Mongabay. “White nonprofits are getting a lot of money, but the Indigenous person that stops diamond mining isn’t getting a dime. We want to survive, just like you.”

The Paiter Suruí were once part of a prototype Indigenous project to offset carbon emissions by the Brazilian cosmetics giant Natura and the 2014 FIFA World Cup. But in practice, this REDD+ program — aimed at preventing deforestation — instead created division within the Indigenous community, increased deforestation, and did not improve life standards for participants. “We fell into a trap of deceitful advertising,” Indigenous elder Joaquim Suruí told the Indigenous Missionary Council in 2015 at a meeting set up to try and cancel the project; it was ultimately scrapped in 2018.

Similarly, in December 2020, Swedish national radio reported that a Kayapó village within the Baú Indigenous Territory in Pará state had abandoned its environmental commitments after the federal government stopped funding Indigenous monitoring projects; the villagers have since signed a deal with gold miners.

“For decades, foreigners have come here and said: you Kayapós must help and protect the forest, for humanity and the planet. But who benefits from it? You, in the outside world,” Bepdjyre Mekragnotire told Radio Sweden, noting that his village is now able to buy better food and has secured a private specialist to offer neonatal care. “Our lives have improved incredibly since we signed a contract with the gold diggers,” he declared.

In the rest of the Baú territory, deforestation monitoring has continued despite challenges, using satellite data and strategic bases to aid the effort.

Nearly a million Indigenous people live in Brazil, mostly in Amazonia, and if vigorously supported, they could be an environmental conservation force to be reckoned with. However, many of the abuses born in colonial times resonate today.

Large swaths of rainforest have been replaced by soy — a cash crop grown on large Brazilian plantations mostly for export to the EU, the UK, China and elsewhere. Image by Alicia Prager for Mongabay.

Can agriculture grow greener?

A simple economic fact tells you much of what you need to know about what’s driving deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon: a forested hectare of land there is worth roughly $400, but it can easily be worth five time that amount, $2,000, when deforested and converted to cattle pasture or cropland, explains Nepstad.

However, he adds, that same plot of land “is worth a lot more to the global economy than the local economy.” Environmental impacts derived from each cleared hectare in the Amazon can cost the world up to $50,000 in damages, he estimates. “This [represents] one of the most colossal market failures in the world, not closing a gap of a few hundred dollars.”

Despite this staggering deficit, and the looming Amazon tipping point, the rest of the planet has invested relatively little over time to conserve the Brazilian rainforest — the loss of which could trigger a massive release of carbon, bringing not only an escalation of regional climate change, but also catastrophic global warming.

In fact, thanks to Bolsonaro’s anti-environmental policies, international conservation investments are shrinking. In August 2019, in response to disastrous fires, Norway froze $33.2 million in Amazon Fund donations slated for projects aimed at curbing deforestation in Brazil. That same month, Germany withdrew $39.5 million it had committed to curbing tree loss there.

2019 and 2020 saw massive fires in the Brazilian Amazon, most of them illegal and lit intentionally as a tool to clear native vegetation for pasture and croplands. The dramatic uptick in fires, experts say, is primarily due to President Bolsonaro’s lax environmental policies. Image by Sergio Vale / Acre state.

Still, hope springs eternal: launched in November 2020, an Amazon initiative funded with $4.5 million donated by the Norwegian and Dutch governments is now paying farmers to keep forest standing above the threshold required by Brazilian law. “This is the first initiative to directly pay rural producers for not taking part in legal deforestation,” Marcelo Stabile, a researcher at the Amazon Environmental Research Institute, told Mongabay contributor Sibélia Zanon in an interview.

However, experts say this, and other programs to curb tree loss, are potentially too little too late. According to research and modelling carried out by institutions all across the world — from INPE, the Brazilian Space Research Institute, to Oxford University — the rainforest-to-degraded-savanna tipping point is not simply a possibility showing up in models, but is already underway — with observed Amazonian levels of humidity dropping and wet-adapted tree species dying.

Propelled by the urgency of preventing a tipping point, Eduardo Assad, a researcher at the state-funded Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation, says it is necessary for a new standard of farming to be adopted immediately across Brazil, where trees are incorporated into the landscape of pastures and farms.

“The effect of savannization would be catastrophic and is a threat to agricultural production,” Assad told Mongabay. However, out of the Brazilian government’s $45 billion 2020-2021 agriculture credit line, just 1% was destined for sustainable agriculture.

Still, Assad tries to be optimistic. “Our idea is to reach all Brazil’s agriculture with low carbon emission agriculture,” he said. “With a government that doesn’t believe in climate change, the speed is dialed down. But we’ve been doing this for more than 30 years. Presidents come and go. Science continues.”

Unfortunately, big Brazilian banks and international investment firms, like Blackrock, continue supporting Amazon agribusiness expansion and deforestation, even as other investors try to curb it.

If the deepening Amazon droughts of the last decade continue worsening, it won’t only mean large-scale tree death and carbon releases as the tipping point takes hold. Mega droughts could soon damn Brazilian agribusiness as well, because it has little irrigation capacity. Despite that risk, soy, cotton, corn, eucalyptus and cattle producers continue expanding their holdings.

Cattle in the Brazilian Amazon being prepared for slaughter. Ranching is the leading cause of Amazon deforestation in Brazil. Image © Henrique Manreza courtesy of The Nature Conservancy.

For climatologist Carlos Nobre, meeting the challenges of avoiding an Amazon tipping point are far more pressing than pointing the finger of blame at Bolsonaro or today’s resistant landowners. “For 520 years, we haven’t valued a model of development with a standing forest. There is a larger cultural issue of seeing the forest as an impediment to economic development,” he said. “But [that view is] completely wrong. The standing forest has a much higher value than pastures or mining.”

Back in Canabrava do Norte, Acrísio dos Reis remains an outlier. Most of his neighbors still dream of running a big ranch, breeding and selling cattle — creating herds that require more forest clearing and lots of water to drink.

Dos Reis sighs, hopeful that others will follow in his sustainable footsteps. “Some people work today like I used to, working to sustain their families. Others do it out of ambition and greed to line their pockets. Either way, they are on the wrong path,” he said. “There is no future in deforestation; it will only bring troubles for our kids.”

Banner image: The Amazon rainforest in Brazil is facing a triple threat from deforestation, fire and climate change. Image by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay.

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