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Amazonian ecosystems and peoples on the brink – it is time for a new vision (commentary)

Rainforest in the Colombian Amazon

Rainforest in the Colombian Amazon. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

  • Mercedes Bustamante — a Professor at the University of Brasilia, member of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, and a lead scientist for the Science Panel for the Amazon — says the world needs to announce a “code red” for the Amazon due to increasing threats to the world’s largest rainforest.
  • Bustamante cites evidence gathered in a new synthesis of the scientific knowledge on Amazonian socio-ecological systems, which “summarizes how ecosystems and human populations coevolved in this unique region and documents the unprecedented changes the Amazon has witnessed in recent years and their profound impacts on the continental and global environment.”
  • “Saving existing forests from continued deforestation and degradation and restoring ecosystems is one of the most urgent tasks of our time to preserve the Amazon and its people and address the global risk and impacts of climate change,” Bustamante writes.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

A code red for humanity. These were the words of the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, summarizing the strong messages of the latest IPCC report on climate change. Among the most urgent messages is the unequivocal human influence on the climate system, the increased frequency and intensity of extreme events, and the earlier than previously predicted reaching the 1.5oC threshold.

With recent surges in deforestation that are devastating the most extensive tropical forest on Earth, we must also announce a code red for the Amazon. Saving existing forests from continued deforestation and degradation and restoring ecosystems is one of the most urgent tasks of our time to preserve the Amazon and its people and address the global risk and impacts of climate change.

The Amazon Forest includes key sinks and sources of greenhouse gases and carries massive flows of water among its rivers, trees, and atmosphere that strongly influence the Earth’s climate systems. The mosaic of ecosystems extends from the high Andes to the lowland Amazon. It houses the most extraordinary biodiversity on Earth, with more than 10% of the plant and animal species globally.

Creek in the Amazon rainforest in Colombia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay.

Around 47 million people live in the Amazon Basin, nearly 2.8 million Indigenous peoples with more than 350 ethnic groups in the Pan-Amazon, around 60 of which remain in voluntary isolation. However, the current Indigenous population represents just a remnant of the 8 to 10 million people living in the Amazon before European colonization. Nowadays, the region and its peoples are threatened again – by ongoing policy changes, development pressures, and associated losses of human and ecological diversity and climate change.

To evaluate those threats and future trajectories for the Amazon, more than 200 scientists (more than 60% from Amazon countries) under the Science Panel for the Amazon organized a new synthesis of the scientific knowledge on Amazonian socio-ecological systems. The report summarizes how ecosystems and human populations coevolved in this unique region and documents the unprecedented changes the Amazon has witnessed in recent years and their profound impacts on the continental and global environment. The report also evaluates potential ways to steer away from the most damaging future consequences and develop pathways for a sustainable future for Amazon.

Evidence now provides a clear warning: deforestation, degradation, and climate change are together pushing the Amazon rapidly towards a point beyond which it may not be able to recover. In the last years, political instability in the region, simultaneously affecting different countries, correlates with increasing deforestation rates in Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Peru. Around 17% of the Pan-Amazon has been deforested, with an additional 17% considered as degraded. Connections between land and rivers mean that degradation also threatens freshwater species and ecosystems. Recent research results indicated that in parts of the Amazon, the forest switches from sink to a source of carbon due to climate change, deforestation, and forest degradation. Amazonian forests are susceptible to drought and fires, while floodplain systems are vulnerable to changes in flooding regimes. Land-use changes reinforce climate change, reducing forest resilience with risks for human health, food, and water security over vast regions of South America, including its southeastern part and the Andes, and the La Plata Basin in the Southern part of the continent whose precipitation depends significantly on the Amazon.

The Javari river forms the border between Brazil and Peru. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.

Preserving the 25% of the protected areas across the basin’s surface and 27% of Indigenous Territories and restoring a significant portion of degraded forests and abandoned agricultural lands are opportunities for both national and regional policymakers to promote many direct and indirect benefits to local people and the whole society while delivering on long-term international commitments.

Bioeconomy and the sustainable management of natural resources are feasible for the region. Açaí stands out positively, with increasing production values and demand. In the Basilique Archipelago (Brazil), at the mouth of the Amazon River, the açaí agroforestry production system was recognized as a good practice in Traditional Agricultural Systems (SAT), awarded by the Brazilian Development Bank. The Xingu Seed Network, also in Brazil, is an initiative promoting seed exchange and trade that in the last 14 years commercialized around 250 tons of seeds from more than 220 native species and involves more than 500 people. Recently, the Mamirauá project achieved the concession of the Geographic Indication (GI) of Mamirauá Denomination of Origin (DO) for the managed pirarucu (one of the largest freshwater fish globally). The seal increases the market value and benefits the communities, stimulating similar initiatives in the Pan Amazon regions.

Collaboration between governments, civil society, and Indigenous organizations, science-based innovation, valorization of traditional knowledge, conscious and responsible private investments, and public policies are fundamental elements that can support an achievable vision of the Living and Sustainable Amazon: regional ecosystems and forests restored and maintained, economies built on the foundation of healthy forests standing, free rivers flowing, and regional societies empowered to conduct this transformation.

Mercedes Bustamante is a Professor at the University of Brasilia, Brazil, and member of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences.

Additional listening from Mongabay’s podcast: a conversation with Zack Romo, program director for the Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA) who was in Marseilles for the recent World Conservation Congress and helped pass the motion to protect 80% of the Amazon by 2025, listen here: