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The Amazon will reach tipping point if current trend of deforestation continues

Kanamari Indigenous people carry out their work

According to the RAISG’s report, Indigenous peoples are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change. In the photo, Kanamari Indigenous people carry out their work in the Massape village, in the Javari Valley Indigenous territory. Photo: Bruno Kelly / Amazon Watch.

  • A report by the Amazon Network of Georeferenced Socio-Environmental Information (RAISG) claims that 26% of Amazon forests have transformed irreversibly and show high levels of degradation.
  • The savannization of the Amazon is already visible in Brazil and Bolivia, while Ecuador, Colombia and Peru seem to be heading in the same direction.
  • The report also seeks to make visible the role of Indigenous peoples in protecting the Amazon, and to ensure that Indigenous people are at the center of the fight against climate change.

Across the entire 847 million hectares of Amazonian territory, some 26% of its forests are showing evidence of deforestation and degradation — 20% have suffered irreversible loss and 6% are highly degraded. The tipping point for the Amazon is no longer a distant scenario, but a present reality in some parts of the region. Of the nine countries that make up the Amazon basin, Brazil and Bolivia have the largest amounts of destruction and, as a result, “savannization is already taking place in both countries.”

This is the claim made in the study Amazon Against the Clock: A Regional Assessment on Where and How to Protect 80% by 2025, published by the Amazon Network of Georeferenced Socio-Environmental Information (RAISG). Written together with the Coordinator of the Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA) and Stand.earth, the report was presented at the V Amazon Summit of Indigenous Peoples held in Lima, Peru.

José Gregorio Díaz Mirabal, COICA General Coordinator, at the opening of the V Amazon Summit of Indigenous Peoples. Photo by COICA.

The study shows that Brazil and Bolivia account for 90% of the transformation and high degradation affecting the Amazon basin. The remaining 10% is shared by Peru, Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela, with increasingly worrying amounts of forest loss.

The tipping point, according to studies by Thomas E. Lovejoy and Carlos Nobre, is said to occur when deforestation and degradation combined exceed the threshold of between 20% and 25%, a figure that refers to the eastern, southern and central Amazon.

“We are destroying water, biodiversity, food. Humans, extractive industry companies and governments continue to pursue a fossil fuel economy, destroying both our present and our future. This is a wake-up call,” says José Gregorio Díaz Mirabal, General Coordinator of the COICA during the presentation of the report.

The document brings together information on the current state of key priority areas in the Amazon and data on biodiversity status, while also identifying the drivers of Amazon forest destruction. It also proposes solutions to address the crisis.

Forest fires are one of the main causes of deforestation in the Amazon. Photo by Amazon Watch.
An aerial shot of a deforested area in Rondônia, Brazil. Photo by Bruno Kelly / Amazon Watch.

The tipping point for the Amazon

“Our data show that the protection of 80% of the Amazon is necessary and possible, but above all, urgent. If the current trend of deforestation continues, the Amazon as we know it today would not reach 2025,” says the RAISG’s report, based on the analysis of data from 1985 to 2020.

Marlena Quintanilla, Director of Research and Knowledge at the organization Friends of Nature (by its Spanish acronym FAN) and the report’s lead researcher, says that over the last 20 years, at least 50 million hectares of the Amazon have been transformed. “It is difficult for many of us to fully appreciate what that means, but we can look at it as a territory larger than the whole of Spain.”

“Twenty-six percent of the Amazon has suffered complete transformation and profound degradation,” says Quintanilla. Bolivia and Brazil, the countries with the greatest Amazon impact and transformation, show significant symptoms of these changes. In Bolivia, Quintanilla adds, rainfall has decreased by 17% and the temperature has risen by more than 1 degree Celsius. “We need to reverse these effects and restore the Amazon right now,” she warns, and calls for action to be taken by 2025, “because by 2030 it may be too late.”

Referring to the report’s findings, Quintanilla has a stark warning. “A 2030 deadline could be catastrophic for the largest continuous forest on the planet and for the more than 500 nationalities and Indigenous peoples that inhabit it, as well as all for humanity.”

Aerial image of a deforested area near Porto Velho, Brazil. Photo by Bruno Kelly / Amazon Watch.
More than 500 nationalities and Indigenous peoples inhabit the Amazon. Photo by Amazon Watch.

The report also states that the Brazilian Amazon — which contains up 40% of the world’s tropical forests — has passed the tipping point, with 25% transformation and 9% high degradation. This means that 34% of the Brazilian Amazon has practically been lost. “This poses a threat to the entire region, because Brazil is home to two thirds of the Amazon. The reported losses compromise the Brazilian south, and biomes in Bolivia. The transformation is primarily down to urbanization.”

This destruction has led to Bolivia practically reaching the tipping point, with 20% transformation and 4% high degradation. Twenty-four percent of the country’s Amazon has been devastated.

Quintanilla is also critical of government calls to protect the Amazon, with promises simply not being delivered. “The subjugation of Indigenous territories and the lack of land titles are the main issues. Many of the areas that COICA claims as Indigenous territories have not been looked at. In Bolivia, for example, there has been no progress in the titling of Indigenous territories since 2012. Titling is an important step to guaranteeing and halting the Amazon’s transformation.”

Quintanilla says that the report seeks to make visible the role of Indigenous peoples in protecting the Amazon, and to ensure that Indigenous people are at the center of the fight against climate change.

A map showing all the pressures threatening the Amazon. Source: Gaia Amazonas Foundation / RAISG.

The causes of deforestation

This report comes a year after more than 60 member states of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) signed off on a commitment to protect 80% of the Amazon by 2025, approved at its 2021 World Congress in Marseille, France.

The RAISG report makes it clear that urgent measures are required to safeguard this 80% of the Amazon which, in reality, corresponds to the remaining 74% — 629 million hectares — that have not yet suffered transformation or high degradation.

Of this territory, 33% are Key Priority Areas, 41% have experienced Low Degradation, while the remaining 6% (54 million hectares) is land that has been designated for restoring land with high degradation.

Figures in the report also suggest that “66% of the Amazon is subject to some type of fixed or permanent pressure”, and claims that, in areas with state presence, there are threats and pressures that constitute “legal” drivers. Meanwhile, where state presence is weak, “illegal” drivers are present.

The V Amazon Summit of Indigenous Peoples was held in Lima, Peru. Photo by COICA.

The report claims that 84% of Amazon deforestation can be attributed to agricultural activity (encroachment and forest fires are directly related to agricultural frontier expansion), while deforestation caused by cattle ranching in the Amazon rainforest accounts for almost 2% of annual global CO2 emissions. Most of the world’s cattle ranching occurs in Brazil.

Mining is another driver of deforestation and degradation of forests in the Amazon and is present in all nine countries, affecting 17% of the area. The report also states that, “illegal mining that lacks registration is expanding throughout the basin.”

Oil extraction also negatively impacts the Amazon biome. RAISG estimates indicate that 9.4% of the Amazon area (80 million hectares) is occupied by oil fields.

The Javari Valley Indigenous territory in the Brazilian Amazon extends over four municipalities: Atalaia do Norte, Benjamim Constant, Jutai and Sao Paulo de Olivenca. There is an estimated Kanamari population of 1,600 people. Photo by Bruno Kelly / Amazon Watch.

The majority of oil extraction takes place in Ecuador, which accounts for 89% of the Amazon’s crude oil exports. “More than half (52%) of the Ecuadorian Amazon is an oil field, 31% in Peru, 29% in Bolivia and 28% in Colombia,” the report states. Another 43% of these oil fields are located in protected areas and Indigenous territories.

Carmen Josse, Scientific Director of the organization Ecociencia and co-author of the study, tells us that the scientific panel found that the temperature increase is 1.2 degrees higher in the Amazon, above the 1.1 degrees global average. “It is one of the most at-risk regions on earth with more than 90% of species exposed to unprecedented temperatures compared with model estimates from around 2007.”

Josse and the study’s scientific panel warn that the tipping point is now within reach. “The Amazon forests as we know them will no longer be able to exist, and will be replaced by other types of ecosystems that will not provide the same ecosystem services we have now. It is a domino effect that will have an enormous impact on the climate and, consequently, on biodiversity, agriculture, and human health and wellbeing.”

Eighty-nine percent of the oil coming out of the Amazon comes from Ecuador. The image shows an oil spill in an Ecuadorian cocoa cultivation area. Photo by Amazon Watch.

Indigenous peoples’ proposals

The frequent murders of Indigenous leaders are also a worrying trend. “The figures are alarming. We are on the brink of a serious collapse that would impact not only Indigenous people, but all of humanity,” says Ángela Kaxuyana, Indigenous leader of the Coordination of Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon (COIAB). “There is a significant increase in deforestation, and related to this deforestation is the killing of Indigenous leaders defending their territory.”

Just this month, two murders shocked Brazil. Janildo Oliveira Guajajara, a member of the self-titled Guardians of the Forest group, was shot in the back on Saturday, September 3, in the state of Maranhão. Another person was seriously injured in the attack. Also in Maranhão on the same day, Jael Carlos Miranda Guajajara was run over by a car in a suspected targeted killing. Police are investigating whether these crimes are related to the presence of illegal loggers in Indigenous territories.

The report states that 232 Indigenous community leaders in the region were killed over land and natural resource disputes between 2015 and the first half of 2019. The document also claims that, in 2021, a third of all recorded violations in the Americas were against those working to defend environmental, territorial and Indigenous peoples’ rights.

“It is impossible to know the true number of those who lose their lives to protect their territories due to a lack of information. The initiative Amazonía por la Vida: protejamos 80 % al 2025 (Amazon for life: protect 80% by 2025) is an urgent set of measures proposed by Indigenous people, intended to honor those who are no longer here and those of us who remain, and to stop our families from dying,” says Julio César López, Coordinator of the Organization of Indigenous Peoples of the Colombian Amazon (OPIAC). Colombia has the highest number of murders of Indigenous leaders and environmental activists in the region, and in the world.

According to the RAISG’s report, Indigenous peoples are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change. In the photo, Kanamari Indigenous people carry out their work in the Massape village, in the Javari Valley Indigenous territory. Photo by Bruno Kelly / Amazon Watch.
Indigenous people are demanding the titling of 100 million hectares that is still pending. Photo by Amazon Watch.

Research has shown that the best preserved forests are found in Indigenous territories, even with equal or higher levels of conservation than protected natural areas. “This is mainly due to the worldview of more than 500 distinct Indigenous peoples who have inhabited the Amazon for millennia,” the document states.

According to the report, Indigenous people are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Therefore, the path for a just transition in the Amazon must be led by them — through their knowledge spanning millennia, they hold the deepest secrets of how to keep the Amazon forests standing.

“It is essential that global and national policies recognize the role of Indigenous peoples and territories in the preservation of the most sensitive ecosystems on the planet, as protagonists of the solutions to the current climate crisis,” the report says.

With this in mind, the report presents solutions identified by Indigenous peoples to stop the Amazon from reaching its tipping point, with appeals being made to the international community.

Mining, another driver of deforestation, is present in all nine countries and affects 17% of the Amazon. Photo by Amazon Watch.

“We must have a plan of action because Indigenous people are being murdered, imprisoned and poisoned. We are going to present the action plan to governments at the next Climate Change Conference in Egypt (COP27) and at the Biodiversity Conference in Canada,” says Gregorio Diaz Mirabal, General Coordinator of COICA.

The proposals to stop Amazon deforestation include the immediate recognition of the Indigenous territories that have already been identified, as well as the allocation of resources to strengthen territorial management. It is also proposed that more than half of the Amazon should be under territorial management, so that the entire region can be preserved.

To achieve these aims, the following solutions are proposed: the titling of around 100 million hectares that are still in dispute; the adoption of a forestry and zoning policy that would allow the creation of intangible areas, without roads and without extractive activities; the restoration of degraded land; the creation of Indigenous reservations or co-managed protected areas; and an immediate moratorium on deforestation and industrial degradation of all primary forests.

The Indigenous peoples gathered at the Fifth Amazon Summit of Indigenous Peoples have developed an action plan to protect the Amazon. Photo by COICA.

In order to stop the drivers of current and future deforestation, one suggestion is to cancel Amazonian countries’ external debt. According to data from the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), in 2021 the gross debt of governments was on average 78% of regional GDP, and represented 59% of their goods and services exports. Indigenous peoples are also asking the financial sector to commit to guaranteeing compliance with their rights, and to put an end to deforestation in all the supply chains they finance.

“If we do not put forward a solution and we do not invite governments, allies, and all those who are carrying out activities in the Amazon to join us, I believe that we will not be able to successfully defend these territories. We are facing a truly global problem, and Indigenous peoples want to be part of the solution,” says Diaz Mirabal.

How close is the Amazon tipping point? Forest loss in the east changes the equation

Banner image: According to the RAISG’s report, Indigenous peoples are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change. In the photo, Kanamari Indigenous people carry out their work in the Massape village, in the Javari Valley Indigenous territory. Photo: Bruno Kelly / Amazon Watch.

This article was first published here on our LatAm site on Sept. 15, 2022.