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Deforestation is pushing Amazon to ‘point of no return’: WWF report

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The Pinipini river in the Peruvian Amazon. The Amazon Basin provides essential ecosystem services for the 47 million people relying on it for their livelihoods while playing a key role in regulating the global climate. Image by Rhett A. Butler.

  • A new report from the World Wildlife Fund, called the Living Amazon Report, warns that threats to the Amazon have gotten worse in recent years, and could result in the disappearance of the biome if more drastic action isn’t taken.
  • Around 18% of Amazon forests are lost and another 17% are highly degraded, the report said.
  • If more drastic action isn’t taken, the report said the biome could transition from forest to savanna and push global warming above the safe threshold of 1.5°C.

Deforestation is pushing the Amazon rainforest dangerously close to its tipping point, and the effects could soon be felt across the globe.

A new report from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), called the Living Amazon Report, warns that threats to the Amazon have worsened in recent years, and could result in the disappearance of the biome altogether if more drastic action isn’t taken soon.

“The situation has begun to show signs of nearing a point of no return: seasons are changing, surface water is being lost, rivers are becoming increasingly disconnected and polluted, and forests are under immense pressure from increasingly devastating waves of deforestation and fire,” the report said. “This could lead to irreversible change in the near future.”

The report was presented at COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, where the international community is discussing the implementation of policies to prevent climate change.

Cattle ranching, agriculture, land grabbing, fires and speculation have contributed to the loss of 18% of Amazon forests and the high degradation of another 17%, the report said. At the same time, pollution from mining and agriculture, and the introduction of non-native species are increasingly destabilizing the region’s freshwater ecosystems.

There are currently more than 600 infrastructure projects operating along rivers in the Amazon, the report said, with twenty road projects being planned and over 400 dams operating or in the planning stage. Meanwhile, mining operations continue to clear forest and dump harmful chemicals like mercury into the water, the report said.

Around 12.2 million square kilometers (4.7 million square miles) of the rainforest were cleared last year, according to PRODES, a satellite project monitoring deforestation.

More frequent and intense fires in the Amazon threaten the stability of this key ecosystem for people, wildlife, and climate. Image by Christian Braga/ Greenpeace.

As a result, the biome is nearing its “tipping point,” meaning it could soon transition from wet rainforest to dry savanna, and would become unable to sustain its current biodiversity. The Amazon region in Brazil and Bolivia is already showing clear signs of savannization, another recent report showed, with Colombia, Ecuador and Peru going in the same direction. Some studies say the tipping point lies somewhere around 25% forest cover loss. But according to the WWF report, it could also be less than that.

“There is no scientific consensus on the exact probability of reaching a point of no return because we do not know enough about some complex ecosystem factors,” the report said. “It is known, however, that the probability increases with greater deforestation, degradation and climate change.”

Reaching the tipping point could drastically alter the lives of the 47 million people who live and work in the Amazon region, the report said, among them more than 500 Indigenous groups. It would also have regional and even global implications, since the rainforest would be unable to serve its ecological function as a recycler of water and air pollution.

The Amazon recycles up to 75% of moisture. But if deforestation continues, there won’t be enough forest left to carry out that function, leading to a drop in precipitation, an extended dry season and a water deficit.

That dryness would mean an increase in fires and even more forest loss.. The Amazon stores as much as 733 Gt of carbon dioxide, and releasing much of it into the atmosphere would likely contribute to pushing global temperature increase above the 1.5°C safety threshold, the report explained.

“Urgent action is needed to avoid global repercussions and to ensure that this region can continue to regulate the planet’s climate and to provide environmental and cultural benefits to the world,” said Roberto Troya, Regional Director for WWF Latin America and the Caribbean.

Drastic times, drastic measures

According to the WWF report, it’s not too late to stop deforestation from pushing the Amazon past its tipping point. But it’s going to take massive collaboration from governments, civil society, the private sector and Indigenous communities, among other important stakeholders to make it happen.

The report advocated for the COICA-led “Amazon for Life” initiative to conserve at least 80% of Amazon forests by 2025.

Aerial view of Amazon rainforest landscape scarred by open pit gold mines. Image by Rhett A. Butler.

The forestry and agricultural industry, banks and governments must work together, the report said, to monitor whether supply chains are contributing to deforestation. Beef, soy and other agricultural products have been found to clear primary forest without punishment because traceability systems aren’t always rigorous enough.

“Some companies are working harder than others to follow their own money,” said Kelly McNamara, a senior research and policy analyst in the International Climate and Agriculture Finance Program.

Existing protected areas, many of which are under threat of being downgraded to allow for infrastructure development, will require complex management plans that involve better monitoring and reporting by local communities and officials.

A strong sustainable forest management, in which forestry products are harvested without contributing to forest degradation, will also ensure the long-term health of forests while helping to combat illegal logging, the WWF report said.

The report stressed that Indigenous peoples are key to carrying out virtually all of these initiatives, as their livelihoods are often connected to their territories’ ecosystems. Fishing, ancestral agricultural systems, tourism and other cultural practices, it said, make Indigenous people critical players in protecting the Amazon in the future.

“Indigenous communities have been stewards of the land for hundreds of years, thousands of years,” McNamara said about the importance the report places on Indigenous communities. “They certainly have a critical role to play in preserving the native vegetation and keeping the biodiversity across the Amazon and cerrado in check.”

Banner image: The Pinipini river in the Peruvian Amazon. The Amazon Basin provides essential ecosystem services for the 47 million people relying on it for their livelihoods, while it plays a key role in regulating the global climate. Image by Rhett A. Butler.