Scientists call for new approach to saving the Amazon Forest

The Amazon Forest is a wonderland of biological diversity that is nearly as large as the continental United States. It contains the world’s largest tropical rainforest, it supports 10% of all known species on Earth, and its billions of trees absorb huge amounts of carbon dioxide, a primary cause of global climate change.

The forest also is home to 35 million people, including 1 million Indigenous people with their own cultural identities, territorial management practices and more than 300 different languages.

Over the past 50 years, most Amazon countries have embraced extraction-oriented development models that promote mining, agribusiness operations and construction of large hydroelectric dams. These models have destroyed vast areas of the forest and choked free-flowing rivers. They also have benefitted corporations while causing severe inequities for traditional forest peoples, according to a recent study.

Nearly one-fifth of the Amazon Forest has been cut down or burned to make way for large agribusiness operations, mines, hydropower dams and other uses.
Photo: Traci Romine

Despite the global significance of the Amazon, the scientific community had never conducted a comprehensive assessment of the entire forest, its natural resources or its peoples. That changed last year, when a group of 200 scientists known as the Science Panel for the Amazon completed the Amazon Assessment Report 2021.

The report was sobering. But it also offered a glimmer of hope and a blueprint for sustainable, conservation-based economies that protect the forest and rivers, benefit Indigenous and local communities, and maintain the Amazon’s role as a natural buffer against climate change. The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation is supporting dissemination of the report and dialogues with policymakers, the public and financial institutions that fund development in the Amazon.

Mercedes Bustamante, co-chair of the SPA’s steering committee, said further destruction of the Amazon could eliminate 10,000 species of plants and animals, exacerbate global climate change and fuel the spread of zoonotic diseases, such as COVID-19.

“Science tells us that we face potentially irreversible and catastrophic risks for humans due to multiple crises — biodiversity decline, climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Bustamante, a biology professor at the University of Brasilia. “However, it is also showing us there is a narrow window of opportunity to change this trajectory.

“The fate of the Amazon,” Bustamante added, “is central to the solution of these global crises.”

The SPA report highlighted a series of damaging changes and looming threats facing the Amazon, including:

  • Since 1970, 18% of forested areas have been converted to other uses.
  • Another 17% of the forest has been degraded by human activities.
  • Numerous rivers and aquatic ecosystems have been degraded by dams, roads and other projects.
  • Over the past two decades, an area of the Amazon roughly the size of Spain has been deforested. The use of fire to clear large swaths of forest — to make way for agribusiness operations, roads and other infrastructure — is so widespread that some areas of the Amazon now emit more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than they can absorb.
  • Nearly 70% of protected areas and Indigenous territories in the Amazon are threatened by roads, mining, oil and gas development, illegal invasions, dams and deforestation.

Deforestation in the Amazon hit a 15-year high in 2021, according to a separate report from Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research. The institute said 8,224 square miles of forest were cut down or burned between August 2020 and July 2021, a 22% increase over the previous year.

The SPA report said that, to save the forest, countries that control it must immediately end deforestation in the most damaged areas and impose a moratorium on all deforestation and forest-degrading activities across the entire Amazon region by 2030. The report predicted that damage to the forest will continue to escalate unless the current, destructive development model is replaced by one that is holistic, sustainable and beneficial for Indigenous and traditional communities.

Convened by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, the scientific panel aims to monitor and chart a new course for forest conservation and sustainable development. The panel will use scientific data to leverage action by development finance banks and countries that sign international treaties, such as the climate and biodiversity conventions.

An aerial view of a wildfire in the Xingu Indigenous Territory in the Brazilian Amazon. Fires and deforestation have increased in the Amazon in recent years.
Photo: Traci Romine

The panel spelled out its Living Amazon Vision in the Amazon Assessment Report. That vision — which includes a new development model that is inclusive, just, and socially, environmentally and economically healthy — is based on three pillars:

  • Conservation, restoration and remediation of terrestrial and aquatic systems.
  • Development of an innovative bioeconomy based on healthy forests, flowing rivers and biodiversity. This includes combining the knowledge of Indigenous peoples and traditional communities, and investing in research, marketing and production to support sustainable, non-timber-related product chains in the Amazon.
  • Strengthening Amazonian citizenship and governance, which includes using environmental diplomacy to strengthen human and territorial rights, enhancing management of natural resources and investing in scientific research to protect species that have yet to be discovered.

The Living Amazon Vision aligns with the United Nations’ sustainable development goals. The 17 interconnected SDGs are a “blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all.” The Mott Foundation uses the SDG framework to track our grantmaking and align our work with broader efforts to achieve those goals.

Including financial institutions in efforts to embrace sustainable development models is critical to saving the Amazon forest, said Traci Romine, an Environment program officer at Mott.

“Financial institutions have a direct influence on the future of the Amazon,” Romine said. “Economic and development strategies are financed by these institutions and often would not be possible without the services banks provide. This is especially the case for companies active in large-scale agribusiness, infrastructure, mining and hydrocarbon exploration.”

Romine said she hopes the SPA report will be updated regularly and shared with governments to guide policy and financing that will protect the Amazon while promoting sustainable development. She said it could mirror climate change reports produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The IPCC, which is a branch of the United Nations, reports on climate change every four years to guide action needed to solve the climate crisis.

Illegal deforestation and fires in the Amazon threaten Indigenous and traditional forest communities. Shown here is a group of Kayapó, an Indigenous people who live in dispersed riverside villages.
Photo: Todd Southgate

The first SPA report has garnered widespread attention. After its formal release at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, held last November in Scotland, leaders from more than 100 countries pledged to end deforestation by 2030. While that goal may be ambitious on a global scale, many scientists believe it’s too far in the future to save the Amazon.

Carlos Nobre, co-chair of the SPA and a member of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, said more urgent action is needed to save the Amazon and its peoples.

“There is no time to waste,” Nobre said. “The tipping point is here. It is now. The peoples and leaders of the Amazon countries together have the power, the science and the tools to avoid a continental-scale, indeed, a global environmental disaster.”

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