Climate balance and health on the planet depend on the Amazon

04 September 2020

Growing deforestation in the main tropical forest reserve in the world not only impacts climate change; it also increases the risk for new epidemics. Now, more than ever, the private sector must act in favor of a low carbon economy.

Burnings in the São Bernardo community, Rio Branco, Acre. Photo: Katie Maehler/Mídia NINJA

The Amazon occupies an area corresponding to about 40% of South America. The region of dense tropical forest is spread over nine countries, but 60% of its extension is located in Brazil. 27 million people live in the Brazilian legal Amazon. The forest has the highest concentration of plants, animals, fungi, bacteria and algae on Earth, plays a crucial role in South America's water cycle and rain regime and is extremely important in regulating global climate and mitigating global warming.

A SITUATION WORSE THAN LAST YEAR

According to data from the University of Maryland (USA) on Global Forest Watch, Brazil is the country that has lost the largest forest area in the world. From January to December 2019, it recorded the highest annual deforestation rate in a decade, accumulating almost 1.4 million km² destroyed - corresponding to one third of what was deforested across the planet in that period. In the first half of 2020, the conversion of native vegetation in the Legal Amazon was 26% higher than in the same period in 2019, with a loss of 3 thousand km². This represents the worst result in the first half of the last five years.

There is scientific evidence that accumulated deforestation of more that 25% of the Amazon area may lead to the “savanization” of the biome. In an editorial for the scientific journal Science Advances, published in February 2018, Brazilian climatologist Carlos Nobre and professor at George Mason University, Thomas Lovejoy, state that this tipping point would cause unpredictable changes in the rain patterns of the North, Center- West and Southeast, with a strong impact on agriculture.

Burnings in the Amazon advanced over the Xingu river, in Pará. Picture: NASA Earth Observatory

The increase in fires, deforestation and forest degradation, resulting in loss of Amazonian biodiversity, coincides with the loosening of the environmental policy of the current Brazilian government. The current management signaling the possibility of opening indigenous lands and conservation units for economic exploitation has been encouraging loggers, farmers and illegal speculators to occupy and destroy the region. The Ministry of the Environment has been inefficient in fighting deforestation, reducing the transparency in procedures and promoting the removal of important inspection bodies.

THE NEXT PANDEMICS COULD START IN THE AMAZON

Scientists have been warning for at least two decades that the degradation process following fires and deforestation, contributes to an increased contact of wild animals with neighboring human communities, which become vectors for zoonotic bacteria, viruses and parasites. This has contributed in recent years to the rise in outbreaks of highly infectious diseases: Ebola, Avian Flu, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (Mers), Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Zika. In all these cases, the viruses were transmitted to humans by animals that inhabit tropical forests.

And the next pandemic could originate in the Brazilian Amazon if deforestation rates in the biome continue to grow at the current rate. In 2015, a team from the Institute of Applied Economic Research (Ipea) found that, for each 1% of green areas suppressed annually in the biome, cases of malaria increased by 23%. More recently, a study by Columbia University (USA) revealed that more than 3,200 types of coronaviruses circulate in bats in the Amazon, and many of them can offer potential risk to humans.

An area close to Altamira, in Pará, is becoming a support point for illegal deforestation. Picture: Felipe Werneck/Ibama

BUSINESS AT STAKE

International buyers of agricultural commodities are increasingly concerned about the relationship between food production and the conversion of native vegetation. This is also  generating pressure against the ratification of the EU-Mercosur agreement and encouraging the boycott of Brazilian products.

The Brazilian Coalizão Brasil Clima, Florestas e Agricultura, which assembles 200 representatives of agribusiness, organized civil society, the financial sector and academia, including Solidaridad, made a public statement on June 5th, World Environment Day. In it, the Coalition drew attention to the strong signs of illegality in this serious scenario of deforestation, since 99% of all deforestation in Brazil occurred in protected areas.

It is estimated that 20% of soy exports and at least 17% of meat exports from both biomes to the European Union (EU) are associated with illegal deforestation. Beef exporters are in the dark regarding which suppliers operate on illegally deforested land. They register mainly the farms where their cattle were fattened, but not where they were raised. Consequently, current monitoring systems fail to capture between 85% and 90% of deforestation. Interestingly, an article published in the journal Science in July, signed by Raoni Rajão and other researchers, reveals that just 2% of rural properties are accountable for 62% of potentially illegal deforestation in the Amazon and the Cerrado.

Exporters wanting to prove that they act responsibly, will need to obtain and share data on every link in their supply chains. Supermarkets can complete this process by telling consumers where the meat comes from. This would compel companies to change their practices, not only from an ethical point of view, but also commercially.

FIRST MOVERS

Grande área de desmatamento ilegal em Novo Progresso, no Pará. Foto: Vinícius Mendonça/Ibama

A group of nearly 30 international financial institutions, which manage more than USD 3.7 trillion in total assets, recently demanded that the Brazilian government stop the deforestation rise in the country as it creates risks and uncertainties for investing or providing financial services in Brazil. The group recognized the crucial role that tropical forests play in counteracting climate change, protecting biodiversity and reducing investment risks. They stated that companies exposed to potential deforestation in their operations and supply chains in Brazil may face difficulties in accessing international markets.

Monitoring systems only get to register a 15% of the deforestation happening in the Amazon. Picture: Vinícius Mendonça/Ibama

Additionally, 38 CEOs from the largest companies operating in Brazil recently issued a letter to the nation's top authorities demanding an effective fight against illegal deforestation in the Amazon and other biomes, and a commitment to sustainable development in the region. The movement’s agenda, which has already assembled more than 70 companies, includes:

  • the social and economic inclusion of local communities to guarantee the preservation of forests; 

  • minimizing the environmental impact in the use of natural resources, seeking efficiency and productivity in the economic activities derived therefrom; 

  • valuing and preserving biodiversity as an integral part of business strategies; 

  • the adoption of mechanisms for negotiating carbon credits and directing financing and investments to a circular and low carbon economy.

The Coalition Solidaridad is member of launched a package of actions that can, in the short term, drastically reduce deforestation in the Amazon. The proposal includes resuming and intensifying control activities, as well as the suspension of any Rural Environmental Registry record—mandatory for rural properties—that may affect public forests or account for possible illegal deforestation. In addition, the Coalition advocates for allocating 100 thousand km² under protection and sustainable use, adoption of socio environmental criteria for granting financing, full transparency and efficiency in authorizations to remove vegetation, and the suspension of every regularization process for land tenure that shows deforestation after July 2008.

LOW CARBON PRODUCTION

Technical assistance adopted by Solidaridad meets the priorities of forest restoration and income generation. Picture: Diego Rinaldi/Solidaridad Brasil


Within this context, Solidaridad has carried out the “Inclusive and Sustainable Territories” programme, starting in 2015, in the rural settlement of Tuerê, in the Amazonian State of Pará. In total, more than 225 family producers receive technical assistance to adopt productive restoration practices. This is based on agroforestry models with cocoa, a species native to the region, as the flagship, which simultaneously meets the priorities of forest restoration and income generation.

Agricultural food production systems such as those promoted by Solidaridad, emphasize the inclusion of family farming in the production chain, in mitigating the effects of global warming, and the potential risks of transmitting new diseases associated with forest degradation. Especially after COVID-19, we must strive to build a more efficient, fair and sustainable economy that makes Brazil more resilient to climate change and the risks of future pandemics.

Read more about our work in South America.

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