Vista aérea da floresta amazônica no estado brasileiro do Amazonas. Neil Palmer, CIAT

Plotting the points that got the Amazon to its tipping point

Day 1 of GLF Amazonia stresses perils of deforestation, fire and climate change – and promises of land management

This post is also available in: Español Portuguese (Brazil)

Scientifically, it is unquestionable that the Amazon is on track to cease to be a rainforest.

The world’s largest tropical rainforest storing some 200 billion tons of carbon is now emitting more carbon than it captures, accelerating climatic changes that do the forest further harm.

The mysterious forest floors and canopies vibrating with a tenth of all known life forms across an area twice the size of India are being silenced by wildfires and deforestation.

The ancient home of over 400 of the most storied Indigenous cultures is seeing its peoples’ lands degraded, stolen and converted for mining, dams and agriculture.

The first of three days dedicated to examining the critical state of the Amazon biome during GLF Amazonia: The Tipping Point, a digital conference hosted by the Global Landscapes Forum, heard a choir of voices – Indigenous leaders, scientists, politicians, economists, organizational heads, youth – sharing the pressures they’re witnessing and how they can be addressed.

The goal, as the conference’s subtitle “Solutions from the inside-out” denotes, must then be to weave these realities into a strategy stronger than the arrows of challenges coming from all directions.

“We are in the tipping point in the Amazon,” said Luciana Gatti, senior researcher in climate change for the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research (INPE). “This is reversible.”

Getting to the point

In the context of ecology, a “tipping point” is a juncture in an ecosystem or natural cycle that, once crossed, cannot be reversed. As Antarctic glaciers increasingly break and melt, sea levels are rising to a point that could see West Antarctica collapse entirely. As glacial meltwater and rainfall increases from global warming, the Gulf Stream and other weather-regulating currents are upended. As the Arctic permafrost melts, greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere, pushing these processes along.

For the Amazon, as these changes in the global climate increasingly couple with rising temperatures, season instability, wildfire and deforestation, the biome struggles to produce its own rain and shows signs of dieback – drying out into a grassland-like ecosystem. This is the tipping point of the Amazon, and its beginning stages are underway.

“Where we are in more trouble than we think we are is that these tipping points are interrelated – they are not independent,” said Robert Nasi, director general of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and managing director of CIFOR-ICRAF, in the opening of the event.“These things are very dangerous because they can create cascading effects that will impact the whole basis of the biosphere and life’s survival systems.”

“I want people from outside to hear us and to know that we are fighting for our lives – not only our life, but that of humankind,” said Nemonte Nenquimo, leader of the Ecuadorian Amazon’s Waorani people.“We Indigenous have been struggling for a long time to maintain this balance [with nature] in climate change.”

Points of context

The tipping point of the Amazon in particular began to be studied in earnest in 1992, when Brazilian scientist Carlos Nobre and American scientist Thomas Lovejoy, who will both speak in the GLF event, launched a project called the “Large-Scale Biosphere Atmosphere Experiment in Amazonia” to intensively examine the atmosphere-biosphere-hydrosphere dynamics of the biome. Their conclusion, years later, was that the Amazon would reach its tipping point and dry out when it became 40 percent deforested and climate change continued in a business-as-usual scenario.

However in 2018, the scientists lowered this initial estimate drastically to 20 to 25 percent, in part due to the increase in fires, which are now triangulated into the tipping point equation with deforestation and climate change.

Currently, the Amazon is more than 17 percent deforested and, at current rates, will reach 27 percent by 2030 – hence the emergency of figuring out how to interrupt the trajectory of this critical ecosystem.  

MapBiomas's infographic showing the results of their mapping of Brazilian fires over 16 years. Courtesy of MapBiomas
MapBiomas’s infographic showing the results of their mapping of Brazilian fires over 16 years. Courtesy of MapBiomas

In July of this year, Gatti led the authorship of a study that crashed through headlines around the world with the finding that parts of the Amazon are now emitting more carbon than they capture each year.

The eastern part of the Amazon, which is about 27 percent deforested, emits 10 times more carbon than the western part, which is only about 11 percent deforested. The southern Amazon is now a net carbon source. The data collection that fed into the study ended in 2018, so the emissions today are yet unknown but likely higher.

Ane Alencar, director of science at Amazon Environmental Research Institute, extrapolated the different patterns of fire in the Amazon based on a map from the MapBiomas initiative that shows the areas of Amazonia burned at least once in the past 36 years, together amounting to 16.4 percent of the biome. The southern reaches of Amazonia have experienced the most burns, with the southeast becoming especially fragmented due to fire – as was reflected in the south’s particularly high emissions from burned biomass as described in Gatti’s study.

“These fires are quite dangerous because changes [in the ecosystem] usually happen slowly over several decades, but if fire gets into forest, those changes are more abrupt,” said Paulo Brando, assistant professor at the University of California-Irvine’s Department of Earth System Science. “We don’t know the amount of carbon we are losing – and we aren’t losing it in whole Amazonian region – but with fire the amount is going to be greater.”

“During the last 50 years, the Amazon area lost 17 percent of its forest,” said Gatti. “Last year, it was about 1.5 percent. It is too much, and we are about to collapse, very fast. We need urgent actions. We need general measures to end deforestation and control deforestation during the dry seasons and also to find other ways to manage agriculture and re-establish the ecosystem.”

Management points

A tree-frog hanging on a branch in the Peruvian Amazon at night. The Amazon is home to 10 percent of all known forms of life. Ulrike Langner, Unsplash
A tree-frog hanging on a branch in the Peruvian Amazon at night. The Amazon is home to 10 percent of all known forms of life. Ulrike Langner, Unsplash

While the Amazon is often considered an expression of nature at its most untamed, the statistics tell a different story. Take, for instance, the numbers on Brazil’s forests, as broken down by Alison Castilho, biologist with Observatório do Manejo Florestal Comunitário e Familiar: of their 311 million hectares, almost all of which are in the Amazon, 73 percent are collectively managed in some way, be that through state-owned operations, federal conservation units or Indigenous territory, he said.

This is illustrated through initiatives like RedParques, which presented at the event and is a network of Latin American and Caribbean countries that collaborate to better manage their protected and conserved areas, supported with technical advice from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN.

The question is then raised: how can the Amazon be managed in ways that preserve its ecological integrity?

The most sustainably managed parts of the Amazon are those held by Indigenous peoples and local communities, who rely on the forest’s resources for their survival. The rights of these groups will be discussed in detail in the second and third days of the event, but methods for ways they can adapt to the Amazon’s changing landscape were highlighted throughout day one.

In response to fires, Caroline Nobrega, general manager of Aliança da Terra, discussed how her organization is training local communities and farmers on the border of the Amazon and the Cerrado to contain fires. Traditionally, fire has been used to clear land for agricultural plantations in this area, but drought and higher temperatures now raise risks of the burns spiraling out of control. “The fire is very complex, and the brigade has to not only watch the fire but also to consider the wind, vegetation and other factors,” said Nobrega.

In other parts of the Amazon, fire is being omitted from agricultural practices altogether. In the northeast of Brazil’s Pará state, farmer Leiliane Martins Batista proudly described how she has converted a former yucca plantation into a thriving agroforestry garden without the use of burning. Now, her plot of land is mixed with dendê palms for oil, cacao and peppers, and “the soil is richer too, contributing to species diversity,” she said.

The Rio Negro in Amazonia, Brazil. NASA Marshall Space Flight Center
The Rio Negro in Amazonia, Brazil. NASA Marshall Space Flight Center

In fact, the slow spread of agroforestry in the Amazon is a revival of ancient practices, as speakers in a session on agroecology, archeology and anthropology explained. “Agroecological strategies have led to the Amazon we now know,” said Eduardo Góes Neves, a professor of Brazilian archaeology at the University of São Paulo, describing how Indigenous cultures cultivated and domesticated plants like cacao, yucca and açaí that are now ubiquitous in the biome. Prior to colonization, there were some 10 million Indigenous peoples living in Amazonia, but 90 percent died in the centuries following the arrival of the Portuguese and Spanish, which led to the narrative of the Amazon as being a largely uninhabited and virgin habitat.

Similarly, Márcio Augusto Freitas Meira an anthropologist at Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi spoke of the ancient tribes of the Rio Negro region, who managed their landscapes based on relationships between humans and all non-human things, from rocks, soil and water to the stars, constellations and yearly cycle of life. “The Indians call this holistic approach the ‘management of the world,'” he said.

“The situation of Indigenous peoples not just of Rio Negro but in general is of great vulnerability,” he summarized. “And the sustainable culture of Indigenous lands should be one of main policy instruments – allowing communities to govern based on their own models.”

Article tags

AmazonAmazon Biomebiodiversityclimate changedeforestationfiresGLF Amazoniamanaged landscapesrainforesttipping pointwildwildfires

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