Major scientific assessment of the Amazon region issues urgent call to end deforestation and avert tipping points

Launched at COP26 on 12 November, a new interdisciplinary report calls for immediate action to protect the unique Amazon region.

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This article is part of the ISC’s Transform21 series, which will explore the state of knowledge and action, five years on from the Paris Agreement and in a pivotal year for action on sustainable development.

In 2019, an unusually active fire season in the Amazon brought the world’s attention to the issue of deforestation in the world’s largest rainforest. Politicians worldwide and even the Pope called for action to control the fires and halt deforestation in the Amazon.

For the science community, the unprecedented fires of 2019 resulted in the establishment of the Science Panel for the Amazon, a major new effort to convene knowledge about the region. As well as bringing together expertise on the biophysical characteristics of the Amazon, the panel set out to undertake a broader study of life in the Amazon, including historical information, social and natural science research and traditional knowledge from Indigenous and local communities.

This approach, says Mercedes Bustamante, who’s a member of the Science Panel for the Amazon’s Science Steering Committee, is becoming all the more common and ‘will be even more necessary in a world where the problems are so complex that no one knowledge field is able to provide all the answers’.

The sheer size and diversity of the Amazon basin makes it a critical element in the Earth’s climate system, influencing the atmosphere circulation patterns inside and outside the tropics. The Amazon is large component of the global carbon system, and it’s estimated that 150-200 billion tons of carbon is stored in its soils and vegetation. The Pan-Amazon is also home to around 47 million people, and falls under the jurisdiction of several different countries.

Since 2019, deforestation in the region has increased ‘substantially’, prompting the Science Panel for the Amazon to issue a serious warning about the immediate need for change in its first-ever Amazon Assessment Report, which was published on 12 November 2021. Whilst the panel welcome The Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forest and Land Use made ten days earlier, at the beginning of COP26, they go further still, proposing an immediate moratorium on deforestation in areas of the Amazon that are already nearing tipping points, and calling for zero deforestation and forest degradation in the entire Amazon region before 2030.

While the report makes clear that additional research is required to understand the likelihood of crossing tipping points in the Amazon, the proposed moratorium aims to immediately end deforestation in areas identified as being high-risk of approaching a tipping point, such as in the so-called ‘arc of deforestation’ in the Southeastern Amazon. If a tipping point were breached, the majority of the rainforest would irreversibly shift to a different ecosystem configuration, leading to the extinction of innumerable plant and animal species, disruption to the climate of South America, and the release of billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the air. In these already degraded lowland areas, the Amazon is now emitting more carbon than it absorbs, acting as a carbon source rather than a carbon sink.

‘This is a clear physical signal that the function of the forest is changing.’

Mercedes Bustamante

As Mercedes Bustamante explains, the more mountainous areas of the Amazon will remain more humid under climate change, helping to sustain the forests in those areas. Yet the lowland parts of the region – which are already more affected by deforestation and degradation – will also be more at risk from increasing levels of drought. In particular, the loss of big trees is allowing more sunlight in through the forest canopy and shifting the ecosystem towards a different kind of degraded forest. If degradation continues, particularly in the South-eastern Amazon, large areas could shift to an open-canopy degraded state or a closed-canopy secondary forest state. Speaking at the report launch on Friday 12 November, Carlos Nobre, Co-Chair of the Science Panel, warned that 60-70% of the Amazon risks becoming an open canopy forest.

However, the 200 scientists that make up the Panel set out to go beyond noting the challenges facing the region, and to make recommendations for how to bring about change.

‘We cannot wait another 10 years to think about the solutions for the Amazon region.’

Mercedes Bustamante

The assessment suggests a number of priorities for restoration, and calls for attention to be given to sustainable economic activities and livelihoods for local populations, as well as to strengthening governance in the region and empowering its citizens. It includes chapters on participatory intercultural education and linguistic diversity, and contains specific recommendations for action.

What has been particularly promising, says Bustamante, is that sub-national governments are engaging with the panel’s findings. With national level policy-making focused on pandemic response and economic difficulties, there may be a window of opportunity to start local action, with the local actors who know their areas best.

Just a look at the contents list for the report – which stretches to over 1000 pages – gives an idea of the complexity of the issues facing the Amazon region, and the need to consider different aspects together – from the bio- and geophysical to the social and economic. The Science Panel for the Amazon will continue its work in the coming years, potentially looking in more detail at some of the issues where knowledge gaps remain, such as on the influence of violence and organized crime on deforestation, and on the role of women in restoration and resilience building in the Amazon region.

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Photo: Rio Parima na Terra Indigena Yanomami (Bruno Kelly/Amazônia Real via Flickr).

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