Amazon ecosystems and peoples on the brink – time for a new vision (commentary)

  • Mercedes Bustamante – professor at the University of Brasilia, member of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences and lead scientist of the Scientific Panel for the Amazon – says the world must announce a “red code” for the Amazon due to growing threats against the largest rainforest in the world.
  • Bustamante cites evidence gathered in a new synthesis of scientific knowledge on Amazonian socio-ecological systems, which “summarizes how ecosystems and human populations have co-evolved in this unique region and documents the unprecedented changes the Amazon has been through. witnessed in recent years and their profound impacts on the continental and global environment.
  • “Saving existing forests from continued deforestation and degradation and restoring ecosystems is one of the most urgent tasks of our time to preserve the Amazon and its people and address the global risk and impacts of climate change” , writes Bustamante.
  • This post is a comment. The opinions expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

A code red for humanity. These were the words of UN Secretary-General António Guterres, summarizing the strong messages of the latest IPCC report on climate change. Among the most urgent messages are the unequivocal human influence on the climate system, the increased frequency and intensity of extreme events and the reaching of the 1.5oC threshold earlier than expected.

With recent spurts of deforestation ravaging the largest rainforest on the planet, we must also announce a code red for the Amazon. Saving existing forests from continued deforestation and degradation and restoring ecosystems is one of the most urgent tasks of our time to preserve the Amazon and its people and address the risk and global impacts of climate change.

The Amazon rainforest includes key sinks and sources of greenhouse gases and carries massive water flows between its rivers, trees, and atmosphere that strongly influence Earth’s climate systems. The mosaic of ecosystems extends from the high Andes to the Amazon plain. It is home to the most extraordinary biodiversity on the planet, with more than 10% of the planet’s plant and animal species.

Creek in the Amazon rainforest in Colombia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

About 47 million people live in the Amazon Basin, nearly 2.8 million Indigenous people with more than 350 ethnic groups in the Pan-Amazon, of which around 60 remain in voluntary isolation. However, the current indigenous population is only a remnant of the 8-10 million people living in the Amazon before European colonization. Today, the region and its people are once again threatened – by ongoing political changes, development pressures and associated losses of human and ecological diversity and climate change.

To assess these threats and future trajectories for the Amazon, more than 200 scientists (more than 60% of Amazonian countries) from the Scientific Panel for the Amazon organized a new synthesis of scientific knowledge on Amazonian socio-ecological systems. The report summarizes how ecosystems and human populations have co-evolved in this unique region and documents the unprecedented changes the Amazon has witnessed in recent years and their profound impacts on the continental and global environment. The report also assesses potential ways to move away from the most damaging future consequences and develop pathways for a sustainable future for Amazon.

The evidence now provides a clear warning: deforestation, degradation and climate change are together pushing the Amazon rapidly towards a point beyond which it may not be able to recover. In recent years, political instability in the region, affecting different countries simultaneously, correlates with increasing rates of deforestation in Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru. About 17% of the Pan-Amazon has been deforested, with a further 17% considered degraded. Connections between land and rivers mean that degradation also threatens freshwater species and ecosystems. Recent research findings have indicated that in parts of the Amazon, the forest is changing from a sink to a source of carbon due to climate change, deforestation and forest degradation. Amazon forests are susceptible to drought and fire, while floodplain systems are vulnerable to changes in flood regimes. Land use changes reinforce climate change, reducing the resilience of forests with risks to human health, food and water security in large areas of South America, including its southeastern part and the Andes, and the La Plata Basin in the southern part of the continent whose rainfall is highly dependent on the Amazon.

The Javari River forms the border between Brazil and Peru.  Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.
The Javari River forms the border between Brazil and Peru. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.

Preserving 25% of protected areas on the surface of the basin and 27% of indigenous territories and restoring a significant part of degraded forests and abandoned agricultural lands are opportunities for national and regional decision-makers to promote numerous direct and indirect benefits for local populations and society as a whole while respecting long-term international commitments.

Bioeconomy and sustainable management of natural resources are feasible for the region. Açaí stands out positively, with growing production values ​​and demand. In the Basilica Archipelago (Brazil), at the mouth of the Amazon River, the açaí agroforestry production system has been recognized as a good practice in traditional farming systems (SAT), awarded by the Brazilian Development Bank. the Xingu Seed Network, also in Brazil, is an initiative to promote the exchange and trade of seeds which, over the past 14 years, has commercialized approximately 250 tons of seeds of more than 220 native species and involves more than 500 people. Recently, the Mamirauá project obtained the concession of the Geographical Indication (GI) of the Denomination of Origin (DO) Mamirauá for the pirarucu (one of the largest freshwater fish in the world). The seal increases market value and benefits communities, spurring similar initiatives in pan-Amazon regions.

Collaboration between governments, civil society and indigenous organizations, science-based innovation, valorization of traditional knowledge, conscious and responsible private investments and public policies are fundamental elements that can support an achievable vision of the living and sustainable Amazon: regional ecosystems and forests restored and maintained, economies built on the basis of healthy forests, free rivers and regional societies empowered to lead this transformation.

Mercedes Bustamante is a professor at the University of Brasilia, Brazil, and a member of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences.

Additional listening to the Mongabay podcast: a conversation with Zack Romo, program director for the Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA) who was in Marseille for the recent World Conservation Congress and helped push the motion to protect 80% of the Amazon by 2025, listen here: