The prognosis for the future of the Amazon is dire. The combination of persistent deforestation with rising global temperatures driving more severe fires and drought presents an existential threat to the world’s largest rainforest and the global climate.
Collaboration between and among communities, sectors, and governments is essential to slowing and possibly even avoiding this outcome.
That was the message delivered on Tuesday by a panel of experts organized by Earth Innovation Institute and held as part of the Global Landscapes Forum “Amazon Tipping Point” digital conference.
“Producers, Indigenous Peoples, everyone must act,” said Caroline Nobrega, General Manager of Aliança da Terra, which provides training and resources to help communities manage and fight fire in the Brazilian Amazon. “We see these groups as part of the solution. We work with them shoulder to shoulder. We need this network.”
Titled “The Amazon Forest Dieback: The science, impacts and solutions,” speakers during the one hour webinar focused on the importance of on-the-ground solutions to both fire management and deforestation, two interlinked factors propelling the forest closer toward its demise.
“The Amazon is not going to burn unless someone ignites the fire,” noted Ane Alencar, science director for the Brazilian NGO, IPAM. The forest’s high humidity and moisture level typically prevents fires from growing out of control, she explained. The clearing of forests for pasture, however, leaves ample fuel that in drier months can cause large conflagrations. “To avoid these fires, we have to reduce deforestation… and invest in practices that diminish the threat of fire.”
Recent advances in monitoring technology have made it possible to more accurately track fire damage in the Amazon, Alencar added. “There is an important difference between monitoring of deforestation and monitoring fires. With deforestation we see an immediate change. Fire is not like this, it is ephemerous,” she noted.
More sophisticated tools have allowed researchers to create maps that Alencar says will be “fundamental” to understanding degradation of the Amazon by fire.
Paulo Brando, assistant professor in the Department of Earth Systems Science at UC Irvine, highlighted the international community’s role in limiting its own contributions to forest loss and fire, as well as in helping to stabilize the broader climate. “The more climate balance we have, the less likely fire in the Amazon will be,” he said.
Brando said fire speeds up changes in the forest already happening as a result of climate change, while also releasing more of the forest’s carbon stock into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming.
And while burned forest can grow back, he said, it is “far easier to control and manage fires.”
The past several years have seen alarming increases in both the rate of aggregate deforestation and fire across the Amazon, with 2020 marking the highest number of fires in over a decade.
According to EII Executive Director Daniel Nepstad, who moderated Tuesday’s panel and has led pioneering research on the Amazon forest’s response to severe drought and fire, primary forests in the Amazon are highly tolerant to drought, able to suck up moisture from as deep as 15 meters beneath the ground in some cases. That resiliency, combined with effective intervention strategies, offer reasons to hope that the worst can still be avoided.
“The Amazon is falling at a rate of 11,000 km per year,” said Nepstad in his opening remarks. “But by cooperating together, based on science, it will be possible to avoid the dieback or turn it back.”
To be clear, the Amazon forest dieback is already happening. Healthy forests that have never been logged or burned are catching fire during periods of severe drought, and those droughts will become more frequent in a warming world, potentially releasing tens of billions of tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. The forest dieback will also increase because of deforestation itself, since rainfall depends on the water vapor that forests release into the atmosphere.
The forest dieback could contribute to an Amazon “tipping point”, when deforestation and dieback reach a level that rainfall is no longer adequate to sustain forests across large tracts of the region.
Mitigating these factors — by, for example, effectively managing fires or ending illegal deforestation — can help the forest return to its natural cycle.
Getting to that point requires collaboration, explained Nepstad, noting the example of Aliança da Terra as a counter to the prevailing narrative that “everyone is at odds” in the Amazon.
Created in 2004 to support agricultural producers and promote environmental protection, Aliança da Terra’s volunteer fire brigades present a true cross section of the region. Brigades comprised of Indigenous peoples, producers, and local residents now operate in regions across the Brazilian Amazon, as well as the Cerrado and Pantanal biomes.
Providing training sessions, certification and other resources, the organization has managed to effectively rally otherwise disparate communities. “We cannot just act when there is a fire,” said Nobrega. “This is about work in the field that is happening every day, it is about prevention.”
Nobrega pointed to Aliança’s work with one Indigenous tribe that because of increasingly dry weather began seeing traditionally managed fires for pasture burn out of control. Aliança staff trained tribal members on fire management techniques, so that by 2019, when the world watched in horror as smoke billowed across much of the Amazon, no such fires were reported by the tribe.
“This is the story of this region,” said Nobrega, noting the tribal brigade is now formed 100% by Indigenous members.
Aliança’s success comes despite the fact that the organization operates on a near-shoestring budget. Nobrega noted recent work in a region bordering Paraguay that was halted due to lack of funds. The following year, she says, more than 40% of the region was consumed in flames.
There is a clear “disconnect between the size of the problem and the available funding,” noted Nepstad. “We have the technology that allows us to solve this problem, to stop the fires before they happen. It all depends on cooperation.”