Why our work matters in the context of the Brazilian Amazon fires

If you’ve been keeping up with the fires in the Amazon, chances are you’ve seen a reference to the term “dieback” somewhere along the way. This term has become shorthand for a scenario in which ecosystem disturbances from deforestation and climate change render the Amazon incapable of sustaining what forest is left remaining.

To understand why this scenario is such a serious concern and how it could come about, we must go back to research that was conducted over 40 years ago by a Brazilian scientist named Eneas Salati. According to Thomas E. Lovejoy, a Professor in the Department of Environmental Science and Policy at George Mason University, and Carlos Nobres, a Member of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences and Senior Fellow of the World Resources Institute Brazil, Salati was able to prove that the Amazon produces roughly half of its own rainfall by recycling water through trees and other plant life back up to the passing airmasses –– essentially recharging them for rainfall in the next portion of the Amazon.¹ Salati’s results showed that, as these airmasses pass from east to west of the Amazon, this recycling of water occurs 5-6 times across that span.²

Ever since these findings, many scientists have asked, At what point does this unique hydrological cycle break down due to loss of forest cover? Sadly, if this were to occur, the vast majority of the Amazon simply wouldn’t receive the rainfall needed to survive, and this is when the dieback would begin.

In an interview with YaleEnvironment360, Mr. Nobre confirms that while initial estimates indicated that the breakdown would occur at 40% deforestation, due to the effects of climate change and drier conditions brought about by seasonal burning, just 20-25% deforestation of the Amazon could trigger such an irreversible dieback –– one that could transform the lush rainforest into sparse savanna.³

So where are we in this process? Does that mean that we can withstand a loss of 20-25% of the Amazon’s current land area? Unfortunately not. The baseline data cited throughout these studies is from 1970, and, according to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, which estimates deforestation using satellite imagery, we reached 19.3% deforestation at the end of 20184. With this year’s decade-high fire totals, we’re entering the unknown and potentially teetering on collapse.

At Rainforest Partnership, we see our work as an important means of preventing such a catastrophic loss. First, our work helps keep carbon in the trees, in the soil, and in the hands of local and indigenous communities, the most trusted stewards of the rainforest. We must make every effort that we can to limit deforestation and carbon emissions that would accelerate climate change and push us further toward the dieback scenario.

Second, we are leading by example, to show others how we can support communities and ecosystems in ways that work for them, ways that enable their way of being. Our model, based on partnerships which create sustainable livelihoods and support protected areas, is applicable around the world and provides a path forward. As we continue to partner with communities to create sustainable livelihoods and protect the Amazon, we challenge others—from individuals to corporations and governments—to partner with us, partner with communities, partner with the earth, and support a future for us all.

References:

  1. https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/4/2/eaat2340
  2. Ibid.
  3. https://e360.yale.edu/features/will-deforestation-and-warming-push-the-amazon-to-a-tipping-point
  4. https://rainforests.mongabay.com/amazon/deforestation_calculations.html