From Carbon Sink to Source: Brazil Puts Amazon, Paris Goals at Risk

Scientists warn that what happens in the Amazon does not stay there: massive deforestation and forest degradation could destabilize the regional climate, leading to drought intensification and the release of vast amounts of carbon to the atmosphere with potentially catastrophic results for humanity. As negotiators meet at COP23 in Bonn, Germany, the future of the Brazilian Amazon hangs in the balance. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay

In 2012, Brazil celebrated a dramatic reduction in its deforestation rate. A sharp annual decline took forest loss to a record low, down 76 percent from 1990. Accomplishing this milestone – achieved alongside GDP growth and a major financial incentive scheme for reducing deforestation in collaboration with Norway – Brazil was hailed as an example for other nations to aspire to, especially during the landmark 2015 climate summit in Paris.

Today, that situation is largely reversed. Deforestation in Brazil rose rapidly and alarmingly in 2015-16, while Brazil's greenhouse gas emissions shot up by 8.9 percent in 2016. And though deforestation saw a measured decline in 2016-17, policymakers remain worried by an "exceedingly dangerous" suite of initiatives pushed forward over the last 12 months by President Michel Temer. They are so worried, in fact, that in June Norway threatened to withdraw financial support for Brazil's deforestation effort if the nation didn't reverse its flood of anti-environmental measures.

A major point of concern: will Donald Trump's U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement provide Temer with political cover to disregard Brazil's voluntary carbon reduction and deforestation commitments? This is a question that will likely be on negotiators' minds this week and next as the world's Paris signatories gather for the COP23 summit in Bonn, Germany, from Nov. 6-17.

Taken all together, Temer's anti-environmental measures pose a serious threat to the Amazon biome, Brazil's commitments to the Paris Agreement, and to the global climate, according to the scientists interviewed for this story.

Temer targets the environment

President Temer came to power in May 2016, having helped engineer the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff. Since then, he has issued a rush of decrees aimed at facilitating large-scale agricultural and industrial development in the Amazon, something the agribusiness lobby that dominates Congress – and whose support Temer needs to sustain him as he comes under increasing scrutiny for corruption – is eager to promote.

Temer's administration includes the influential minister of agriculture, Blairo Maggi, once known as the "Soy King" and famed for his management of the family company, the Amaggi Group, the largest private producer of soybeans in the world. Maggi is part of the bancada ruralista (the ruralist lobby), whose supporters include 40 percent of the Brazilian Congress.

Temer's initiatives are "a disaster in the making for the Amazon," said Christian Poirier, program director at Amazon Watch, an NGO. "If Temer's agenda moves forward it will change the face of this life-giving forest, with major repercussions for climate stability and our collective well-being."

William Laurance, of James Cook University, Australia, agreed, and told Mongabay that the president's measures are "exceedingly dangerous" and "essentially an assault on the Amazon and its indigenous peoples." (Disclosure: Laurance serves on Mongabay's advisory board.)

Carlos Nobre, a climate scientist and member of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, sees a clear link between the corruption charges against Temer and the promotion of initiatives to buy him time and favor with big business and the legislature. "If not countered by a strong reaction by civil society, these initiatives will open the door for a large increase in the pace of exploration for natural resources in the following decades."

Thomas Lovejoy, a conservation biologist and director of the Center for Biodiversity and Sustainability at George Mason University, concluded that "[i]f these initiatives succeed, Temer will go down in history with the ruralistas as the ones who put a stake in the beating heart of the Amazon."

Temer's Amazon measures

Fears for the Amazon biome have grown under Temer as he pursues numerous schemes to legitimize land-grabbing, illegal logging and mining, and to weaken environmental protection. Although these recent measures vary in scope, all share the same consequence: deforestation. Many of these initiatives began life under previous administrations, and a few have been held in check by public outrage and court intervention – for now.

Among these initiatives are attempts to open up for mining vast areas such as the Renca preserve – which covers 46,000 square kilometers (17,760 square miles) and includes nine conservation and indigenous areas – and to reduce the size and protected status of Jamanxim National Park and National Forest, where illegal mining and logging on more than 6,000 square kilometers (2,317 square miles) of formerly conserved forest would become legal.

Indigenous reserves and indigenous land claims – effective bulwarks against deforestation as well as a constitutional right – have also come under attack. Under Temer, the fast-tracking of infrastructure projects such as dams is becoming easier, and indigenous land titles are becoming much more difficult to defend. An artificial marco temporal, or qualification date, has been approved for both indigenous and quilombo (Afro-Brazilian) land tenure, making legitimate ancestral land claims often impossible to prove.

At the same time, Temer's expansion of the Terra Legal program, which was established to allow the rural poor to claim ownership of the land they occupy, exacerbates deforestation risks. The changes made to the program effectively offer an amnesty for illegal land grabbers, and could allow a further 200,000 square kilometers (77,200 square miles) of the Amazon – an area the size of Nebraska – to be legally cleared.

"As the president makes it easy for land grabbers to get a land title (paying less than 11 percent of the land price established by the market), he makes it hard for indigenous [people] and quilombolas to have their territories recognized; he denies them their land," said Elis Araújo of Imazon, a research institute focusing on sustainable development in the Amazon.

Temer's land policy changes are all proceeding against a backdrop of major hydropower development, with dozens of dams slated for construction across the Amazon basin and in the Andes headwaters – projects that go hand in hand with mining expansion. Likewise, roads, railways and industrial waterways are being promoted to reduce shipping costs of Amazonian agricultural and industrial commodities, with significant international investment coming from countries including China and Canada. Changes to the environmental licensing process are also on the verge of being enacted, which will make environmental approval for major infrastructure developments a foregone conclusion.

Meanwhile, funding cuts to the National Indian Foundation FUNAI, and the Brazilian Ministry of the Environment IBAMA send "a clear signal that this government seeks to undercut the socio-environmental protections and governance that are critical to the rainforest's integrity," said Amazon Watch's Poirier.

Jos Barlow, of Lancaster University, UK, said environmental governance has been further weakened by "the decentralization of environmental enforcement from established federal agencies to unprepared state authorities," along with more general cuts to scientific funding, which threaten the research that underpins sustainable development in the Amazon. Those in government who resist Temer often find themselves pushed out.

Amazon biome at tipping point

These measures pose direct, immediate threats to Amazonian habitat and endangered species. But many scientists and researchers warn of far-reaching and long-term consequences for the region if current policies move ahead.

Scientist Philip Fearnside, an expert on Amazonian development and deforestation, said the initiatives "will cause grave damage to the forests and rivers of the Amazon biome" now and in the future "by putting infrastructure, procedures and processes in place that will drive damaging developments for many decades to come." By opening access to previously inaccessible areas, roads become major drivers of further deforestation. Human migration follows dam, mine and road construction, heavily impacting forest resources.

As forest is lost and degraded, the Amazon's "ability to maintain the hydrological cycle that maintains the forest [and] furnishes important moisture to agriculture and reservoirs south of Brazil" is being compromised, said Lovejoy. Laurance agreed that this is a "key fear."

Scientists are concerned that beyond a certain deforestation "tipping point," the Amazon rainforest will no longer survive in its current form. Climate scientist Nobre explained that such a tipping point is anticipated when deforestation exceeds 40 percent. Then, "a large transition would entail rapid savannization of more than 50 percent of the forest."

This would result in "massive droughts, fires, smoke pollution and carbon emissions," Laurance added.

Lovejoy thinks the "tipping point to Amazon dieback is very much at hand – as evidenced by the historic droughts of 2005 and 2010." He calls these droughts the "first flickerings" of what is to come. Record drought was seen again in 2015-16, while 2017 is shaping up to be the worst yet for forest fires.

"[G]iven this dire picture, we should not only be protecting the last forests that still stand, but urgently restor[ing] the forests that have been destroyed," argues Antonio Donato Nobre, a scientist at INPA, the Institute for Amazonian Research. "There was, or maybe there still is, a very slim chance we can avoid a catastrophic desertification of South America. No doubt, there will be horrific damage if the Brazilian government initiatives move forward in the region."

Brazil's Paris Agreement commitments at risk

Brazil ranks seventh in the world for greenhouse gas emissions (China, the United States, and the European Union take the top three spots). In September 2016, Brazil ratified the Paris Agreement, committing to reduce emissions by 37 percent (from 2005 levels) by 2025. This was accompanied by commitments to end illegal deforestation and restore 120,000 square kilometers (46,332 square miles) of forest by 2030, as well as increase renewable energy use.

Achieving this goal while also implementing Temer's anti-environmental agenda clearly puts the nation at cross-purposes, according to scientists.

The Brazilian Amazon is a globally crucial carbon sink, but the carbon it stores is released when trees are felled to make way for soy, livestock, mines, dams, transmission lines and other infrastructure. Deforestation, forest degradation and land-use conversion are major contributors to Brazil's overall greenhouse gas emissions, which in 2016 amounted to the equivalent of 2.278 billion gross tons of CO2; newly-released data from Brazil's Climate Observatory indicates that emissions rose 8.9 percent in 2016, the highest in 13 years. The country's Paris commitments "rightfully aim to tackle [emissions] by stemming deforestation and restoring deforested and degraded lands," said Poirier.

However, national and international policymakers, including Brazil's own Environment Minister José Sarney Filho and Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg, have warned that Temer's policies threaten Brazil's ability to meet its Paris objectives, and researchers agree. "Given the initiatives for the Amazon invasion by destructive capital, all international commitments assumed by Brazil for the protection of our forests are moot, false and unattainable," said INPA's Antonio Nobre.

Protected areas play a vital role in conserving carbon. Analysis by IPAM, the Institute for Amazon Environmental Research, estimated that the reduced protection for Jamanxim National Forest alone could result in deforestation amounting to the release of 140 million tons of CO2 by 2030.

"As such, the Temer government's reckless behavior flies in the face of Brazil's commitments to the Paris Agreement," Poirier said.

But as Fearnside points out, Brazil's initial commitments made in Paris – for which Temer may come up short – already suffer from a lack of ambition, being weaker than some think. "They start from a baseline in [2005, during] a period with high deforestation, and the rate of clearing had already gone down before the commitments were made," he said.

"The commitment is also only to end ‘illegal' deforestation by 2030, and this can be done not only by reducing the amount of forest cleared each year but also by changing the rule to make the clearing legal," Fearnside added.

"The message sent so far [by the Temer government] is that it pays off to illegally settle in, or simply deforest protected areas, because you can push for a legal change later," said Imazon's Araújo.

Global climate impacts

A failure to meet voluntary Paris Agreement commitments could have ramifications far beyond Brazilian borders. The tipping point that would spell Amazonian ecological disaster is also a threat to the global climate. "We are beginning to see extensive release of carbon from climate-related forest dieback," Antonio Nobre said. "So, from a precious net sink of carbon, the green ocean Amazon might very soon become a nightmarish carbon source."

Direct impacts, such as deforestation, are coupled with indirect drivers of carbon release, said Fearnside, such as warming soils and forest fires – the latter becoming more likely, and more destructive, as a result of increased human settlements and drier, degraded forest. "The changing climate itself has a role in increased emissions," meaning that "someone has to mitigate all of these emissions too," he said.

In addition, there are emissions that aren't even being counted in national and international budgets, Fearnside warned, such as the methane emitted by hydroelectric dams. "This is an especially important contribution in the case of Brazil's massive plans for dams in Amazonia, which would have their impact exactly in the time window when global warming needs to be controlled."

Laurance said it was imperative to begin thinking beyond emissions, "because the Amazon is also a major driver of the global climate, by cycling moisture and heat across the planet. There's growing evidence that Amazon deforestation could produce ‘teleconnections' that disrupt rainfall elsewhere, such as in southern South America and parts of North America."

Priorities to prevent harm

Averting the catastrophic social and environmental damage threatened by Temer's initiatives will require major changes to both the political process and to the overall development agenda in the Amazon, scientists say.

"More important than halting each damaging proposed project is the task of changing the underlying decision-making system such that environmental and social impacts are assessed and given proper weight before the real decisions are made on development projects and policies," Fearnside said.

Carlos Nobre, of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, sees a need to "conceptualize a novel sustainable development paradigm" for the Amazon, based on the economic value of standing forests.

Ensuring the protected status and governance of existing reserves, and creating new ones, is another priority. Araújo fears that the Terra Legal expansion – referred to by some as the "land-grabbing law" – will generate a rush into the 700,000 square kilometers (270,271 square miles) of the Amazon that is currently undesignated. It's here that land needs to be urgently assigned "to conservation and to traditional, indigenous and quilombola communities," she said. "They offer a great opportunity to create new protected areas. And that may be the solution to secure the land rights of traditional, indigenous and quilombola communities rapidly, as [conservation areas] are easier or faster to create."

Others argue that the key priority needs to be fundamental political change, and fast.

"[T]he most urgent, and possibly only effective action to minimize the harm to the Amazon and to the Paris accord is to immediately hold general elections in Brazil," said Antonio Nobre. Failing that, next year's general election offers some promise.

"The 2018 general election is the opportunity to change the course of action, by electing a new, more ethical and honest political leadership," Carlos Nobre said.

Lancaster University's Barlow also concurs that to "a large extent, what happens next will depend on next year’s elections." But even with a change in leadership and policy, "global carbon emissions and Brazil’s commitment to the Paris Agreement could still be undermined by passive inaction."

"Developing a climate-safe future for the Amazon requires long-term investment in existing institutions and new policies," Barlow said. "To be effective, these policies need to be co-developed with Amazonian citizens to ensure they will be implemented, and [the government] needs to consider the rights of some of the most marginalized people in Brazil."

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