How much of the Amazon Rainforest has been destroyed? Scientists warn that the Amazon is hurtling toward a tipping point, beyond which it would begin to transition from lush tropical forest into a dry, degraded savanna, unable to support the immense diversity of life that call the world’s largest rainforest home.
This change could be triggered when 25% of the forest has been lost under current climate pressures, scientists estimate. So how close are we to the tipping point? To answer that question, we need to know how much of the original Amazon forest biome has been lost.
“Surprisingly, we did not find any actual definitive studies that answered this question directly,” Matt Finer, senior research specialist and director of the Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP), a U.S.-based nonprofit, told Mongabay. So, about three years ago, MAAP set out to do exactly that.
How much of the Amazon Rainforest has been destroyed?
Lula da Silva took over as president of Brazil in January this year. Under his predecessor Jair Bolsonaro, vast tracts of the Amazon fell to make way for mining, cattle ranches, and soybean farming. In 2022 alone, the last year of Bolsonaro’s leadership, almost 2 million hectares (5 million acres) of forest was lost.
During his tenure from 2019 to 2022, Bolsonaro’s administration weakened regulation and enforcement around deforestation, shrinking the budgets of agencies monitoring environmental crimes and pushing for laws allowing forest-destroying mining on indigenous land.
It took a toll. Deforestation in Brazil in 2015 accounted for just over a quarter of global tree cover loss in tropical primary forests, which are some of the oldest and most untouched forests in the world. That figure grew to 43% in 2022, according to the recent Global Forest Watch (GFW) report published by research organization World Resources Institute (WRI).
But since Lula da Silva took office, deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon seems to be slowing. Official figures show a drop of 33.6% from January to June compared to the same period in 2022.
Lula da Silva wants to go further and has promised to halt illegal deforestation completely in the Amazon by 2030.
It’s an ambitious goal that requires cooperation between states, say experts like Mercedes Bustamante, a professor specializing in land use and environmental change at the University of Brasilia.
Bustamante sees the summit as essential for tackling some of the biggest threats to the forest.
“Most activities that are now related to deforestation in the Amazon region are connected to organized crime and organized crime doesn’t know borders,” she told DW. “So, we really need integrated action between the countries in the Amazon basin so that we can track these illegal activities and make it more efficient and more effective.”
A tropical deforestation trend
Last year, Brazil was the country with by far the highest rate of tree loss in the world. Democratic Republic of Congo and Bolivia trailed a distant second and third. But deforestation remains a big problem globally.
In 2022, tree cover loss in tropical primary forests rose 10% on last year to 4.1 million hectares. That’s the equivalent of 11 football pitches of forest per minute, according to the GFW report.
It’s having a devastating impact on the climate.
Forests are carbon sinks, absorbing around twice as much carbon dioxide (CO2) as they emit every year.
Tropical forests in particular are essential to reaching climate targets because they store more CO2 from the atmosphere than other types of wooded regions. As they are destroyed, they release much of the carbon they have captured back into the air.
Forest loss in the tropics alone in 2022 produced 2.7 gigatons of CO2 emissions, equivalent to the fossil fuel emissions emitted by the world’s most populous country, India, according to the WRI’s GFW report.
Rampant deforestation as a legacy of Bolsonaro’s term
Nowhere has that been more of a problem than in Brazil. Primary forest loss in the country rose 15% between 2021 and 2022. That means forests in the country are storing less CO2. Scientists fear continuing loss could eventually “lead to a ‘tipping point’ beyond which the majority of the ecosystem will become a savanna,” wrote the GFW report authors.
Still, the newest figures showing a fall in deforestation, coupled with a strengthening of IBAMA, the agency that enforces environmental laws in the Amazon are promising signs.
“We already saw in the first three months an increase in the number of fines for environmental crimes that IBAMA issues,” Catarina Jakovac, a biologist at Brazil’s Federal University of Santa Catarina, told DW. “That’s an indication that now IBAMA is again on the ground and really fighting deforestation. We are seeing these changes and I hope we will see results soon.”
Battling deforestation in the Amazon: Lula da Silva’s race against time
Lula da Silva has a history of success with reducing tree felling in the Amazon. During his first two terms as president between 2003 and 2010, deforestation rates in the rainforest dropped 80% before rising again in 2012, according to INPE, Brazil’s national institute for space research.
An expansion of protected areas, designation of indigenous regions, and monitoring of the forest were among some of the measures implemented during his first administration. Lula da Silva’s new government is now building on that past experience, said Paulo Massoca, a Brazilian environmental scientist and postdoc at Indiana University Bloomington.
“Lula’s government has resumed the process of designating and demarcating protected areas and indigenous lands, recognizing that the importance of these actions to also protect the environment and recognize the rights of the people and the importance of people living in the region,” he told DW.
These are the kinds of measures that could be broadened beyond Brazil as part of solutions presented at the summit this week. Finding paths to development for countries in the region is also likely to be important.
Bustamante said there are opposing views on what role the Amazon plays in this regard, with some “traditional” lawmakers eschewing conservation in favor of development. Indigenous groups and civil societies, on the other hand, say protecting the rainforest is crucial for development.
“So, I think that is more a question of how this political sides will play a role in the summit,” she said.
Brazil faces the biggest challenge. But Bustamante said reaching the Amazon zero-deforestation target — and saving one of the world’s biggest tools for combatting climate change — will take a concerted effort and financial investment from the international community.
“We would not doubt that the Amazonian countries are responsible for the Amazon region, but they also need global support. So developed countries really have to seriously take the commitment to preserve the Amazon and the global state of the climate as well,” she said.
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