Conserving the Amazon is vital environmentally, socially and economically | AGÊNCIA FAPESP

Conserving the Amazon is vital environmentally, socially and economically Researchers advocate building a strong scientific foundation to inform public policies for the region’s society, biodiversity, environment and economy (photo: Bergadder / Pixabay)

Conserving the Amazon is vital environmentally, socially and economically

September 19, 2018

By Maria Fernanda Ziegler in Manaus  |  Agência FAPESP – Amazonia is unique. It is the planet’s largest tropical forest and the only region that controls its own climate while affecting the global environment. Its unrivaled biodiversity sustains vital ecosystem services and cleanses the world’s atmosphere. If there is to be sustainable social and economic development in the region, however, a strong scientific foundation is needed to inform public policies governing factors that relate to population growth, biodiversity, environmental protection, and economic management.

These points were stressed by participants in a workshop on “Scientific, social and economic dimensions of development in the Amazon” that was held on August 16, 2018, in Manaus, Brazil, by FAPESP in partnership with the National Institute for Research on Amazonia (INPA) and the Wilson Center’s Brazil Institute (Washington DC, USA). 

“We need to understand Amazonia from several different angles. It isn’t a botanical garden, since it doesn’t work in a linear way or have only one kind of impact, and it’s vital to global climate change,” said workshop chair Paulo Artaxo, Full Professor at the University of São Paulo’s Physics Institute (IF-USP) in Brazil and a member of the steering committee for the FAPESP Research Program on Global Climate Change (RPGCC).

The biological functioning of the Amazon Rainforest regulates the climate in the region. “The forest controls the energy balance, the flow of latent and sensible heat, and the water vapor and cloud condensation nuclei that intensify the hydrological cycle. None of this will be possible unless there is a large forested area. When the forest is fragmented, it ceases to have this property,” Artaxo told Agência FAPESP.

An example of the forest’s impact is its capacity to store carbon, a key factor in climate change.

“The Amazon Rainforest’s capacity to store carbon and, as it were, to cleanse the atmosphere is diminishing. Three decades ago, it was more intense than it is now. We’ll be in trouble if the forest starts emitting more carbon dioxide than it absorbs, which will exacerbate climate change. What happens to Amazonia affects the whole world,” said Luiz Antonio Martinelli, Full Professor at the University of São Paulo’s Center for Nuclear Energy in Agriculture (CENA-USP).

According to Martinelli, the main hypothesis to explain the depletion of carbon storage relates to the growing frequency and intensity of extreme events such as drought, leading to tree mortality and hence a dwindling forest carbon storage capacity. 

“We may already be seeing the effect of climate change in the Amazon. They’re intertwined, of course: extreme events degrade the forest more, the degraded forest emits more CO2, and the intensity and frequency of extreme events increase,” Martinelli said.

Ecosystem services

In addition to the evident environmental impact of climate change, there are also social and economic consequences.

“The social impact of droughts like those seen in Amazonia in 2005 and 2010 was huge,” Artaxo said. “Towns were completely isolated, without water or food. After all, the rivers are the region’s roads. Extreme high water levels in the rainy season displace populations on the outskirts of Manaus, for example.”

Climate models have predicted a significant rise in the frequency of extreme events in the coming decades.

“Brazil needs an adaptation plan for the Amazon,” Artaxo said. “Temperatures in the region have risen about 1.6 °C [since the end of the nineteenth century], compared to an average rise of 1.3 °C for Brazil and 1.1 °C for the world. Being a tropical region with high levels of solar radiation, the Amazon region is sensitive to the rise in temperature and reduction in precipitation. Imagine the socioeconomic impact of a summer’s day in Manaus with an average temperature that’s 5 °C higher. That could happen at some future time.”

The ecosystem services provided by the forest, such as water vapor processing and absorption of an enormous amount of CO2 from the atmosphere, deserve more investigation.

“The value of the ecosystem services performed by the Amazon Rainforest is equivalent to 14 trillion US dollars,” Artaxo said. “The price of a ton of CO2 on the international market is about 100 dollars, and Amazonia absorbs a huge amount of the gas. That’s a lot of value.”

The list of ecosystem services is much longer and includes the water vapor essential to agriculture, for example. The presentations delivered during the workshop highlighted the extent to which farmers throughout the South of Brazil as well as in Mato Grosso and Goiás states (Central-West Brazil) rely on water vapor processed in the Amazon region.

“This forest can be valorized, but the current mode of exploitation based on large agribusiness projects doesn’t necessarily benefit the population in the region,” Artaxo said.

Another point made at the workshop was the rising deforestation rate in the past five years, following a significant reduction in the previous 30 years.

“Not having this forest in a future global warming scenario means not having an economic asset that will be of paramount importance to prevent major damage in the years to come. Aside from this, if Brazil wants to set a target over and above 7% of world output [by agribusiness], it will be well advised to value conservation. Without this giant irrigation system, we won’t be able to reach such a target. It’s a matter of economics,” said Paulo Moutinho, senior researcher at the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM).

Bad example

The importance of conserving the region’s biodiversity was also discussed at the workshop. For INPA researcher Maria Teresa Piedade, the key is sustainable development that protects biodiversity instead of depleting it. “Biodiversity has been here since long before we arrived and the region became the final frontier for access to consumer and capital goods,” she said.

Piedade leads a research group on wetland ecology, monitoring and sustainable use, and has conducted impact studies of the Balbina Dam, a huge hydropower development built in the 1980s at Presidente Figueiredo, Amazonas. The adverse effects of the dam continue today.

“For a long time, Balbina has been criticized as a very bad example from the standpoint of sustainability. It’s displaced traditional indigenous communities, led to massive fish mortality and caused many other problems. Furthermore, it’s not very efficient,” Piedade told Agência FAPESP.

“The difference between the river’s high and low water levels has diminished. We’re seeing massive tree mortality in low-lying areas and terra-firme species occupying higher areas previously colonized by wetland species. This changes the local biodiversity, the floristic composition and the seed bank for fish that feed in the region’s rivers.”

The workshop on “Scientific, social and economic dimensions of development in the Amazon” continues on September 24, 2018, at the Wilson Center in Washington DC (USA). 

The event will discuss the ways in which knowledge of the physics, chemistry and biology of the Amazon contributes to an understanding of its fragilities and resiliences, as well as the importance of exploring the social and economic dimensions of the region in an integrated manner.

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