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Opinion The Amazon is approaching a tipping point. What are we going to do about it?

John Innes is dean of the faculty of forestry at The University of British Columbia.

The ongoing fires in the Amazon are of grave concern because of their implications for global climate and biodiversity. Understanding the implications, and presenting possible solutions to the current crisis, requires verifiable, research-based facts. Because interpretation of these facts can be complicated, context and clarification are necessary to understand what is happening today in the Amazon.

Some recent explanations of the term, the Amazon, have not always been clear or consistent. Specifically, the Amazon region may refer to any of the following: a Brazilian region (Amazonia Legal); the Amazon River basin; the Amazon biome or the Amazon rain forest – all of which are different. Further, some of the figures presented refer only to Brazil, others to all eight countries with portions of the Amazon biome. Within the basin, there is a mosaic of vegetation types, principally forest (of various types, including rain forest) and cerrado (grasslands with scattered trees and woodlands) and an increasing area of agricultural land.

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Fires in the southern Amazon so far in 2019 have exceeded the number in the same period in 2018. This is not explained by drought, as rainfall this year has been normal. The number of fires in parts of the Amazon belonging to other countries has also increased this year. Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research reported on Aug. 24 that there have been 41,689 hot spots in the Amazon biome, 23,770 in the cerrado (savanna) and 13,885 in other biomes this year. The figures are increasing rapidly, as this is the normal time for deliberate, annual burning of agricultural fields and forest clearance.

Specifically, in Brazil, about 2,500 fires are currently burning in the southern part of the Amazon rain forest, with many other fires elsewhere in South America. By contrast, the northern half of Brazil’s Amazon currently has very few fires.

Following a peak in the 1990s and 2000s, Brazil successfully reduced annual deforestation rates: they dropped from 27,772 square kilometres in 2004 to 4,571 square kilometres in 2012. Monthly deforestation rates vary from year to year and throughout the year, so it is important to look at trends.

Since 2012, the rates have been lower than in previous years yet appear to be gradually increasing. June of 2019 showed a sharp rise in deforestation over the same month last year, amounting to 920 square kilometres, compared with just under 490 square kilometres in 2018, but was less than the 950 square kilometres recorded in June of 2016. Put in perspective, according to MapBiomas, as of 2017, there were 3.43-million square kilometres of natural forests remaining in the Amazon biome.

Some of the measures taken to reduce deforestation are no longer being enforced effectively. Much forest clearance today is illegal, involving incursions into Indigenous lands, protected areas or timber reserves, as well as clearance of more than the permitted amount of land on farms. In some cases, this is leading to fatal conflict between Indigenous people and settlers.

The balance between rain forest and cerrado is very fine, and could be tipped by small changes in rainfall. Changing forest to pasture increases local temperatures and reduces the amount of moisture released back into the atmosphere following rain. This is important, as rainfall in the western Amazon, and consequently the western Amazon forests, is dependent on the existence of forest to the east. As deforestation progresses, the risk of triggering this change increases. Modelling work suggests that the tipping point will occur between 20 per cent and 40 per cent forest loss. We are currently sitting at 17 per cent. The increase in deforestation associated with the 2019 Amazon fires indicates that the tipping point, whatever percentage it is, is getting closer.

Are there ways to fix the crisis? Yes, but as with all policy solutions, they are complex. Brazil seeks to develop the Amazon, just as Canada seeks to develop its old growth forests. Both argue that development is necessary to provide livelihoods for people. However, while Canada, by and large, successfully faces the difficult challenges inherent with the enforcement of agreements such as the 2016 Great Bear Rainforest Land Use Order and Great Bear Rainforest (Forest Management) Act, Brazil has not been as successful in enforcing its forest code, even in its current weakened form.

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Restoring law and order, including the enforcement of existing legislation and land-use zoning would be a start. Providing enforcement agencies such as The Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources and the National Indian Foundation with the resources and a clear mandate would further help. It is evident that good policy, monitoring and enforcement, if done properly, all require research-based facts to inform them. This is vital now more than ever as we get closer to the tipping point.

Leaders of the Group of Seven wealthy nations have agreed to release more than $20 million of emergency aid to help countries battle wildfires in the Amazon rainforest, French President Emmanuel Macron said on Monday. Reuters

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