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Lessons from a perfect storm in the Amazon wilderness

November 17, 2021

Conservation Scientist

Trucks on a highway throught the Amazon forest in Brazil
Photo credit: Shutterstock/PARALAXIS

The agreement by 110 countries at COP26 in Glasgow to halt and reverse deforestation within the decade is very good news. But what will it take for change to actually happen?

This is not the first time world leaders have made such a commitment – the successes and failures in the fight to save one of the world’s most critically important ecosystems give us some clues.

Policies enacted in the mid-2000s succeeded in dramatically slowing deforestation in the Amazon, but the trend has since trended in the other direction. Why? Top-down approaches that depend on macroeconomic policies have not changed the behavior of the inhabitants of the forest frontier.

I am a conservation scientist and 35-year resident in the Bolivian Amazon. Over my life and career, I have forged friendships with indigenous families, park guards and environmental advocates, as well as with pioneer settlers, ranchers, soybean farmers, gold miners, petroleum engineers and politicians, all of which have informed my perspective as a ‘skeptical optimist’ about the possibilities of saving ecosystems of critical importance to the planet.

I have observed that efforts to improve law enforcement have failed because frontier societies are profoundly unequal. Inequality encourages informality, which breeds corruption and promotes illegality. Indigenous people have stepped into the breach and are doing what they can to stave off disaster, but they are vastly outnumbered.  Most inhabitants—who are also citizens that vote—pursue conventional production models that are fundamentally unsustainable. They might choose a different pathway if they were given the opportunity, but these are limited by the frontier economy and the social reality of their communities.

Adding to these pressures are the synergistic impacts of climate change and deforestation, which are manifest by a decline in rainfall that threatens to tip the region—or at least its southern half—into a cataclysmic shift in ecosystem function. If this comes to pass, the water recycled between the forest canopy and atmosphere (referred to as a biotic pump) will no longer be sufficient to maintain the high precipitation regime necessary to support a rainforest ecosystem. If the Southern Amazon passes this “tipping point,” rainforest species would die and be replaced by scrubland and savanna species. If the rainforest of Southern Amazon collapses, the Northern and Western Amazon will be placed at risk because the continental climate system will experience an enormous loss of water. An incalculable amount of biodiversity would be lost, forever. Models—supported by observations — show that at current rates of deforestation, we will pass the tipping point within the decade. We are losing the Amazon.

Changing the development pathway of the Amazon biome is like turning an ocean liner. Shifts to the momentum from conventional business models will require slow but steady pressure and incremental change across multiple sectors. Economic incentives must be aligned with conservation outcomes and this will require profound reforms in financial and commercial markets, as well as real change in regulatory systems and law enforcement.

Unfortunately, new paradigms in forest and fisheries management have not yielded the economic returns needed to make them competitive with conventional extractive models. Even worse, the monetization of ecosystem services has generated a mere fraction of the resources required to change human behavior on the forest frontier, much less subsidize reforestation efforts that climate scientists view as essential for stabilizing the biotic pump that maintains the high rainfall regime of the Southern Amazon.

The experiences of the last 10 years, with conventional and sustainable development models vying for space, are bound to shape the future prospects for the region’s economy and ecology. Policies create legacies that reverberate over decades, long after they have been recognized as being fundamentally flawed, with a long tail of cultural and economic impacts. This is why we must act with urgency to support and enact alternative production models and regulatory reforms that can in time bend the arc of history and saving an ecosystem of critical importance for the future of the planet.

Timothy J. Killeen is a conservation scientist with expertise in botany, forest ecology and natural resource economics. His book A Perfect Storm in the Amazon Wilderness was produced with support from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation’s Andes and Amazon program.