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Where humanity’s future will be decided

Jul 17,2021 - Last updated at Jul 17,2021

RIO DE JANEIRO —  The COVID-19 pandemic is a stark reminder of how interconnected our fates are. Many countries, cities, and communities that thought they had escaped the coronavirus have since been forced back into lockdowns, owing to the rise of dangerous new variants.

Yet for all the trauma and anguish we have endured, the pandemic also underscores our profound connection to, and reliance on, nature. As the indigenous leader and writer Ailton Krenak has put it, “We are living a suspension of senses with the juxtaposing crises. The pandemics and the climate events challenge us to think about what we are doing with our experience on Earth.”

If the crisis has a silver lining, then, it is that more governments, businesses and communities have started to revalue the environment and embrace the transition to a green economy. But whether the underlying shift in attitudes and behavior will be enough is another question. While the pandemic brought some sectors to a screeching halt, the overall reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions was relatively modest. The world still is not on track to limit global warming to the Paris climate agreement’s target of 1.5° Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Now more than ever, we must redouble our commitment to building a green future centered around environmental justice. Nowhere is this commitment needed more urgently than in the Amazon, a key biosphere on which humanity’s collective survival depends.

More than the earth’s lungs

Spanning eight countries and the territory of French Guiana, the Amazon Basin is the source of 20 per cent of the oxygen produced by terrestrial photosynthesis. And as a major carbon sink, it plays a large role in regulating the planet’s temperature, storing an estimated 100 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide and keeping nearly 400 billion tonnes of CO2 out of the atmosphere. The Amazon is also home to 60 per cent of the world’s tropical forests, 20 per cent of all fresh-water outflow into oceans, and 10 per cent of global biodiversity. Its “flying rivers” transport water vapor from Panama to Argentina, ensuring steady rainfall across Brazil and the rest of Latin America.

But the Amazon’s contribution to global climate stability is now at risk. De-forestation and degradation of the region’s ecosystems have increased dramatically. As much as 20 per cent of the forest’s primary growth has already been razed. A recent study by researchers at Princeton University finds that rampant deforestation in the Amazon will not only render the area uninhabitable, but also will undermine global climate targets. If more than 25 per cent of primary growth is lost, the Amazon could enter a “dieback” scenario, with dangerous implications for people and species stretching from North and South America to Europe and the Arctic.

It is no exaggeration to say that humanity’s fate now depends heavily on what happens next in the Amazon. The current destruction has a clear set of causes. Over 90 per cent of the deforestation and degradation, for example, is the result of environmental crimes, such as land grabbing, cattle laundering, illegal logging and wildcat mining. While these activities generate short-term economic gains for local populations, they are undermining environmental sustainability and thus economic stability. Moreover, they are fueling a host of other problems, from graft and corruption to human slavery and violent conflict.

Threats to the Amazon have a long history. In the latter half of the twentieth century, the Brazilian military regime promised to deliver “land without men for men without land”. In the process, local populations of indigenous, riverine, and Afro-Brazilian communities were disregarded. In 1975, just 0.5 per cent of the Brazilian Amazon was deforested. By 1985, this had increased to 5 per cent, and the pace has picked up dramatically since then. Yet while Brazil’s population grew fourfold during this period, the Amazon’s contribution to Brazilian GDP has inched up from 4 per cent in 1970 to a mere 8 per cent today. As economist Robert Schneider observes, “We’ve destroyed the forest and gained nothing in return.”

Protecting the Amazon, and ultimately future generations, demands a fundamental change of approach. At the very least, preserving the Amazon can be framed as a hedge against future pandemics. The Evandro Chagas Institute, a public-health research organisation based in the Amazon city of Belém, has identified roughly 220 different viruses in the Amazon, 37 of which can cause disease in humans, and 15 with the potential to cause full-scale epidemics.

Moreover, the Amazon may hold the key to dramatically scaling up nutritional, health and sustainable product development. According to the plant neurobiologist Stefano Mancuso, many future medicines will have plant origins and components based in the Amazon. There are already thousands of documented plant species in the Amazon with potential curative and food-related applications.

A new approach

Preserving these precious resources will require a shift from the current extractive approach to a more sustainable model. The challenge calls for engagement not just from governments but also from entrepreneurs, scientists, activists, and others on at least four fronts.

First, we will need to create more conservation areas and demarcate new indigenous territories. Expanding protected areas will safeguard the original population, boost sustainable tourism, and provide a critical buffer against the destruction of the forest. Brazil’s federal and state governments still retain 15 per cent of all undesignated public land in the Amazon and it is here that some of the most extensive illegal de-forestation occurs. So, it is here that protected land measures can have the greatest impact, including by reducing land speculation.

Second, the bioeconomy needs massive investment. Although the Brazilian Amazon represents 30 per cent of the world’s tropical forests, it accounts for just 0.17 per cent of the $200 billion global market in forest-compatible products. By contrast, tiny Costa Rica leads the world in this area.

Third, carbon markets need to be expanded substantially. It is time to put a value on the “free” services that nature provides. Today, the local voluntary price of carbon is roughly $5 per tonne, while prices quoted on the IHS Markit Global Carbon Index are closer to $30 per tonne. With more REDD (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation) initiatives, governments can create disincentives for industries that are driving deforestation across the region.

Lastly, the region, and the world, needs to shift to sustainable agriculture and adopt reforestation and land-regeneration practices. In 2018, agribusiness represented a massive 22 per cent of Brazil’s GDP. And while there are some efforts underway to adopt more sustainable practices, over 85 per cent of all rural businesses lack the technical assistance to do so. With more than three-quarters of their land experiencing degradation, farmers need investments in technologies and training to increase productivity and traceability.

A green transition is key to the survival of the Amazon and the planet. But achieving it will require a fundamental change in our mental model. Even in this time of crisis, we must start identifying the lessons of the pandemic and reevaluating what we owe to one another and our environment. To protect the Amazon and our future, we must move to a circular economy built on transparent, sustainable supply chains. And that depends on the choices that each and every one of us makes, starting right now.

Ilona Szabó, co-founder and president of the Igarapé Institute, is an affiliate scholar at Princeton University's Brazil LAB and Young Global Leader at the World Economic Forum.

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