Stop the torching of the Amazon rainforest!

Slash and burn in Brazil © Istockphoto/Brasil2

It's arson season again in Amazonia: Every year, thousands of square kilometers are torched to make room for cattle, industrial agriculture and mining. To stop the destruction, indigenous organizations are turning to the international community and calling for a global pact to protect 80 percent of the Amazon region by 2025.

Call to action

To: the international community, governments, cities, the United Nations (UN), international organizations, business, financial institutions and academia

“The international community must adopt a global pact to protect 80 percent of the Amazon by 2025.”

Read letter

Across the Amazon, ranchers, agribusinesses, land speculators, oil and mining companies are pushing deep into the forest, slashing and burning everything in their path.

They can do so with impunity in Brazil, because President Bolsonaro actively promotes slash-and-burn. The budgets of environmental, indigenous and surveillance authorities have been cut drastically and staff laid off.

According to the Brazilian institute INPE and the NGO IMAZON, the rainforest areas destroyed annually in the Brazilian part of the Amazon alone have risen to over 10,000 km².

As documented by satellite data, hundreds of thousands of fires are set every year, often leaving large parts of the Amazon shrouded in smoke. The destruction is advancing on a broad front from the south and along rivers and roads. The problem is not limited to Brazil – the rainforest is going up in flames in neighboring countries as well.

The Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA) has issued an urgent appeal to the international community. The more than 500 indigenous peoples represented by the organization are calling for a global pact to protect 80 percent of the Amazon region by 2025.

The largest forest area on the planet is not only the “‘lungs of the world’ but in fact, the ‘heart’ of planet Earth”, they write in the study “Amazonia Against the Clock”. It is not too late, but we need to act now. Deforestation must not be allowed to continue until it reaches tipping points that will lead to an unstoppable collapse of the entire ecosystem.

This is not an issue for South America alone: Amazon nations need to declare a state of emergency, while industrialized nations around the world need to acknowledge their responsibility for the climate crisis.

Back­ground

At 7,000,000 km², the Amazon rainforest is by far the largest tropical forest area on Earth. 60 percent of its total area is in Brazil. The remaining area is shared by Bolivia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Colombia, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela.

The Amazon rainforest, which is home to 511 indigenous peoples, is characterized by unparalleled biodiversity. With their traditional way of life, they have preserved the forest over millennia and resisted the advances of loggers, arsonists, poachers and miners. The goal of the indigenous organizations united in COICA is the restoration and lasting protection of at least 80 percent of the Amazon region.

Deforestation and fires continue to threaten the stability of the Amazon rainforest. At any time, dangerous tipping points can be reached or crossed: if existing equilibria are lost and self-reinforcing and unstoppable processes are set in motion, the entire ecosystem will collapse.

Fires in the Amazon are set primarily during the dry season by settlers, ranchers, agribusinesses and land speculators to clear previously cut vegetation and open the land to cattle grazing, industrial soy and sugarcane plantations, land trading and other activities.

The fires release vast amounts of carbon originally sequestered in the vegetation and soils. The carbon dioxide escaping into the atmosphere is a major driver of the climate crisis. The clearing of vegetation also drys out the land and leads to a warming of the soil. Precipitation is decreasing, the climate becoming drier, and temperatures are rising as a result.

Letter

To: the international community, governments, cities, the United Nations (UN), international organizations, business, financial institutions and academia

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The Amazon rainforest is by far the largest tropical forest area on Earth and of global importance for biodiversity, humanity, the climate and the entire planet.

But parts of the Amazon region are being cut down and burned at an alarming rate. Deforestation and hundreds of thousands of fires every year destroy biodiversity, rob indigenous peoples of their livelihoods, throw ecosystems out of balance and threaten the global climate.

Effective measures are therefore urgently needed to stop the deforestation and fires and to ensure the protection of the Amazon region.

The Amazon indigenous peoples united under the Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA) call on the international community – governments, cities, international organizations, businesses, financial institutions, academia and individuals willing to do their part for the planet – to speak out.

COICA and its international supporters demand that 80 percent of the Amazon region be protected and permanently preserved by 2025.

Yours faithfully,

CC:

Mr. Francisco Calí Tzay, Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples; Ms. Inger Andersen, Executive Director, UNEP;
 Ms. Yoka Brandt, President of the Executive Board, UNDP;
 Mr. Guy Ryder, Director-General, ILO;
 Ms. Li Yanduan, Chairperson, CERD; 
Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General, WHO;
 Mr. Qu Dongyu, Director-General, FAO; Ms. Patricia Espinosa, Executive Secretary, UNFCCC;
 Ms. Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, Executive Secretary, CBD;
 Ms. Audrey Azoulay, Director-General, UNESCO

Topic

How the climate and rainforests are linked

Rainforests are complex ecosystems in which a vast number of animal, plant and fungi species are tightly interdependent. They play a major role in the local and global climate: In a process called photosynthesis, plants absorb the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air. With the help of water and sunlight, they form sugar and from it other plant building blocks. In doing so, plants sequester carbon in stems, leaves and roots while releasing oxygen into the atmosphere.

According to estimates, rainforests sequester 250 billion tons of CO2, much of it in peat forests. Globally, this is equal to 90 times the man-made greenhouse gas emissions per year. 40 percent of the oxygen in the atmosphere comes from rainforests. While the metaphor of forests as the “lungs of the Earth” does not fit perfectly, it certainly does underscore their vital role.

Rainforests themselves produce a large part of the high year-round rainfall they receive. Evapotranspiration, i.e. the moisture that the plants release through their leaves, is an important aspect here. The forests are hot and humid, but the clouds reflect much of the sunlight back into space – thus cooling the atmosphere. Without this effect, the areas would be even warmer.

As carbon sinks and rainmakers, intact forests play an important role in regulating the climate and are crucial to the fight against catastrophic climate change.

The problem: catastrophic climate change and forest destruction

Rainforests are increasingly unable to act as climate stabilizers: When they are destroyed for plantations, grazing area or mining projects, vast amounts of greenhouse gases are released. For example, forest fires in Indonesia accounted for one-third of total global emissions in 1997. The loss of peat forests is particularly devastating.

According to a study published by Nature, rainforests could tip from carbon sinks to carbon emitters solely due to changing climatic and growth conditions from 2035 onward – thus accelerating catastrophic climate change.

Because of the intricate interdependencies of the rainforest ecosystem, the entire web can suffer if it is damaged in one place. Take the water cycle, for example. If drier periods occur as a result of global climate change – and this is already being observed – the cycle may break down. This can lead to evergreen, lush rainforests becoming grasslands with far lower biodiversity. The local climate would become drier and hotter.

The 18 tipping points in the climate system are particularly ominous: If, for example, climate change in the Amazon region reaches a certain point, the process and the loss of the rainforest in its current form will become unstoppable.

One thing is clear: catastrophic climate change is man-made. 98 percent of the scientists who study climate issues agree. Because the climate is a highly complex system, researchers are constantly discovering new relationships, interpreting data in different ways and revising forecasts. This is completely normal in science. However, the findings of climatologists are becoming increasingly alarming.

The solution: rainforest protection is climate protection

Rainforests must be preserved because they are indispensable as carbon sinks and their further destruction would worsen the impact of catastrophic climate change. Climate protection is therefore rainforest protection and vice versa.

  • We need to preserve forests and nature and heal damage. Forests are more than just carbon sinks – they are diverse ecosystems and home to millions of people.
  • We need to protect the climate while preserving biodiversity. Catastrophic climate change and extinction are two existential crises that we must tackle together.
  • We need to secure and strengthen the rights of indigenous peoples, who are often the forest's best stewards: We call it the rainforest – they call it home.
  • We need to fundamentally change our way of life and how we do business: This will mean reducing our consumption of energy, food and raw materials instead of maintaining it by turning to “green products”. We must stop burning fossil fuels.
  • We need to reform flawed climate policy: We must end the misguided use of biofuels, especially if they are based on palm oil, soy or sugar cane, and stop burning trees in power plants.
  • We reject offset programs as a modern “indulgence trade” in which companies finance environmental protection measures in return for being allowed to pollute. We also reject supposedly more climate-friendly “bridge technologies” like replacing coal with natural gas.
  • In the wake of the Covid pandemic, we need to rebuild the economy and society in an environmentally sound way. There must be no economic “stimulus programs” based on old formulas.

At the same time, Covid has shown that we are capable of creating rapid and profound change in the face of an existential crisis.

Footnotes

a global pact to protect 80 percent of the Amazon regionCOICA (2022). Urgent Call For a Global Pact to Protect 80% of the Amazon by 2025:https://amazonia80x2025.earth/declaration/#declaration


The Amazon against the clockQuintanilla, Marlene, Alicia Guzmán León, Carmen Josse (2022). Amazonia Against the Clock: a Regional Assessment on Where and How to Protect 80% by 2025: https://amazonia80x2025.earth/wp-content/uploads/2022/09/Informe-Regional-Full-Version-ENG.pdf

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