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The Amazon is not safe under Brazil’s new president – a road plan could push it past its breaking point


Conservationists breathed a sigh of relief when Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva won Brazil’s presidential election in the fall of 2022. His predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro, had opened up large parts of the Amazon for business by paralyzing the enforcement of environmental laws and turning a blind eye to land grabbing. It should come as no surprise that deforestation became visible a sharp rise.

However, while Lula oversaw an over 70% less deforestation during his first term as president in the early 2000s, the future of the rainforest remains highly uncertain.

That’s partly because Brazilian governments, whether right or left, have all promoted an ambitious project to boost exports and the economy, the Initiative to Integrate South America’s Regional Infrastructure. or IIRSA.

The initiative focuses on new roads, dams and industry that could threaten the region’s fragile rainforest ecosystem, harming the global climate in the process.

Trucks along the BR163 highway, a major transportation route that has contributed to deforestation.
Nelson Almeida/AFP via Getty Images

The problem with the infrastructure in the forest

At first glance, IIRSA may seem like an advancement. Are goal is to improve Amazonia’s economy by developing its resources and creating better access to global markets. To achieve this, the initiative plans to rehabilitate and expand the existing highway system and build dams, ports, industrial waterways and railways.

However, this is evident from my research in the Amazon over the past 30 years and by other scientists new roads lead to more deforestation, putting extreme pressure on the rainforest. Outside of protected areas, nearly 95% of all deforestation occurs indoors 3.4 miles (5.5 kilometers) from a road or less than two-thirds of a mile (1 km) from a river.

Deforestation rates fell during Lula’s first presidency, mainly because of Brazil expanded its protected areas program And imposed environmental laws. However, deforestation began to increase again during the reign of his protégé, President Dilma Rousseff.

Both Lula and Rousseff furthered the IIRSA agenda by building dams on the Madeira River and on the Xingu River, where the Belo Monte Dam diverted flow vital to the survival of indigenous communities.

They have also shrunk protected areas to make way for their projects. Rousseff even reduced Amazon National Park, the first park in the Amazon region. A total of 469 square kilometers was removed, almost 5% of the total area. The most scenic parkland along the Tapajos River coastline was taken over to make way for dam construction.

Now back in office, Lula has approved an important IIRSA project: the revitalization of BR-319a federal highway between Porto Velho and Manaus.

An animation mainly shows the highway in 2000, but deforestation expands rapidly in subsequent years.
Satellite images from 2000 to 2019 show how deforestation spread from highway BR-163 over 10 years.
Lauren Dauphin/NASA Earth Observatory

When this project is completed, the central Amazon basin will open to even more deforestation.

I believe this should raise the alarm. Research shows that too much deforestation could displace the forest about a tipping point from which it cannot recover. No one knows exactly where the border is, but the vast Amazon that people imagine today with its extraordinary biodiversity and dense forests would no longer be there. Such a catastrophe once seemed like the bad dream of doomsayers, but there is growing evidence that the forest is in trouble.

The Amazon tipping point

The tropical rainforest sustains itself recycling of rain to the atmosphere through evaporation, making more moisture available. Recycling rainfall accounting for about 50% of rainfall in the basin today.

Too much deforestation can mean that not enough rain is recycled to maintain the forest.

Scientists initially estimated that the tipping point was coming once about 40% of the Amazon was deforested. That estimate has dropped down over time given the intensification of fires and the onset of observable climate change in the basin itself. Moreover, the forest shows decreasing resilience, meaning it is less able to recover from climate extremes. Scientists have already observed on a large scale shifting to more drought tolerant tree species.

Given the evidence, scientists have revised the tipping point deforestation as low as 20% to 25%. Even if just one-fifth of the forest is lost, the rest could quickly degrade into an ecosystem of fire-adapted grasses and shrubby trees unlike any of the massive trees native to the rainforest.

NASA satellite images show the expansion of deforestation from road construction in the Amazon.

Deforestation in all Amazon countries now stands with just over 16%. In my opinion, this is way too close for comfort, especially with the momentum of the IIRSA program.

More than one tipping point?

The deforestation problem is not the only pressure on the forest – the Amazon is also dealing with the heat and drought caused by global warming.

There is some evidence that global climate change may be enough pushing large parts of the rainforest to the edge. One concern is that the dry season is getting longer, a shift that appears to be caused by global warming. This affects annual precipitation by reducing the number of rainy days and makes fire more damaging by extending the season when trees can easily burn.

Currently the extension of the dry season most pronounced in the southern basin. However, changes in the southern rainfall pattern may reduce precipitation in the region wettest parts of the basin in the west. One estimate suggests an extension of the dry season could trigger a tipping point by 2064.

What can be done?

Averting Amazonia’s impending tipping point catastrophe will require efforts from the global community. In the past, Brazil has controlled deforestation through its forest code and by designating protected areas.

To move away from the brink, Lula would have to start over enforcing the forest code, which limits deforestation on private property. He would also have to convince the Brazilian Congress to stop creating incentives for land grabbing – taking public land for private use.

While Lula would have a hard time reclaiming land already conquered, expanding protected areas could reduce deforestation. It is clear that the shrinking of Amazonia’s existing protected areas must stop.

Finally, Lula should revisit the IIRSA program and pursue only those projects that deliver economic development without excessive deforestation.

A road with soybean fields on both sides and the edge of the dense Amazon rainforest in the background.
The edge of a soy plantation shows the Amazon before and after deforestation.
Ricardo Beliel/Brazil Photos/LightRocket via Getty Images

Research I am currently working on with colleagues in the Ecuadorian Amazon focuses on a particular type of protected area, the native area. We argue that protecting indigenous territorial rights provides Amazon national governments with effective conservation allies. It is like that because Indigenous peoples want to defend their homeland. Unfortunately, national governments do not always support the rights of indigenous peoplesespecially when their territories contain mineral resources.

Slowing global climate change, however, requires international cooperation on an unprecedented scale. Fortunately, there is already a forum for this Paris Agreement.

Map showing the states and how hotspots appear along highways
Areas of intense deforestation in 2021 largely aligned with major roads.
Finer M, Mamani N, Spore J (2020) Amazon deforestation hotspots 2021. MAAP: 147, CC DOOR

The people of the Amazon

35 million people live in the Amazon basin, many of whom live in poverty. They have every right to a better life, which is one of the reasons why IIRSA has a lot of local support.

While the initiative may bring short-term benefits, it also threatens to destroy the resources it should have developed. And that could push the region into a state of poverty that cannot be alleviated.

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