According to Carlos Nobre, renowned Brazilian earth system scientist, the Amazon rainforest, the most biodiverse places on earth, is on the edge of the precipice, showing clear signs of destruction and perilously close to a tipping point of irreversible collapse, triggered by deforestation, degradation, forest fires, logging, illegal cattle ranching, mining, and oil and gas developments.
“If deforestation and forest degradation of the Amazon rainforest are not halted completely and immediately, in about 30 to 50 years’ time, 60 to 70% of the Amazon, mainly in the central, southern and eastern regions, will be hit by a new drier climate where the dry season will last between five to six months. If deforestation continues at this rate, the rainforest will become a degraded ecosystem with fewer trees, very little biomass and biodiversity”, said Carlos Nobre during our interview this month.
Carlos Nobre spent the last four decades dedicated to research studying the Amazon rainforest and its impacts on the earth system. He’s the first Brazilian to be elected a member of the Royal Society since the 19th century and has made countless contributions towards an understanding of global warming and the impacts of climate change on the Amazon. His pioneering hypothesis on “savannisation” of the Amazon is a worldwide reference of extreme importance.
Nobre graduated in electronics engineering from Aeronautics Institute of Technology (ITA), Brazil, in 1974 and obtained a PhD in meteorology form Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), USA in 1983. He’s a senior researcher for the Institute of Advanced Studies, University of São Paulo (USP), and director of the Amazon Third Way Initiative/Amazonia 4.0 Project, Brazil. He also co-authored the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.
Arc of Deforestation
The Amazon rainforest in Brazil has lost more than 830,000 sq km, corresponding to 21% of the forest and roughly 15 to 17% is already degraded.
“In order to halt deforestation, urgent action and measures must be taken, mainly in the region that goes from southern Peru, crossing into the Bolivian Amazon, the state of Acre, Rondônia, southern Amazonas, northern Mato Grosso and southern Pará states, up to the Atlantic, a large area of the rainforest where deforestation rate is the highest, the so-called arc of deforestation”, added Nobre.
According to the Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, INPE, in the first quarter of 2022, an area of 941 sq km was deforested, a record 64% increase compared to the same period last year.
The Amazon rainforest stores between 150 to 200 billion tons of carbon in vegetation above and below ground, in tree trunks, branches, leaves, roots and organic matter accumulated in the soil. If in 15 to 20 years we cross beyond the point of no return, most trees will start to die and, as a result, their decomposition may release over 300 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere In 30 to 50 years. If this happens, the Paris agreement goal to limit global warming to no more than 1.5C will not be met, explained Nobre.
Amazônia 4.0 Project – The Solution
Amazônia 4.0 is an institute that has several goals:
• Developing advanced technologies and methods to transform Amazonian inputs into products of very high added value;
• Developing a powerful bio-industry;
• Empowering local people;
• Creating urgently needed alternatives to deforestation by uniting traditional knowledge with science and industry 4.0 in mobile biofactories, the Creative Laboratories of the Amazon (LCAs);
• Establishing the Amazonia Rainforest Business School; and
• Developing studies for the creation of the Amazonia Institute of Technology
Nobre highlighted the importance of this ambitious project to both the Amazon and the world. The aim is to bring modern technologies, merge the knowledge of traditional and indigenous peoples, all those communities that manage and develop agroforestry systems, combine this knowledge with technological innovation and start to develop a new bioeconomy with aggregation values and industrialisation.
“The economic potential of forest products is much higher than that of pasture and agriculture monocultures. An agroforestry system producing various products such as açaí, cocoa, nuts, cupuaçu (some cooperatives produce over 100 products), profitability is much higher”, explained Nobre.
According to Nobre and various studies, one hectare of forestry system brings US$500 to US$1,000 a year of profit to the economy. One hectare of pasture (the most productive one) in the Amazon brings a maximum of US$100 a year. One hectare of soybeans brings US$200 a year. This shows that an agroforestry system is sustainable, extremely profitable and has enormous potential.
Nobre illustrated how sustainable and profitable this industry can be:
“Let’s talk about the açaí berry. This product brings more than US$1 billion a year to the economy of the Amazon, in addition to improving the lives of more than 350,000 families in the region, who are producers of agroforestry systems. This demonstrates the great potential of this forest bioeconomy”.
A key component of this project is the creation of biolabs. Nobre mentioned that they are currently finalising the construction of a lab, a biofactory in the cacao and cupuaçu chain, and that they will soon be taking it to the Amazon. They will train four producing communities, industrialise this production line, allow them to produce high-quality chocolate, including “cupulate”, which is made from cupuaçu seeds.
This project’s ambition goes further. Their intention is to evolve and create a “Rainforest Business School” focused on this novel bioeconomy. They are currently looking for all the necessary resources, so that they can build an online platform with access to 20 different courses.
Another element of this initiative is the creation of a technology institute, (Amazonia Institute of Technology Institute-AmIT). Five major areas have been identified in which they would develop super advanced labs, including a public/private partnership with MIT, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, so they can assist in designing AmIT, mirroring their model.
The MIT partnership will guarantee a space where the private sector will have an opportunity to invest in applied research that would generate an entire chain of new products from the forest, terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems.
Nobre added: “AmIT’s institute would train young people for the development of this novel bioeconomy, as it would become the world centre for the expansion of new economies with the aim to protect and maintain tropical forests across the planet”.
Regeneration – The Reforestation Belt
Livestock is responsible for approximately 90% of deforestation in the region. When livestock is abandoned, part of the pasture is directed to soy cultivation, the remaining area, corresponding roughly to 20% of the total deforested area is abandoned completely, resulting in a secondary forest growing in its place.
“In places where deforestation is close to the forest, natural regeneration occurs, the seeds are quickly brought to the area by animals and wind dispersal, and the biological restoration process begins”,
“If you stop deforestation and concentrate in agriculture in much small areas with greater productivity, much of the forest will be allowed to regenerate naturally. But if the degenerated area is too large and away from the seed source, the forest regenerates at a very slower pace, therefore requiring a reforestation process, plant seedlings, so that the forest grows and animals rein-habit the region. Reforestation with seedlings is costly and requires funding”, said Nobre.
Nobre also highlighted that the economic benefits of restoring the forest will hopefully increase in value. For instance, one hectare of secondary forest growing in the Amazon, removes 11 to 18 tons of CO2 per year from the atmosphere for about, let’s say, 30 years. The price of such removal in the carbon market, today at about US$ 10/ton CO2, is estimated to rise as much as US$30-50/ton CO2.
In a matter of decades, for every hectare of restoration, you will be generating income far greater than any income from conventional farming. Restoring forests is much more profitable than ranching and monoculture agriculture in the Amazon rainforest.
Challenges & Divestments
Nobre highlighted some of the current challenges facing the Amazon, including the urgent need to combat organised crime in the region. There are countless national and international organisations financing illegal mining associated with drug and illegal arms trafficking. Organised crime has exploded and taken over the Amazon rainforest.
It’s not uncommon to hear about the recruiting of youths living in riverine communities to work on drug trafficking activities, due to the lack of job opportunities for these individuals in the Amazon.
“In 2012, Brazil had its lowest deforestation levels recorded in history, mainly due to effective policies combined with satellite monitoring systems that captured illegal practices. Effective enforcement actions are essential to prevent illegal practices and put an end to organised crime in the region”, said Nobre.
Divestment is another issue of concern, as Brazil’s federal government cut considerably investment in scientific and educational organisations, mainly the ones linked to the environment and technology. There was a huge drop in investments in INPE (National Institute for Space Research), INPA (National Institute of Amazonian Research), CNPq (National Council for Scientific and Technological Development), and federal universities.
Nobre was pleased to say that “even facing a substantial budget drop, INPE continues to carry out all satellite monitoring in the Amazon, as well as distributing all data, as they are public and available on the INPE website. INPE has one of the best and most advanced satellite monitoring systems in the world”.
“Last week, the Brazilian government created a committee to assess deforestation data in Brazil, coordinated by the ministry of the environment, alongside the ministries of agriculture, defense and the economy, leaving INPE, INPA, and the ministry of science and technology out. From now on, all deforestation data will have to be initially approved by this committee. This is an initiative that I hope will not weaken even further the deferral government’s responsibility to act against illegal deforestation and degradation”, said Nobre with a note of real concern.
Message to the International Community
Nobre has a very strong and powerful message to consumers and governments across the world:
“Responsible consumption is key. The international community must continue to play an important role on sustainable consumption and not purchase any products that come from deforested areas. In addition to this, it’s essential for developed countries to start making use and invest in this new standing forest bioeconomy, guarantee the origin of agroforestry products and avoid monoculture practices”,
“We ask international governments to put more pressure on developing countries where deforestation is high, so that they comply and enter a new trajectory of zero deforestation”, added Nobre.
Nobre also sends a strong message to developed countries:
“Likewise, tropical countries also have an obligation to ask and put pressure on developed countries so they can urgently stop burning fossil fuels, which represent 70% of all greenhouse gasses emissions. We must unite and save the planet from the climate emergency, by zeroing all emissions”.