One thing everyone agrees on (if you’re not a logging, palm oil, soy or cattle company) is that preserving what’s left of the world’s forests is Job #1 for climate change and biodiversity.
Since the mid-2000s, deforestation of the world’s tropical forests dropped about 25%, according to the UN, but new research shows that patched over the long term trend – it accelerated 62% over the past 20 years. And after cheering a 70% decline of deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon, clearing is rising again. Satellite data reveal an alarming rise of 63% in the Amazon in the second half of 2014, after rising 29% in 2013, according to Mongabay.
Apparently, Brazil’s economic downturn lowered the value of its currency, making soy and beef more profitable for export, stoking deforestation, explains Mongabay. The government is responding by expanding policing efforts, but what’s really needed are payments and other incentives for farmers and ranchers to maintain and increase forest cover, experts say. And the key Forest Code was loosened in 2012.
In some good news, Brazil caught the person responsible for about 20% of deforestation in recent years. Ezequiel Antônio Castanha could face up to 46 years in prison for operating a network that illegally cleared forests and sold the land to ranchers.
Deforestation has been changing weather patterns in Brazil, leading to the recent drought. Without water for the country’s many hydroelectric plants, the government is turning back to coal and carbon intensity is up 5.5%.
Belo Monte Dam Close to Finished
There is also news about what’s behind the devastating mega-dam building spree in the heart of the Amazon: "projects like Belo Monte are not only an enormous source of corruption, but actually exist because of corruption," according to Christian Poirier of Amazon Watch.
"Taxpayer funds that could be invested in truly sustainable energy solutions such as upscaling solar and wind power have instead been diverted into wasteful and destructive projects such as Belo Monte," says Brent Millikan of International Rivers.
Imprisoned executives from one of Brazil’s largest construction firms exposed the massive fraud in a plea deal, says Amazon Watch. A cartel of major construction companies, influential politicians, and high-level government bureaucrats operated a scheme of bid rigging, bribery and kickbacks in the Belo Monte and Jirau projects.
The Federal Public Prosecutor is asking the Supreme Court for criminal indictments of 54 people, including the President of the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies, part of President Rousseff’s ruling coalition.
But the damage is done. In August, the Xingu river will be closed by a dam 5 kilometers wide. The many tribes that did everything humanly possible to stop the project, have lost their way of life.
The Guardian puts it this way: "The vast construction site is like something out of Mordor – an immense wall of stone, steel and concrete that towers above a blasted plain teeming with trucks, bulldozers and cranes. The turbine housings, which are half-complete, resemble the jagged ramparts of a fort. Here and there by the side of the road, felled trees are tied up in bundles, like captured prisoners. And as night falls, the usual Amazonian chorus of insects, frogs and birds is drowned out by engines, alarms and clanking earth movers."
20,000 people will be relocated, but those who stay are having their first experience with western-style instant gratification – laptops, cars, refrigerators, satellite dishes and wide-screen TVs. That’s their compensation for the dam ruining their way of life as 1500 square kilometers of forest are permanently flooded.
Three years of round-the-clock construction has led to even bigger impacts. About 50,000 people have moved into the nearest city, putting even more pressure on the forest.
While President Dilma Rousseff talked "zero-deforestation" while running for re-election – and hid the fact that it rose so much last year – she has overseen the reversal of deforestation and fast-tracked the approval process for Amazon dams. Her 10-year energy plan emphasizes offshore oil drilling and other fossil fuels with 70% of the budget, in contrast to 9.2% for renewable energy – and most of that is big hydro.
Read this interview to learn more about what’s happening in the Amazon.
Sobering Research on Forests
In addition to harboring about a third of all animal and plant species, the world depends on the Amazon to keep absorbing 25% our carbon emissions – 120 billion tons of carbon a year. But there may also be limits to that.
With nearly 20% of the Amazon gone, it may be at a tipping point. After 30 years of research in the Amazon, scientists think it may have reached its saturation point for absorbing carbon. Over the past decade, the Amazon has absorbed a third less carbon, reports Carbon Brief.
Higher levels of carbon in the atmosphere are causing trees to grow faster and die faster, they say. Increasing periods of drought may also be important – trees aren’t getting the water and nutrients they need to flourish.
That is setting up feedback loops scientists are just beginning to understand. When forests are cut, not only do they release their carbon into the atmosphere, the soil emits carbon for decades afterwards, and results in widespread shifts in rainfall.
If the Amazon was gone, rainfall patterns would even change across much of the US, according to University of Virginia researchers. The absolute amount of precipitation may not diminish, but where it occurs would shift. With 20% of the Amazon gone, there are already noticeable changes in the climate there.
"Among these effects are drastic, widespread decreases in forest transpiration, changes in the dynamics of clouds and rain, and the extended duration of the dry season," says Brazilian scientist Antonio Nobre.
That’s one more reason the mega-dams being built don’t make sense – with rainfall already down 10% in the forest, there’s not enough water to fill the reservoirs – and the forest destroyed for the dams will lead to more drought.
Read our article, Mega-Dams Don’t Even Make Economic Sense, Say Researchers.
What About Other Kinds of Forests?
Researchers in India find that without temperate and high altitude forests, the country’s annual monsoon shifts south, cutting precipitation 18%. Rainfall would be significantly less in many areas of the northern hemisphere, while increasing moderately in the southern hemisphere.
"Our study shows that remote deforestation in mid- and high-latitudes can have a much larger effect on tropical rainfall than local tropical deforestation," says research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
In January, China announced a trial logging ban in its largest and most heavily exploited forest, which borders Russia. To shift from economic extraction to conservation, the government will spend $375 million a year to pay for forestry workers’ living costs through 2020, says its State Forestry Administration. If the ban goes well, they may extend it to other forests.
Former loggers will be encouraged to become forest rangers or shift to tourism, growing blueberries, ginseng, edible mushrooms and flowers, or raising chickens and frogs.
The Chinese-Russian border is home to the last few hundred Siberian tigers.