A sustainable future for the Amazon … and for the planet?

I have been busy teaching since September. In my Freshwater Biology course, for example, I highlighted the global freshwater biodiversity crisis, development in the Amazon region, through which around 20% of global freshwater flows along with high aquatic biodiversity. We also looked at the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Aichi targets, and whether Brazil has reached these in time for the 2020 deadline. Finally, of course, we looked at the global and regional effects of the Climate Emergency on freshwater availability and alterations in the water cycle, especially in relation to the Amazon region.

Featured image above: Cargo ships line up in front of the fort – Fortaleza de São José do Macapá – in Macapá, capital of Amapá state, at the mouth of the Amazon river in June 2016.

Looking upstream of the Piabas river, a tributary of the Quatipuru river, November 2018. In the background, students carefully collect and observe macroinvertebrates from different microhabitats in the shallow dry season waters. Patches of riparian deforestation are common along the Piabas and the river bed suffers from siltation.

The global freshwater biodiversity crisis
Globally, freshwater habitats and biodiversity are extremely vulnerable to destruction and extinction, respectively (Harrisson et al. 2018). However, there is hope that habitat and biodiversity in most rivers may be maintained and improved (See Freshwater biodiversity | IUCN and Freshwater | Initiatives | WWF). On field trips, my students saw first-hand the impact of riparian habitat destruction on aquatic biodiversity. They heard accounts from local people describing the removal of riparian forest, especially at headwaters, and the impact of this on the river water, fish and those who depend on artisanal fishing. Local people also described how “…although the river belongs to us all, everyone has a responsibility to take care of it…”, how “…the river is like the veins of a person, which can be poisoned (by pollution)”, how “…permission must be sought from the forest and the river to enter and take from them”. During the Freshwater Biology course, I present a holistic vision of freshwater conservation and river basin management that is firmly grounded on a scientific basis but also takes into account human cultural and spiritual values.

The future of the Amazon
Here in Brazil, there is currently grave concern regarding protection of the environment, biodiversity, and indigenous and traditional communities, especially in the Amazon region (Ferrante & Fearnside 2019). Much of the Amazon’s economic activity negatively impacts the forest (Walker et al. 2019) and rivers (Best 2019), and is unsustainable and/or illegal, such as most logging activities (Nobre et al. 2016). Furthermore, much of the activity is technically outdated and economically inefficient, contributing little to GDP despite using vast areas (Nobre et al. 2016). The Amazon region is set to be the scene for unprecedented expansion in transport infrastructure, agribusiness, mining and hydroelectric energy (Walker et al. 2019). However, any economic expansion is dependent on the production of food and energy, which in turn depend on the environment and regional climate (e.g. rainfall, river discharge). The ambitious expansion plans for the Amazon are uncertain in the medium to long-term given the predicted effects of climate change, along with deforestation (See INPE | DPI | Terra Brasilis for an updated map of deforestation in Brazil), on the Amazon’s vegetation (Lovejoy & Nobre 2018), rainfall and water resources (Nobre et al. 2016, Walker et al. 2019).

One of the many barges used for sand dredging near Marabá, on the Tocantins river, in September 2011. The sand is used in construction and landscaping. The exotic Asian clam Corbicula fluminea is very common in river sediments here. The power lines overhead come from the Tucuruí hydroelectric station further upstream.

The Biodiversity – Forest – Water – People – Economy balance
We need an economically and environmentally sustainable development model that balances economic development with protection of the environment, biodiversity and human rights. Carlos Nobre, Brazilian climate scientist, and Nobel peace prize laureate with his IPCC colleagues, presents the Amazon Third Way Initiative, which is a biodiversity-driven, knowledge-based, technologically innovative and socially inclusive and fair economy based on bottom-up development of forest products such as fruits, seeds, oils and compounds with cosmetic, pharmaceutical and industrial potential. This vision of Amazon development aims to conserve biodiversity, maintain forests standing, rivers flowing, invest in education and training, and create a fair and equitable economy (Nobre et al. 2016).

Açaí branco fruit from the Lower Tocantins floodplain where agro-forestry with açaí, banana and cocoa, and native fish culture, has benefited many families.

The Convention on Biological Diversity and the Aichi targets for 2020
Although there are many protected areas in the Amazon and along the Brazilian coast, there is still a long way to go before Brazil can be said to be on track for 2020. In particular, the protection of freshwater habitats and whole basin management needs urgent attention (Azevedo‐Santos et al. 2019). Investments in and incentives for energy sources that impact biodiversity (fossil fuel and large-scale hydroelectric generation) must be dramatically reduced or eliminated. Freshwater ecosystems and the people who depend on them must be guaranteed protection from impacts of large-scale energy projects (Schmitt et al. 2019). The unique Amazon coral reef ecosystem should be completely protected but now faces threats from oil prospecting in the region.

The Climate Emergency and regional water balance
We are in a Climate Emergency, stimulated by emissions from continued use of fossil fuel, deforestation and livestock production (Ripple et al. 2019). The interaction between climate heating and deforestation is predicted to irreversibly transform the moist tropical Amazon rainforest into a dry savannah grassland, the tipping point for which is predicted to be 20-25% deforestation, which may happen in 15 to 30 years (Lovejoy & Nobre 2018 and Carlos Nobre in a BBC Brasil interview), down from a previous estimate of 40% (Nobre et al. 2016) due to improved modelling. Also predicted is a reduction in rainfall in parts of central South America (Paraguay, northern Argentina, southern Brazil and Uruguay). This tipping point has recently been re-estimated to be as soon as 2021 given very high expected estimates of deforestation rates in the Brazilian Amazon over the next two years (de Bolle 2019). Between August 2018 and July 2019 deforestation in the Brazilian Amazônia Legal region was 9,762 km² and increased by 29.5% in relation to the previous 12 months. Currently, the Amazon is already at the tipping point threshold (17% deforested in relation to 1970 forest cover) so the urgent need to quickly change to a sustainable and socially responsible economy is absolutely critical not just in the Amazon, but all over the planet.


Azevedo‐Santos, Valter M. , Renata G. Frederico, Camila K. Fagundes et al. (2019) Protected areas: A focus on Brazilian freshwater biodiversity. Diversity and Distributions 25(3): 442-448. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/ddi.12871

Best, Jim (2019) Anthropogenic stresses on the world’s big rivers. Nature Geoscience 12: 7-21.  https://www.nature.com/articles/s41561-018-0262-x 2018

de Bolle, Monica (2019) The Amazon Is a Carbon Bomb: How Can Brazil and the World Work Together to Avoid Setting It Off? Policy Brief 19-15.  Peterson Institute for International Economics. https://www.piie.com/publications/policy-briefs/amazon-carbon-bomb-how-can-brazil-and-world-work-together-avoid-setting

Ferrante Lucas & Philip M. Fearnside (2019) Brazil’s new president and ‘ruralists’ threaten Amazonia’s environment, traditional peoples and the global climate. Environmental Conservation 46(4): 261-263. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0376892919000213

Harrison, Ian, Robin Abell, William Darwall, Michele L. Thieme, David Tickner, Ingrid Timboe (2018) The freshwater biodiversity crisis. Science 362(6421): 1369. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aav9242

Lovejoy, Thomas E. & Carlos Nobre (2018) Amazon Tipping Point. Science Advances 4(2): eaat2340. https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/4/2/eaat2340

Nobre, Carlos A., Gilvan Sampaio, Laura S. Borma, Juan Carlos Castilla-Rubio, José S. Silva & Manoel Cardoso (2016) Land-use and climate change risks in the Amazon and the need of a novel sustainable development paradigm. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences  113 (39):10759-10768. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1605516113

Nobre, Carlos – The Amazonia Third Way Initiative. https://youtu.be/erAXuqL2apg

Ripple, William J, Christopher Wolf, Thomas M Newsome, Phoebe Barnard, William R Moomaw (2019) World scientists’ warning of a climate emergency. BioScience biz088. https://doi.org/10.1093/biosci/biz088

Schmitt, Rafael J. P., Noah Kittner, G. Mathias Kondolf & Daniel M. Kammen (2019) Deploy diverse renewables to save tropical rivers. Nature | Comment | 15 May 2019. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-01498-8

Walker, Robert Toovey, Cynthia Simmons, Eugenio Arima, Yankuic Galvan-Miyoshi, Aghane Antunes, Michael Waylen & Maíra Irigaray (2019) Avoiding Amazonian catastrophes: prospects for conservation in the 21st century. One Earth 1(2): 202-215. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.oneear.2019.09.009

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