During COP27, held in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) published the Living Amazon Report 2022. This report has shed light on the current state of the Amazon rainforest and the gravity of the deforestation taking place. The WWF is now warning that the Amazon is accelerating to a point of no return. They argue that extensive measures must be put in place to protect 80% of the rainforest by 2025. This is known as the 80×25 goal.
The Amazon – A biome of global importance
The Amazon is a biome, meaning it is home to a large biological community that has formed in response to the area’s unique physical environment. The Amazonian biome encompasses the Amazon river basin and the tropical rainforest with other sub-ecosystems that it is connected to. It stretches over eight countries and is the largest continuous system of tropical forests and rivers in the world.
Though the Amazon consists of less than 1% of the Earth’s land, it contains almost 10% of the earth’s biodiversity. This includes 13% of freshwater fish, 22% of vascular plants, 14% of birds and 8% of amphibians. However, there are places within the biome where up to 90% of the biodiversity has not even been scientifically documented as yet.
The region is also home to 47 million people, with 2.2 million indigenous people from more than 500 distinct groups. This means that it is a plethora of rich ancestral history and culture. In fact, approximately 300 languages are spoken in this region alone.
The Amazon’s vast ecosystems support life on a global scale and are crucial to our survival. The soil and vegetation sequester 200 billion tons of carbon dioxide, helping mitigate global warming and climate change. The ecosystem also provides 15-20% of the freshwater and nutrients that flow into the Atlantic Ocean. In addition to its contribution of plant-based foods on a global scale, more than 4% of the world’s freshwater catch comes from the Amazon, amounting to roughly 511,000 tons of fish each year.
Overall, because of the biome’s function as a habitat and its resources, the Amazon is incredibly important for all living organisms.
The Amazon’s current situation
The Amazon is undergoing immense degradation and destruction as a result of various forms of human activity. These threaten the biome’s biodiversity and human inhabitants while limiting the environmental resources and services it provides, such as climate stabilization.
There are several threats that the Amazon is currently facing. These are deforestation through illegal and unsustainable logging or fires, increased agricultural activities (crops and livestock), poorly planned infrastructure, extraction and mining, waste contamination (urban and industrial), and illegal hunting and overfishing.
Deforestation is the result of pressures including logging, agriculture, infrastructure and extractive activities. In 2021, almost 12,200 square kilometers of forest were cleared — over an 18% increase from 2020. This was the highest annual deforestation rate since 2008 and looks as if it will continue in 2022. In fact, data shows that deforestation in the first half of 2022 was the highest on record since 2016. Further deforestation and soil erosion occur when fires are used to clear land for agriculture and mining.
Besides the Amazon’s terrestrial ecosystems being threatened by vegetation and soil erosion as a result of deforestation and fires, the Amazon’s aquatic ecosystems are also threatened by human activity. Hydroelectric plants are one of the Amazon’s primary threats. Hydroelectric dams restrict the flow of rivers and flood large areas of forest. This harms wildlife and causes landscape shifts. Dams also impact flood patterns that disrupt the lifecycles of aquatic life. Overall, in the Amazon, hydroelectric plants are the most common cause of destruction or loss of protected areas.
Urban and industrial waste, infrastructure and extraction
As a result of toxic manmade waste contaminating natural ecosystems, the health of flora, fauna and humans is put at risk. Infrastructure like roads and bridges also harm wildlife. Animals such as reptiles, amphibians and mammals are often killed in land-clearing initiatives or run over by vehicles as a result of their fragmented habitats. Finally, mining and extraction concessions cover 15% of the Amazon, including 30% of its protected areas. Besides habitat disruption for flora and fauna, estimates show that 37% of indigenous territories are affected by extractive industries as well.
Hunting and overfishing
Recently, wildlife including capuchins, jaguars and parakeets are illegally traded or hunted for leisure, research or food. This is unsustainable, leading to increased drops in wildlife populations. Several populations have dropped so low that species have become endangered. If these practices continue, many species are at risk of extinction.
Research shows that the Amazon is approaching an ecological tipping point. This means that it is about to lose its capacity for recovery or resilience. If a mere 5% increase of forest is lost, the biome will never recover and its consequences will spiral. Therefore, the WWF is advocating for a halt to the loss of natural ecosystems in the region.
What impacts could the Amazon’s accelerating deforestation have?
The WWF warns that through continued destruction of the Amazon, the goal of keeping global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius cannot be met. This is primarily because of the amount of CO2 the rainforest can sequester in its vegetation and soil. Additionally, the CO2 that has been captured and stored in the biome for centuries is now being released at an accelerated rate due to unsustainable human-related activities. Estimates show that CO2 emissions from forest degradation exceed those from deforestation. If swift action is not taken, the impacts will have local and global repercussions on the environment.
Deforestation and other threats to ecosystems within the Amazon result in biodiversity loss, the release of previously-sequestered carbon, the inability to sequester greenhouse gases, erosion, and hydrological and climatic changes. All these impact florae, fauna and local communities that live in the region. Additionally, there are repercussions on the Amazon’s resources that support people’s well-being and livelihoods. On a global scale, this habitat loss impacts all of us, as we depend on the Amazon’s ability to provide ecological stability for the Earth.
Scientists have identified five possible tipping points for the Amazon that could result in abrupt vegetation change that will ultimately impact the entire biome and Earth as a whole. These include lessened precipitation, extended dry seasons, excessive water deficits, a cumulative deforestation of 20 to 25% or a 2 degrees Celsius increase in global temperature. These events could lead to the loss of the entire forest ecosystem and lead to a downward spiral of the biome.
What must we do?
Currently, protected areas and indigenous land legally protect 25.5% and 27% of the Amazon basin. These areas are key to enhancing climate resilience and mitigating the threats currently faced by the biome. To further boost the protection of the Amazon, the WWF has set the 80×25 goal. By increasing protected areas and territories, human activities can be controlled to ensure biodiversity conservation and sustainable development. However, this will require high-level political commitments to address the plethora of destructive human activities that threaten flora, fauna and humans. It is only through holistic work to achieve this goal that the biome can transition to a healthy, thriving Amazon.
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