[RIO DE JANEIRO] More than half of the Amazon rainforest – a vital resource for storing away carbon on our planet – has now been felled or damaged in some way, according to research published in the journal Science which looked at the impact of forest degradation.

Degradation includes damage by fires, timber extraction, droughts or the so-called edge effect – changes that occur in areas adjacent to deforested zones.

The degraded area – about 2.5 million square kilometres – accounts for 38 per cent of the region, while deforested land represents 17 per cent, suggesting that more than half of the forest has already been destroyed or disturbed, according to the research findings.

“We can no longer talk about preventing deforestation without talking about degradation. Zero deforestation is not an optimistic goal.”

Marcos Pedlowski, State University of Northern Río de Janeirs

The increase in degradation and deforestation risks accelerating a vicious cycle where increased carbon in the atmosphere curtails rainfall, prompting the emergence of species adapted to drier climates.

“If we continue with this pattern, in about 15 years we will have an Amazon emitting much more CO2 than it absorbs.” David Lapola, ecologist and lead author of the study tells SciDev.Net.

“When CO2 increases, theoretically the plant transpires less, causing less rain and humidity,” explains Lapola, a researcher at the Center for Meteorological and Climatic Research Applied to Agriculture, at Brazil’s State University of Campinas.

“We can already observe a change in vegetation: the trees with the greatest affinity for humid climates are disappearing and species more resistant to dry climates are emerging.”

Based on data from various studies carried out between 2001 and 2018, researchers estimate that CO2 and greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the gradual loss of vegetation are between 50 and 200 million tonnes a year – a level comparable to carbon loss from deforestation.

Degradation threatens biodiversity and has serious socioeconomic consequences for local communities, such as increasingly frequent extreme droughts and the record floods that hit the Brazilian Amazon last year, the paper says.

Smart forest

As a result, the researchers want to see a forest disturbance monitoring system developed, using satellite images combined with surface laser scanning.

They recommend a “smart forest” model, with the installation of devices in the forest to monitor the degradation, especially selective timber extraction.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last month, Brazil’s environment minister Marina Silva underlined the country’s commitment to stopping deforestation by 2030.

However, scientists say talking about actions to combat deforestation alone is not enough. “Public policy in the Amazon cannot only cover deforestation,” says geographer Marcos Pedlowski, from the State University of Northern Rio de Janeiro, co-author of one of the first Brazilian studies, also published in Science, to draw attention to the problem of degradation.

“We can no longer talk about preventing deforestation without talking about degradation,” says Pedlowski. “It is necessary to readjust the discussion on the conservation of the Amazon, the degradation process can no longer be ignored.”

He believes the outlook for the coming decades in the Amazon will depend on the economic and social model that Brazil adopts.

“All that supposed income creates many more problems and does not generate as much as people think,” says Pedlowski. “The gains are outweighed by the damages.”

By Washington Castilhos

Source: scidev.net

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