Under ultra-conservative President Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil loosened environmental regulations and subsequently experienced record levels of illegal deforestation and mining in the Amazon rainforest. Indigenous people, some of whom had never been contacted by outsiders, were murdered and environmental activists experienced serious violence.
The world’s largest rainforest, known as the lungs of the earth, is still on a path of irreversible destruction, according to people living in the Amazon and scientists. According to Smithsonian Magazine, an area the size of three football fields is cut down every minute, and around 17% has already been lost over the last half-century. That’s the equivalent to the size of France or 10% of the United States.
But during an impassioned speech at the United Nations COP27 conference in Egypt’s Sharm-el-Sheikh, Brazil’s new incoming President, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva promised to put an end to his predecessor’s apparent disregard for the 526 million hectare rainforest, one of the planet’s most biodiverse places. The Amazon rainforest is roughly the size of the 48 states of the contiguous United States.
“Brazil is back on the world stage,” da Silva, commonly known as Lula, said during the Wednesday speech. “The Amazon has huge meaning for the world. We have to prove that a standing tree has more value than a fallen one.”
The Amazon rainforest is not merely an exotic destination that few of us will visit or occasionally see in a Netflix documentary. The Amazon is a giant cooling system that affects weather patterns across the planet and in the United States.
The journal Nature Climate Climate Change found in 2014 that the deforestation of the Amazon would reduce rainfall in the U.S. Midwest, Northwest and parts of the south during the agricultural season.
That would likely lead to severe changes in the food supply chain, noted the report.
While some call it the ecological heart of the planet, it’s also a vital indicator of global climate change.
“The health of the Amazon is a bellwether for environmental health in the rest of the world,” said Adam Janos, a member of the communications group and writer for the Rainforest Foundation US, a New York City-based environmental group.
“It is an unfortunate (and unfair) reality that—because the Global North has deforested so much of our northern forests and financed so much of the deforestation in the Global South—the tropical belt now has an outsized importance in preventing climate catastrophe. But that’s the case, and Brazil is the linchpin in this. The country’s forests store 131 gigatons of above-ground carbon, nearly three times that of the United States.”
He added: “While we certainly can’t win the climate fight without strong alliances in large, forested countries like Brazil—and so we celebrate Lula’s victory—we should also be moving aggressively towards sustainable environmental practices in the US, regardless of electoral outcomes.”
But it’s not just the Amazon we need to keep an eye on.
Nature Climate Change report also found that deforestation in Central Africa, home to the Congo Basin Rainforest, would also affect different areas of the U.S. When trees are cut down, they cannot process water in the soil that would ordinarily cool the air. Warmer air can rise to the upper atmosphere, creating ripples that flow outward and can alter the climate of other regions.
It’s also believed that if deforestation in the Amazon reaches 20-25%, it will be irreversibly damaged, according to scientific reporting. That tipping point would destroy the water cycle and turn half of the Amazon into a savannah while the central, eastern and southern Amazon would become a barren scrubland. According to the World Wildlife Fund, rainfall in the Amazon has decreased by 69% since 2000, and 27% of the Amazon biome will be without trees by 2030.
Da Silva promised during his COP27 speech that he would fight to reverse the damage caused by deforestation within this decade.
“There is no climate security for the world without a protected Amazon,” he said. “We will do whatever it takes to have zero deforestation and degradation of our biomes by 2030.”
At 77, Da Silva will be the oldest Brazilian president in history. Others will likely fight the task of preserving the Amazon in the decades ahead. Janos of the Rainforest Foundation US sees the long-term future of the Amazon as increasingly being in the hands of young people.
“Polls consistently show that Gen Z and millennials care more about climate change than any other generation,” he said. “We need to empower these young people with tangible actions that they can take to reduce their carbon emissions and draw down carbon from the atmosphere. Personally, I’m always inspired by the young people standing up for the planet’s health, whether its young indigenous people who are standing up for their forests and their future in the Amazon, or the numerous young men and women in the United States who write to our organization asking what they can do to help.”