In 2019, the world focused its attention to the Amazon forest, but unfortunately not because of its exuberance or some new species being discovered. The reason was fire. Fire in the rainforest. Sounds contradictory, right? And it is. The only way that one of the most humid forests in the world could burn is through human intervention, never naturally. Fires are usually the first step on the deforestation scheme used in the Amazon region, and it has the purpose to “clean” the area, where later the big trees are removed, and pasture or crops are incorporated. Recently, Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) confirmed what we all knew: deforestation increased 30% this year, compared to the 12 months prior and it is the highest rate of deforestation since 2008. All of this in the name of economic “progress”. What we are doing, is burning our homes and burning our futures.
But how do we know and value our future if we don’t understand it? This is the role of science in the Amazon region: adding pieces to the puzzle of how the Amazon forest functions and how we affect it and are affected by it now and in future scenarios of climate. We are destroying a suite of species, compounds and interactions that directly impact our lives on the planet. This destruction can lead to numerous feedbacks with climate that therefore change the way the Amazon forest works and makes it even more susceptible to human impacts. One of these feedbacks is the prolonged dry season across the Amazon basin, mainly over deforested areas. This happens because once the forest is not there anymore, there is less moisture returning to the atmosphere which finally culminates in less rain. With less rainfall, the lives of all species, including us, will be affected: agriculture will be drastically impacted, the water cycle will be affected, and some diseases could become more common. These are just a few examples of consequences coming from only one of the potential feedbacks between forests and climate. Imagine the many others we still don’t fully comprehend…
In addition to fossil fuel burning from our cars and industries, the burning of Amazon forests together with changes in land use drastically increase the emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2). Increasing atmospheric CO2 concentrations contribute to the greenhouse effect and therefore changes in temperature over the entire planet. There is some evidence that the forest itself can compensate for some of the anthropogenic CO2 emissions: once CO2 is what plants absorb to make photosynthesis, with more atmospheric CO2 plants could be able to grow more and absorb the extra carbon in their biomass above and belowground. The math, however, is not so simple. In addition to CO2, plants also need water, light and nutrients, and despite the potential to boost forest productivity, the positive effect of increasing CO2 concentrations will be limited by some of these resources. Moreover, even if the presence of such a positive feedback is confirmed in the Amazon, the whole functioning of the forest could change towards unknown directions. For instance, water and nutrient cycling could be impacted, there could also be a shift in the species distribution, where more resilient species could thrive, while others could not adapt to the new conditions and simply be extinct. We are very soon reaching a tipping point of no return, where processes such as the hydrological cycle would be so impacted that no reforestation incentive or reduction in greenhouse gases emissions would bring the Amazon forest back to its initial state.
Maybe it is time for us to challenge the definition of progress that do not consider the well-being of all life forms, including our own. Our role as scientists is to make the bridge between the government and society, to ensure that we move forward as a nation, but respecting the environment we live in. Doing science in the Amazon imposes many challenges, such as the remote location of study sites, the need to invest or create new methods and technologies to adapt to our local conditions, and more recently, the simply lack of resources to conduct research. In order to avoid a global catastrophe the World needs the Brazilian government to engage with scientists and credit the power of data; to stop the severe financial cuts and to understand that incentivising agriculture, mining and cattle settlements over funding science is not only short-termism but is also fuelling the climate crisis.
In Brazil, science is mainly done by postgraduate students that receive grants to conduct their studies, and this budget was cut almost in half in 2019. This will not only cause the collapse of some projects and institutions, but it will also cause a brain drain, where the researchers who can and are still willing to work in science, will migrate to other countries. With no incentives, the new knowledge that would be unravelled with research will simply not exist, impacting the production of food, medicine and technology coming from Amazonian resources. So far, we scientists are still feeding from what is left from the strong environmental research community that has been stablished in the past 20 years in Brazil. With less grants for students, less recruitment in higher education centres and the evasion of stablished scientists due to lack of resources, the next 20 years of science and development in Brazil are at risk.
The situation is critical and makes the scientific community sad but also hopeful in certain ways. One of the neglected areas of academia is science dissemination to the community, where we should be able to translate our findings to the society, directly or indirectly impacting their lives. This hard blow that science has been recently suffering in Brazil is awakening researchers to the importance of engaging the general public in science. Showing to our communities that science is a necessary function of the Amazon forest and that our actions impact the lives of everyone on the planet is one of the ways we, researchers, are trying to convince the government to engage with us.
We need your help…