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Saving the branch we’re sitting on? Protecting the Amazon, for all of us

Role of Indigenous and local communities key
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Mashonaste (Clarisia racemosa) in the Unamat forest, Puerto Maldonado, Madre de Dios, Peru. CIFOR/Marco Simola

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At the World Forestry Congress (WFC) in Seoul, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) launched a new report: the 2022 iteration of the State of the World’s Forests (SOFO), which is released every two years.

It emphasizes the critical role that forests and trees can play in helping the world recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, while addressing environmental crises such as climate change and biodiversity loss – if they are properly valued and treated as such.

Within this complex but crucial “green recovery” quest, the fate of the Amazon Basin may be particularly significant. It is one of the most critical elements of our planet’s climate system: its forests operate like an immense air-conditioner, keeping the land surface cool and generating rainfall, and stashing around 130 billion metric tons of carbon – almost a decade of global emissions of carbon dioxide.

Nearly a sixth of all Earth’s freshwater flows through its rivers and streams. It is also home to a huge share of global biodiversity, including 22 percent of tropical vascular plant species, 14 percent of tropical birds, and 13 percent of freshwater fish. The biome also supports a swathe of human communities: occupation began around 12,000 years ago, and about 47 million people – including Indigenous Peoples and Afro-descendant communities, among others – currently reside in the region.

But these attributes have not yet been enough to save the Amazon from deforestation for agricultural expansion, which continues apace and is intensifying in many areas – in some cases exacerbated by the shutdowns, budget squeezes and reprioritization of funds caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, alongside other policy, governance, and economic issues.

In the Brazilian Amazon, for instance, the annual deforestation rate between 2020 and 2021 was the highest in 15 years; in the Peruvian Amazon, “forest cover loss in 2020 increased by about 37 percent compared to 2019, along with an increase in violent incidents against Indigenous leaders and environmental defenders,” said Manuel Guariguata, a principal scientist for the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry Center (CIFOR-ICRAF) in Peru, and its Latin America focal point.

Deforestation and degradation combine with climate change to create negative feedback mechanisms that reduce forest resilience: the biome now sits dangerously close to an ecological “tipping point,” in which it loses its ability to recover from events like deforestation, drought, and fire, and transforms irreversibly into dry savannah.

According to the 2021 report of the Science Panel for the Amazon, which brought together over 200 pre-eminent scientists and researchers from the eight Amazonian countries and French Guiana, as well as global partners, the Eastern Amazon could experience up to 95 percent of forest loss by 2050.

“This is a world that we can’t imagine or understand, and it’s based on some of the best science that’s out there,” said Amy Duchelle, who leads the Forests and Climate Change team at FAO, and a member of the Science Panel, during a Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) media webinar in the leadup to the WFC. “These are very, very clear warning signs.”

Those warnings, however, do not yet represent a fait accompli. The SOFO report outlines several pathways for protecting and restoring forests while supporting economic and environmental recovery: halting deforestation and maintaining forests; restoring degraded lands and expanding agroforestry; and sustainably using forests and building green value chains.

These pathways all bear particular resonance in the Amazonian context.

“The Amazon has vast expanses of land that have been converted to pastures or degraded lands, that can be restored through a combination of regenerative agriculture and biodiverse agroforestry, coupled with enabling and managing natural regrowth,” said Andrew Miccolis, who is the country coordinator and lead scientist for CIFOR-ICRAF in Brazil.

“Coupling these methods at the farm and landscape scale can enable ‘productive restoration,’ which both meets farmer livelihoods goals and provides key ecosystem services.”

In the Brazilian state of Pará, CIFOR-ICRAF is working with corporate giant Amazon.com, The Nature Conservancy, and local communities and producers to establish diversified agroforestry systems on degraded pastures – and support the creation of value chains that serve them.

“The pandemic has underscored the need for creating shorter supply chains and more diverse and resilient systems,” said Vincent Gitz, director of programs and platforms at CIFOR-ICRAF.

“There is a huge potential to leverage the circular bioeconomy, but we need to make this concept work for the local populations, so that it is owned and controlled by them, according to their priorities,” he added.

“Technological solutions co-designed with local stakeholders and adapted to their specific conditions, which means building solutions with and not for farmers, will be much more likely to succeed than off-the-shelf technical packages,” said Miccolis. “The main incentive many farmers need to restore degraded lands into lush forests is providing the conditions for them to include useful crops and trees into these areas.”

Guariguata similarly advocated for the need to focus on Indigenous and local communities in the quest to develop and sustain forest-friendly alternatives.

“The SOFO mentions halting deforestation as a key pathway,” he said. “In an Amazonian context, particular attention should be given to the demonstrated role of Indigenous and local communities in this regard,” he said. “Almost half of the intact or primary forest cover across the Amazon Basin falls within formally recognized, indigenous lands.”

Strengthening Amazonian citizenship, governance, resource management, and tenure rights will be a critical piece of this picture, Duchelle said.

As the Science Panel report highlighted, the biome’s socio-biological diversity is one of its most salient assets. Amazonians have configured their landscapes for millennia, and the region is one of the few independent centers of plant domestication in the world.

“There’s huge potential to really value that diversity and create an innovative bio-economy,” she said. “The seeds are already there, and there is a huge opportunity to realize the Living Amazon Vision that is showcased in the Science Panel for the Amazon report.”

For more information on this topic, please contact Vincent Gitz at v.gitz@cgiar.org.
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