This is a transcript of the podcast interview recorded for Sustainability Explored on 17 of January 2020.
This is Season 2 Episode 17.
You can listen to it here, or join on any of your favorite podcast platforms.
[00:11] Hi .. and welcome to the first episode of “Sustainability Explored” in 2020. I launched this podcast in May last year with the purpose to explore different angles, shapes and aspects of SUSTAINABILITY: among which — corporate culture, leadership, corporate social responsibility, environmental and social risk assessment, stakeholder engagement, climate reporting, energy transition and many more.
There are currently 16 episodes, 5 of them are interviews with leading experts in the fields of:
This year holds a lot more challenging topics, inspiring and engaging guests, and life-changing discoveries — I am sure of it. But before we start our brave exploration of hardcore sustainability, I want to share with you today a real treat — an episode fresh out of the Amazon rainforest.
In 2019 I was lucky enough to visit 2 unique ecosystems — the Sahara and the Amazon rainforest. The latter was my dream for a long-long time, and finally, in December I traveled to Brazil, where I spent 3 days in the remote part of the rainforest, very far from big cities, and this is where I absorbed as much information from local indigenous people as I possibly could have handled.
Later on in this episode you will learn the unthinkable ways both the Sahara and the Amazon rainforest are connected, I promise you will be surprised!
[01:59] The Amazon rainforest, also known as Amazonia or the Amazon Jungle, is a moist broadleaf tropical rainforest in the Amazon biome that covers most of the Amazon basin of South America. This basin encompasses 7 mln km2 , of which 5,5 mln km2 are covered by the rainforest. This region includes territory belonging to nine nations.
The majority of the forest is contained within Brazil, with 60% of the rainforest. The Amazon represents over half of the planet’s remaining rainforests, and comprises the largest and most biodiverse tract of tropical rainforest in the world, with an estimated 390 billion individual trees divided into 16 thousand species.
The rainforest likely formed from 56 million years to 34 million years ago. It appeared following a global reduction of tropical temperatures when the Atlantic Ocean had widened sufficiently to provide a warm, moist climate to the Amazon basin. The rainforest has been in existence for at least 55 million years, and most of the region remained free of savanna-type biomes at least until the current ice age when the climate was drier and savanna was more widespread.
There have been significant changes in the Amazon rainforest vegetation over the last 21 thousand years through the last glacial maximum and subsequent deglaciation.
[03:45]Now — the promised Sahara surprise in the Amazon!
Can you imagine, that more than 56% of the dust fertilizing the Amazon rainforest comes from the Bodélé depression in Northern Chad in the Sahara desert? The dust contains phosphorus, important for plant growth. The annual Sahara dust incoming replaces the equivalent amount of phosphorus washed away yearly in Amazon soil from rains and floods.
NASA’s CALIPSO satellite has measured the amount of dust transported by wind from the Sahara to the Amazon: an average 182 million tons of dust are windblown out of the Sahara each year across 2,600 km over the Atlantic Ocean.
Amazon phosphorus also comes as smoke due to biomass burning in Africa.
[04:57]Wet tropical forests are the most species-rich biome, and tropical forests in the Americas are consistently more species-rich than the wet forests in Africa and Asia. This is why losing them would mean a huge loss for the planet Earth and a significant shift in ecosystems equilibrium, that will be felt everywhere.
There have been almost 73 thousand fires in Brazil in 2019, with more than half within the Amazon region. In August 2019 there were a record number of fires. Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon rose more than 88% in June 2019 compared with the same month in 2018.
Some blame the fires local communities made… But there is a thing:
The Amazon rainforest, rather than being a pristine wilderness, has been shaped by man for at least 11 thousand years through practices such as forest gardening and terra preta de Indio — a type of black soil created by millennia of human habitation, which is partly a byproduct of charring biomass. When deposited alongside the compost, manure, pottery, and dead biomatter generated by ancient settlements, the charred mix enriched the Amazonian soil with nutrients.
There is a huge difference between the modern “slash-and-burn” techniques that are decimating the Amazon and the charring practices used by Indigenous populations to manage the rainforest environment and produce terra preta.
Indigenous methods tend to involve creating small, smoldering fires from plant biomass that are covered with dirt or straw and rotated around different patches of land each season.
Not only does this approach reduce the risk of uncontrolled wildfires - it captures half of the biomass carbon in the ground, which prevents the release of greenhouse gases. One 2006 study suggested (kudos to Cornel University) that up to twelve percent of human-caused carbon emissions could be offset by switching from slash-and-burn to “slash-and-char.”
It is an amazing example of local traditions producing global benefits. Sadly, many of the ancient sites that show strong signs of indigenous influence are clustered in the southern Amazon, which is now undergoing a very different type of anthropogenic transformation, which is rapid deforestation and harsh wildfires.
[08:00]As the largest tract of tropical rainforest in the Americas, the Amazonian rainforests have unparalleled biodiversity. One in ten known species in the world lives in the Amazon rainforest.
December is the start of the rainy season, it rained almost all the time when we were there around Catholic Christmas time (we even got to celebrate this with the locals — that was a truly unforgettable experience), the peak of rain and the highest rivers level, according to my local friends, is in July.
This is when the chances are high to see the most of biodiversity — sloths, iguanas, monkeys — as they all climb up and concentrate on the remaining tops of the trees.
We were lucky, I guess, to see some of the exotic animals residing in the Amazon, such as capuchin monkeys, agouti, 1 sloth (although from very far), 1 iguana (to check if it was really an iguana, a Vietnamese member of our group had to send a drone closer to the enigmatic animal).
The challenge then was to get the drone back seconds before a violent rainstorm hit us.
We also saw tarantula spider, armadillo, different -venomous and not- snakes, cayman, owls and hawks, venomous frogs, piranhas at last…
Here’s the morning sound of birds for you. I woke up at 5 am to record it. Enjoy.
[09:36] Sound of morning birds
[10:07]Since the discovery of fossil fuel reservoirs in the Amazon rainforest, oil drilling activity has steadily increased, peaking in the Western Amazon in the 1970s and ushering another drilling boom in the 2000s. In April 2019, the Ecuadorian court stopped oil exploration activities in 1800 square kilometers of the Amazon rainforest.
In July the same year, two months earlier, the Ecuadorian court forbade the government to sell territory with forests to oil companies.
The European Union–Mercosur free trade agreement, which would form one of the world’s largest free trade areas, has been denounced by environmental activists and indigenous rights campaigners. The fear is that the deal could lead to more deforestation of the Amazon rainforest as it expands market access to Brazilian beef.
In 2018, about 17% of the Amazon rainforest was already destroyed. Research suggests that upon reaching about 20–25% (thus 3–8% more), the tipping point to flip it into a non-forest ecosystem will be reached –and then the forest will be turned or degraded into savannah.
Environmentalists are concerned about the loss of biodiversity which will result from the destruction of the forest, and also about the release of the carbon contained within the vegetation, which could accelerate global warming. Amazonian evergreen forests account for about 10% of the world’s terrestrial primary productivity and 10% of the carbon stores in the ecosystems.
In September 2019, the US and Brazil agreed to promote private sector development in the Amazon. They also pledged a 100 million dollar biodiversity conservation fund for the Amazon led by the private sector.
Brazil’s foreign minister stated that opening the rainforest to economic development was the only way to protect it.
In recent years, scientists have accumulated a wealth of evidence demonstrating that the Amazon was shaped by people long before European colonizers set foot in it. Indigenous peoples, who arrived in the rainforest at least 10,000 years ago, altered the ecological landscape of the biome on a scale that has largely gone unappreciated, turning it into an important air purifier for Earth’s atmosphere.
While the rainforest certainly existed when the first Indigenous people settled here, much of the Amazon’s lush wildfire and carbon-storing powers are a direct result of those traditions, which include plant domestication, controlled fires, and soil enrichment.
Scientists have reconstructed some of the rainforest’s ancient anthropogenic history by surveying local plant species at thousands of archeological sites. A 2017 study published in Science found that plants domesticated by Indigenous populations — such as the brazil nut, for example, are about five times more plentiful near these bygone settlements.
Many of the crops favored by indigenous populations are particularly adept at sucking carbon out of the atmosphere.
One study estimated that the Brazil nut tree, which can grow to 160 feet tall and live for 1,000 years, contains 1.3% of the Amazon rainforest’s carbon by itself.
The implications of this domestication process transcended lifetimes and have played out over thousands of years, creating a carbon-storing biome that is an essential bulwark in efforts to mitigate the climate crisis. Brazil nuts, palms, and other crops also helped foster the Amazon’s unparalleled biodiversity, as fruits and nuts opened new niches to native wildlife species.
The majority of the fires that we have heard about so much in 2019 were set to clear space for farms, ranches, and other forms of resource extraction. While this process repeats every year in the Amazon, the 2019 season has been particularly intense because Bolsonaro refuses to enforce environmental laws and protections. As a result, deforestation accelerated leading up to the fire season, which exacerbated the resulting disaster.
Most tragically, the devastation poses an existential threat to the same indigenous cultures whose traditional practices have so enriched the rainforest.
Such risks to Indigenous lives, lands, and livelihoods are not unexpected, given that the President ran a campaign that was openly hostile to the rights of tribes and communities that live in the forest.
Chances are high to lose the biodiversity very fast.
Meanwhile, I suggest you listen to the sound of the hawk I recorded for you in the Amazon.
[15:58] Sound of the hawk
The future of the Amazon
[16:20] According to the article called “Better RED than dead: paying the people for environmental services in Amazonia” by Anthony Hall, Amazonian deforestation is responsible for three-quarters of GHG emissions in Brazil, which is itself the world’s fourth-largest emitter after China, the US, and Russia.
Since the 1960s, the Brazilian Amazon has been treated as a virtually free source to be exploited in the name of national development with little or no regard for the huge environmental and social costs involved.
With some 20% of Brazil’s Amazon rainforest now lost to clear-felling, over half of the region has been adversely impacted by human activity.
It has been estimated that up to 50% of the country’s rainforest could disappear by 2050, generating a regional average temperature rise of up to 4°C and a rainfall reduction as high as 20%, with disastrous consequences including widespread ‘savannization’ and forest die-back.
Successive military and civilian governments have since the 1960s encouraged settlement through cattle ranching, logging, soybean cultivation and occupation by small farmers. Historically, producers in the Amazon have been actively encouraged to remove the rainforest as proof of ‘productive’ activity under land-titling laws and for the acquisition of a credit.
Environmental policy has been based on conservation in protected areas backed up by punitive, command-and-control measures. These are necessary but of limited effectiveness on their own in fighting increasing rates of deforestation in the region and the consequent loss of environmental services such as carbon sequestration, biodiversity preservation and watershed management.
If the economic benefits of deforestation in the Amazon are questionable, their socio-environmental and economic losses are not.
For example, air pollution from forest fires, coupled with deforestation, has the potential to cause hundreds of early deaths each year.
The drop in the number of fires between 2001 — 2012, the period in which Brazil most reduced the rate of deforestation, resulted in a decrease in air pollution and may have prevented the early death of 400 — 1,700 people per year in South America.
Not only from a health point of view but also from an economic point of view, forest fires resulting from deforestation can cause serious damage. In 1998 alone, a year under strong El Niño effects, Amazon states sourced a loss of almost US $ 5 billion. Agriculture in the region, that year, suffered a loss of US $ 45 million.
Zeroing deforestation, therefore, means saving lives, reducing government expenditures, and mitigating private economic losses.
In 2015, Brazil presented to the United Nations its plan to combat climate change, the so-called Nationally Determined Contribution intended for the Paris Climate Agreement.
There it proposed a goal of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 37% in 2025 compared to 2005 levels.
Among these goals is one dedicated exclusively to the Amazon: to achieve zero illegal deforestation in the region by 2030.
Taken literally, Brazil’s international commitment is merely a matter of complying with the law (within 15 years) and refers to only one biome.
The Cerrado, the target of large deforestation, was not included in the current NDC. In addition, the fragile commitment validates the belief in impunity and reduces the credibility of the Brazilian commitment. In other words, the past message is that the illegality of deforestation has a deadline, but the stance should be zero tolerance for illegal deforestation.
Manaus, the city on the banks of the Negro River in northwestern Brazil, the capital of the vast state of Amazonas and also a major departure point for the surrounding Amazon Rainforest that we used to get to the ‘real’ Amazon forest is an industrial city with big name factories located there — like Nissan, Sony, Panasonic, Samsung, Philips, LG, etc.
I wondered why they are residing there, why they are hosted there. Not an obvious destination and not a very obvious city to have a major factory.
So I wondered why; the reply of my guide was that these factories are here, located so far from big cities, transport knots like Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paulo to keep people busy and employed, thus to discourage them from illegal Amazon forest logging.
This epochal deforestation — matched by harder to quantify but similar levels of forest degradation and fragmentation — has caused measurable disruptions to regional climates and rainfall.
It has set loose so much stored carbon that it has negated the forest’s benefit as a carbon sink, the world’s largest after the oceans.
Scientists warn that losing another fifth of Brazil’s rainforest will trigger the feedback loop known as dieback, in which the forest begins to dry out and burn in cascading system collapse, beyond the reach of any subsequent human intervention or regret.
This would release a doomsday bomb of stored carbon, disappear the cloud vapor that consumes the sun’s radiation before it can be absorbed as heat, and shrivel the rivers in the basin and in the sky.
As we leave Amazonian rainforests I want you to immerse in the situation with me and listen to the sound of the bark taking us out.
[23:37] Sound of the bark
[23:56] Thank you for audio-traveling with me today to the Amazon. If you like the podcast, please, leave a review, rate, comment on the platform you are listening on, it helps other people discover the podcast.
Thank you again for listening. And until then, take care, stay sustainable!
[24:17] Chatter in Brazilian Portuguese