The Bolsonaro Administration is not taking enough action to conserve Earth’s shrinking lungs.

Environment | Forests


By Julia Riopelle, Co-Editor-in-Chief

Published May 12, 2021

The Amazonian rainforest is vital to mitigating the impacts of climate change. However, findings suggest that, due to ongoing human disturbances, deforested areas of the world’s largest rainforest are not recovering at a fast-enough rate.


A collaborative study between the University of Bristol and Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, have determined that different drivers are linked to the regional variations in forest regrowth within the Amazon. The paper, published in Nature Communication on 19 March 2021, used four decades worth of land satellite data in order to measure the age, type, aboveground carbon levels and human activity of its forest canopy.


Just last year, images exposing the extensive burning of the Amazon rainforest spread like wildfire across global media. Despite the claims from President Jair Bolsonaro that these were false, Brazilian scientists themselves published data directly linking the fires to the agricultural slash-and-burn practices set by loggers and cattle ranchers.


Illegal logging on the Pirititi indigenous Amazon lands in May 2018. | Flickr / Quapan

By taking up three percent of terrestrial land, the Amazon rainforest surpasses any other in being the largest continuous tropical forest on Earth. Forests act as a carbon sink and are estimated to be able to mitigate a quarter of the measures set under the Paris agreement. Often referred to as the ‘Earth’s lungs’, the Amazon itself stores 10% of global forest carbon.


The remote sensing technique allowed the research group to continue to collect data during the COVID-19 pandemic, in which Brazil has been particularly hard hit. The data provided evidence for significant differences in growth rates between three types of forests in the Amazon: Old primary forests, young secondary forests (less than 20 years old) and older secondary forests (above 20 years old).


‘The Amazon itself stores 10% of global forest carbon.’


Lead author and PhD student from the University of Bristol, Viola Heinrich, explained: ‘This type of approach using regional and global remote sensing products has not been attempted before to such a high spatial resolution. The models have the potential to benefit both the carbon modelling and carbon-policy communities to help understand the regional variations of regrowth under different drivers.’


Old primary forests are those which are untouched and exist in their original state. According to Mongabay, they are ‘often characterized by a full ceiling canopy and usually several layers of understory.’ Young, secondary forests are forests that have been disturbed in one way or another, mostly through human activity. Therefore, they lack a full canopy, have less tree density and allow much light to reach the ground, often leading to overgrowth of ground-level vegetation.


Secondary forests currently take up 20% of the Amazon’s area. They often are part of a five to ten-year cycle of being cleared for agricultural purposes and then abandoned, when the soil becomes depleted of any nutrients and thus insufficient for crop growth. Despite the fact that young secondary forests have great regeneration potential, they are not protected by any policies. Therefore, they are constantly prone to being deforested before they can reach the ecological potential of primary forests.


Primary findings of the researchers

The overriding anthropogenic cause for slower growth rates of secondary forests were those which grow on land which experienced multiple deforestation events through the use of slash-and-burn practices. This is due to its degradation of seed banks, soil nutrient content and water availability. The team found these growth rates to slow by 20% to 50%.


The use of the slash-and-burn technique clears sections of rainforest and fertilizes it by burning pre-existing plants, then planting the crop of choice. However, the land only remains suitable for around two to three years, before the soil becomes degraded. The farmer moves on, but often returns to repeat this cycle every five to ten years later.


The team found geographic variations in the effects human disturbance has on reforestation rates, which may provide guidance for which areas are of priority for conservation. Secondary forests in the eastern regions of the Amazon seem to be more affected by slash-and-burn techniques than the western regions, slowing growth by 50% and 20%, respectively. This is likely due to the wetter climate of the western Amazon.


Additionally, the southern region of the Amazon, also known as the ‘Arc of Deforestation,’ is at a higher risk than the north, due to its drier climate. Here, growth rates averagely decrease 40 to 50% due to human activity. The findings, therefore, indicate that the South-Eastern forests of the Amazon are in need of most urgent protection.


It was also concluded that it takes secondary forests a minimum of 100-years to achieve the above ground carbon (AGC) potential of older forests. AGC refers to the fraction of carbon stored in tree biomass. Thus, their findings suggest that young, secondary forests (less than 20 years) do not match older primary forests in their ability to mitigate the impacts of climate change.


Male Amazon Kingfisher in Brazil | Flickr / Martha de Jong-Lantink

Implications for conservation policies

The researchers suggest that Brazil must implement policies that focus on conserving both older, secondary forests (above 20 years) and old, primary forests. It is vital to allow secondary forests to reach the full AGC storage potential of primary forests. If they are constantly felled through slash-and-burn practices, the AGC potential of secondary forests is likely to plateau at 40-years of age.


The ecosystem services these forests provide are extremely undervalued. Currently, less than one percent of secondary forests above 20-years old are preserved. It is estimated that anthropogenic disturbances in the Amazon have already caused an eight percent loss in total potential 2017 carbon stock.


The team believes the conservation of these older secondary forests are key to climate change mitigation solutions in the long run, whereas conserving older primary forests are critical to meeting policy-relevant timescales.


‘There is no mention of the 12 million hectares that had been [previously] committed to reforestation.’


Taking immediate action to preserve the current secondary forests could contribute to six % of Brazil’s net emissions reduction targets. These estimates do not even include the potential of re-growing secondary forests, which Heinrich believes, ‘could help Brazil reach its Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) goals of reducing net national emissions by 43% in 2030.’


However, just in December 2020, Brazil amended its pledge (NDC) under the Paris Agreement. There is no mention of the 12 million hectares that had been committed to reforestation in 2015. On 9 April 2021, Vice President Hamilton Mourão released Brazil’s plan towards mitigating deforestation in the Amazon throughout 2021 to 2022.


Vice President Mourão recently stated that legalizing mining in the gold-rich indigenous lands of the Amazon would reroute illegal mining activity in protected areas. He believes that those mining would comply with environmental laws set out in those legalized areas. However, environmentalists say that this would only increase illegal logging and commercialize traditional indigenous lands, breaching their livelihoods and rights.


Map of deforestation rates of Amazon rainforest states since the Bolsonaro Administration took office in 2019 | Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais (INPE) / Terra Brasilis

According to the National Institute for Space Research (Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais – INPE), 7,500 km2 of the Legal Amazon was deforested in 2018. The new Amazon Plan of 2021/2022 still allows 16% more deforestation than in 2018, which is the year before President Bolsonaro took office. This means that this new plan claiming to mitigate deforestation is not as ambitious as the government makes it out to be, as it would still allow around 8,700 km2 to be deforested in the next year.


Rates of deforestation in the Legal Amazon drastically increased when President Jair Bolsonaro took leadership of the country in 2019. Terra Brasilis, an online portal set up by the INPE to display up-to-date data on the Amazon, shows that the rainforest lost 10,100 km2 in 2019 and another 11,100 km2 in 2021. Most of the deforestation taking place in these years have occurred in the Pará state, in the north of Brazil.


The Amazon Plan for 2021/2022 is very vague and does not outline any specific measures on how to target illegal deforestation; which mostly stems from mining, soy and cattle ranching. The policy brief, which came into action upon its publication on 9 April 20201, intends to merge together agencies in order to mitigate deforestation. It also aims to create ‘bio-economies’; an alternative source of income for those communities residing within and around the rainforest, via further developing their healthcare and infrastructure.


‘The new plan would still allow around 8,7002 to be deforested in the next year.’


Particularly during COVID-19, conservation priorities have been pushed even further back, as Brazil is struggling to alleviate the pressures which the pandemic has placed on its economy. It is believed that the Bolsonaro administration is also using the COVID-19 as a distraction, in order to reverse previously pledged environmental regulations.


According to the Climate Action Tracker, Brazilian legislators have recently fast-tracked the approval of handing over highly controversial ownership of illegally deforested land. This rollback and gap in much-needed policies will likely cause even higher rates of deforestation and hinder decarbonization of Brazil’s economy.


‘Brazil is likely to be the tropical country with the largest potential for this kind of Nature-based solution, which can generate income to landowners, reestablish ecosystems services and place the country again as a global leader in the fight against climate change,’ explains co-author of the study, Dr Luiz Aragão, National Institute of Space Research in Brazil.


Brazil needs to become incentivized to shift to a green economy, as sustainable management of the Amazon rainforest has the possibility of being a huge source of revenue for the country.



Feature Image: Eduardo Zmievski | Unsplash

Heinrich et al. (2021) Large carbon sink potential of secondary forests in the Brazilian Amazon to mitigate climate change. Nature Communications. Volume 12.

UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) at the SEC – Glasgow 2021. Available at: https://ukcop26.org [Accessed 18 March 2021].

Mongabay.com. 2012. Types of Rainforests. Available at: https://rainforests.mongabay.com/0103.html [Accessed 19 May 2021].

Terra Brasilis 2021. Legal Amazon Deforestation Rates. Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais [online] Available at: http://terrabrasilis.dpi.inpe.br/app/dashboard/deforestation/biomes/legal_amazon/rates [Accessed 21 March 2021].

Governo do Brazil, 2021. Plano Amazônia 2021/2022. DIÁRIO OFICIAL DA UNIÃO, pp.8-11. Available at: [Accessed 21 March 2021].]



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