Report published on December 8, 2020, by the Amazon Geo-Referenced Socio-Environmental Information Network (RAISG), a consortium of environmental entities from Amazonian countries, points out that between 2000 and 2018, 513,016 square kilometres were deforested in the region, an area larger than Spain. Between August 2018 and July 2019, according to data from Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE), 11,088 km² of forest were destroyed in the Amazon, the highest level in 12 years.

Senior researcher at the Institute of Advanced Studies of the University of São Paulo (IEA/USP) and one of the world's leading experts on climate change, climatologist Carlos Nobre formulated in the early 1990s the hypothesis of savannization of the Amazon in response to deforestation. Today, almost 30 years later, he makes a new warning: “Our calculations indicate that in 15 to 30 years, if we continue with these rates of deforestation in the Amazon, not only in Brazil, we will have already reached the other side, where the savannization becomes irreversible.”

As part of the solution to the problem, Nobre defends that it is necessary to reduce the illegal use of land in the Amazon and demands a greater commitment from the public authorities in inspecting deforestation.

One of the authors of the IPCC’s (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report awarded with the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, the Brazilian climatologist also argues that consumers have their share of responsibility in the matter and should “translate the desire to protect the Amazon into concrete actions,” such as responsible and sustainable consumption. “If every Brazilian demanded a certificate of meat origin, deforestation in the Amazon would be greatly reduced,” he says.

In an interview with BlastingTalks, Nobre also speaks about project Amazon 4.0, which aims to stimulate the creation of a cutting-edge bioeconomy in the region and to show society “that the greatest economic value of the Amazon is in keeping the forest standing”.

Blasting News: A report published last November by Inpe (Brazil's National Institute for Space Research) indicates that deforestation in the Amazon surged by 9.5% between August 2019 and July 2020 when compared to the previous season. There were 10.129 km² of deforested area, the largest number since 2008. In the early 1990s, you were the author of a study that first proposed the hypothesis of a process of savannization of the Amazon rainforest in response to deforestation.

At what point is the forest today on this path towards a process of savannization? Is there a possibility of reaching a point of no return?

Carlos Nobre: There is a possibility of reaching a point of no return, and we are not far from that. In the south of the Amazon, all indicators point to the trend towards savannization, to become a very degraded Cerrado.

We are seeing the duration of the dry season increase by 3 to 4 weeks, compared to the 1980s. We are also seeing that it has become much hotter during the dry season. In this southern region of the Amazon, trees are losing their intrinsic ability to recycle water. We are also seeing an increase in tree mortality in this region of the Amazon. So, all this together shows us that we are very close to the point of no return, especially in the south of the Amazon. Our calculations indicate that between 15 and 30 years, if we continue with these deforestation rates in the Amazon, not only in Brazil, we will have already reached the other side, where the savannization becomes irreversible. This is the reality.

From the moment that this process of savannization begins, there will be a domino effect?

Will the entire Amazon region tend to enter this same process of savannization, or would it be restricted to areas already deforested?

It starts there, but then it increases its action a lot and goes from the northeast of the Amazon – Amapá, Guyana –, descending to Pará practically all the way and going west – Mato Grosso, Amazonas. There will be forest left only in the west of the state of Amazonas, in Colombia and in a part of Peru. Only 30% of the forest will be left there. In the rest of the South, Center and East of the Amazon, this process will spread.

What measures do you think are within the reach of the public authorities and that must be applied so that we can start to reverse this situation?

Brazil has an important experience of success in reducing deforestation.

Studies indicate that no less than 90% of deforestation is illegal. Therefore, the critically necessary action is to reduce the illegality of land use in the Amazon. In 2012, we had 4,600 km² deforested. In the last year, the Inpe registered almost 11,100 km² deforested. So we went from 27,000 km² deforested in 2004 to the lowest historical level since Inpe has been doing this type of monitoring. This was mainly due to command and control policies, to effective inspections by Ibama [Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources], ICMBio [Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation], the state environmental departments, the Federal Police in association with the state police. This was working very well because they were putting pressure on organized crime.

Can you give us some examples?

For example, in 2005 the Ministry for the Environment passed a legal framework allowing the destruction of machines – tractors, chainsaws – seized doing illegal deforestation. A large bulldozer costs up to R$ 1.5 million [around $300,000]. Whoever finances illegal deforestation has started to suffer a huge financial loss. Not forgetting also that the Federal Police acted in the intelligence service and managed to arrest many of the financiers of organized crime and those who paid for land grabbing, for theft of wood.

So this legal framework was a game-changer in punishing organized crime...

It started to put a lot of pressure on organized crime. It greatly increased the risk of being punished, of being arrested, of losing a lot of money, and deforestation has been greatly reduced.

The police, Ibama, everyone did a very well-articulated job. But it costs about R$ 300 million [around $60 million] a year. From the economic recession in 2015, a lot of money started to run out and these inspections were relaxed. Then deforestation continued to increase, because organized crime was there in the Amazon. He is very present in the Amazon, including with political representation.

In recent years, in addition to not having resources, there was a political stance by the federal government to resume the outdated developmental model of the Amazon, who sees no value in the forest and thinks it has to be eliminated. In February, the president [Jair Bolsonaro] gave an order not to destroy any more the machines making illegal deforestation.

So, this political discourse and the lack of resources for inspection sent to organized crime, the crime of land grabbing, the crime of theft of wood a very clear message that there will be no punishment.

So the most effective method to curb deforestation would be to resume these tougher inspections?

This mechanism, which was effective in 2012-2013, to greatly reduce deforestation, has to be permanent, until you can actually change the economic pattern of the region and greatly weaken organized crime. But it is not something that happens overnight. This can take decades. This has to be implemented very vigorously, very effectively, so that you do so much damage to organized crime that they will slow down or abandon that type of crime.

How does it work?

The satellites are indicating the deforested areas on a daily basis, in a system called Deter [Real Time Deforestation Detection System], developed by Inpe. For example, in a public area where they are cutting down daily, the satellite is seeing every day. The information reaches Ibama and the state environmental control agencies every day. So, getting to the place where irregular deforestation is happening is totally feasible. But it is expensive. Sometimes it is a distant place, where you can only get by helicopter. When you get there, you stop illegal deforestation, destroy the machine, but you will arrest the workers, who are semi-slaves. The funder, the leader, is not there.

When deforestation is done on private property, with registration, Ibama goes there and fines.

Now, Ibama does not collect even 2% of these fines, historically. The private owner who illegally clears an area already assumes that he does not pay a fine. So, those who illegally deforested and those who also stole land expect that after 5, 10 years, Congress will pass a law and regularize everything.

We have several examples in history where the mobilization of public opinion served as a catalyst for problem-solving. To what extent do you think that society today is aware of the dangers of climate change and pressures authorities and large corporations to take a different path?

Brazilians see the Amazon as a cultural, aesthetic value of nature. The two surveys I received last month shows that between 97% and 99% of Brazilians are in favor of protecting the Amazon.

It is a consensus, an unanimity. Now, you don’t see it generating in society, for example, a call for responsible consumption. If every Brazilian demanded a certificate of meat origin, deforestation in the Amazon would be greatly reduced.

Brazilians have to translate this desire to protect the Amazon into concrete actions. It has to be much more an action of the Brazilian consumer because the government has been very tolerant with deforestation. The consumer has to practice responsible and sustainable consumption.

And then you have the big problem of illegal wood...

About 80% of the wood [extracted] from the Amazon is illegal, and almost all illegal wood is sold inside Brazil. The legal purchases, when there is a concession for logging, is a very small number of trees per hectare: two, three, five.

When you go and cut all the trees that have economic value, you are cutting 50, 80 trees per hectare, you are opening paths to pass the tractor that pulls the trees, and those paths are then used by those who are going to deforest even more, to bring the cattle to make the livestock farm. So, if all Brazilians demanded a certificate of origin for both meat and wood, the deforestation would be greatly reduced.

Now, you need to modernize your certificates. For example, there is an industry of counterfeiting wood certificates. It is a huge industry. About 80% of the wood is harvested illegally, and when it arrives at Brazil’s southeast market, they are with Ibama’s guides as if everything were legal, but everything is counterfeit. The Federal Police are constantly breaking up a counterfeiting ring.

Many timber consuming markets, for example, several states here in the southeast, have laws that prohibit the purchase of timber from the Amazon that has not certified that it was a legal harvest. So, there is a counterfeiting industry, and then again the police have to act.

As for this scandal that happened a few days ago, in which the President [Jair Bolsonaro] threatened to denounce countries that bought illegal timber - when the percentage of illegal timber exported is very small -, who authorizes the export is Ibama, therefore, if it authorized the export of illegal timber, the error primary is from Ibama. But now there are methods, and this is what the Federal Police is developing, based on the DNA of the tree. You map the DNA and get to know the exact origin of the tree, if it comes from an indigenous land, from a conservation unit, from a public area, or if it comes, for example, of companies that have legal concessions to exploit wood sustainably from national forests.

You have the genetic record of the DNA of those trees in that region. So, when you arrive at a port or some foreign country, you do the DNA and see if it came from those areas. Today it has very modern tools and, if there was a political will, you would be able to greatly reduce illegal logging.

Much of the deforestation in both the Amazon region and the Cerrado is caused by the expansion of monoculture and livestock farming, two activities that have a very strong lobby in Congress. Do you believe that the path to the solution of the climate crisis passes, irreparably, through the confrontation with these two economic activities? Or is there room for a solution that meets all sides?

The productivity of Brazilian livestock is very low, 1.35 head of cattle per hectare in Brazil as a whole. The minimum potential for livestock productivity would be 3 head of cattle. There are high productivity farms with 4, 5 cattle [per hectare]. There needs to be a major change in livestock practices in Brazil. Ten years ago, the Ministry of Agriculture launched the Low Carbon Agriculture Plan. One of the most important elements of the plan was the integrated crop-livestock-forest systems. Loans with subsidized interest were made available. The government was almost giving money to livestock farmers to reverse this destructive model and become a modern, profitable livestock farming that does not need to expand its area. Embrapa’s studies show that you would reduce the livestock area by 25% and increase production by 35%. Ten years later, only 7% of livestock farmers adopted integrated systems. And the vast majority was crop-livestock system, very little crop-livestock-forest system, which is the best, since cattle are very productive when there is shade. This shows a cultural attachment to very low productivity livestock farming.

Why?

The cultural value of the vast majority of Brazilian livestock farmers is the size of the land, not the profitability. A colleague of mine at Embrapa, Eduardo Assad, talks about the difference between livestock farmers and cattle breeders. The cattle breeder is the equivalent of the farmer, he will see the best system, the most profitable, the most productive. When you make the integrated systems, with the rotation of the cattle, he spends six months eating a pasture, then he goes to another pasture, then some crops are planted there that help to recompose fertilization, for example, plants that recover the soil nitrogen, you let the trees grow to shade the cattle. In the integrated crop-livestock-forest system with rotation of cattle you keep livestock production for decades and decades. Most of the livestock farming in the Amazon removes the forest and burns it, so you have a very productive pasture for a maximum of 5, 7 years, then the productivity ends, because the Amazonian soils are very poor in nutrients, then you abandon and cut the next area. With productive livestock farming in the Amazon, you could reduce the area [of breeding] by 50% and maintain the same volume [of productivity]. Same thing with the Cerrado. The cattle is used to say, “this land is mine, and now I am a rancher.” It is a cultural phenomenon that exists in Brazil.

Who would be responsible for trying to induce producers to adopt these more modern practices?

There must be public policies. For example, several companies in the soy chain are demanding certification of origin. As of last year, international funds no longer want to invest in these large companies in the meat and soy chains if they do not demonstrate the origin of what is called deforestation-free supply chains. The big meat companies themselves are now beginning to demand traceability. I mean, we are in a moment of transition. Therefore, if there is a continuity in this transition process, deforestation should decrease in the coming years. Unless the federal government, and some state governments and mayors there in the Amazon, are totally in favor of destroying the forest. I don’t really know who will win this fight, whether the big companies, which are afraid of losing international markets, or the political discourse of permanent expansion of the commodities frontier. It is a question that I think is still open.

We just talked about a whole market of false certifications for the sale of timber. Do you believe that something similar is possible in both the meat and soy market?

Obviously, in the meat market too. For example, something that was reported by various organizations is that people fed cattle on illegally cleared land for two years and, three months before the slaughter, they transfer it to a legal area and do all the documentation. So, it is possible, but the traceability mechanisms today are becoming very modern, with very high technologies. It is possible to have mechanisms for traceability of the meat and soy chain. There is a worldwide trend in this direction, and this should be a vector for reducing deforestation.

You are currently engaged in a project called Amazon 4.0 that, in summary, proposes the sustainable exploitation of forest biodiversity and the creation of a cutting-edge bioeconomy in Brazil. I would like you to explain a little more about the concept of the project, what are the steps for its implementation and, mainly, what are the challenges for its success?

The Amazon 4.0 project is exactly the idea of showing that the greatest economic value of the Amazon is in keeping the forest standing. The açaí, cocoa, Brazil nut industry, several others, have a profitability per hectare that is 5 to 10 times that of meat, 2 to 4 times that of soybeans. Açaí, for example, has already benefited more than 300 thousand people in Pará. Many small farmers are abandoning livestock and moving to agroforestry systems with cocoa and açaí. So, Amazon 4.0 wants to show that you can take modern industries, with technology from industry 4.0, to the Amazon, to industrialize these forest products and with enormous added value. This is the idea.

Can you explain to us how Amazon 4.0 works from a practical standpoint?

We are still in an early stage and we will now in 2021 train Amazonian communities for the cupuaçu and cocoa chain, to make chocolate, cupulate, a series of products. This is a first laboratory, a small bio-factory for training the communities. We are going to work with four communities in the state of Pará. We are also going to the campus of a university in Manaus, in the state of Amazonas, to bring young people into this eco-entrepreneurship. We have already designed several of these training labs. One that we finished building in February is the one that I talked about cupuaçu and cocoa. But we already have the design ready for genetic resources, genomic sequencing, nuts and gourmet oils. We will start the project related to the açaí now in January. We are looking for resources to implement all of these laboratories and begin to show that it is possible to industrialize these products, adding value.

Read the interviews with Svein Tveitdal and Jeroom Remmers, all part of the BlastingTalks series about climate change.

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