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Biodiversity guru Thomas Lovejoy warns of peril to Amazon forest's 'living library'

by Laurie Goering | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Sunday, 10 October 2021 08:00 GMT

An aerial view shows a deforested plot of the Amazon rainforest in Rondonia State, Brazil September 28, 2021. REUTERS/Adriano Machado

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As U.N. negotiations on protecting biological diversity open, the man who coined the phrase says it's time for different action to save nature

By Laurie Goering

LONDON, Oct 10 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When U.S. biologist Thomas Lovejoy first arrived in the Brazilian Amazon in 1965, the jungle - about the size of the continental United States and then 97% intact - stretched to the horizons.

More than a half century later, nearly a fifth of the lush rainforest is gone - felled or burned largely for cattle ranches, soy crops, timber and mining - and many remaining parts are increasingly fragmented, forest experts say.

Scientists warn the destruction is pushing perilously close to a predicted tipping point of 20-25% losses that could set the forest on an irreversible path to becoming a grassy savannah, spurring runaway climate change and massive species extinctions.

"If you look at the history of deforestation rates in the Brazilian Amazon, it's gone up and down according to the political will," Lovejoy, president of the non-profit Amazon Biodiversity Center, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

But under Brazil's right-wing president, Jair Bolsonaro, who has pushed expansion of farming, ranching and other business in the Amazon to cut poverty and create jobs, "it's about as bad as it's ever been", Lovejoy said in a phone interview.

"When the country with the biggest forest of them all isn't paying attention, it's hard to expect the rest of the world to," he said.

On Monday, a summit of the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity - where 195 countries will work on a new accord to halt and reverse losses of plants, animals and ecosystems - gets underway online, with a second part scheduled in April and May.

Lovejoy - who coined the phrase "biological diversity" to describe the abundance of plant and animal life in places like the Amazon - said making the U.N. pact work and boosting the odds of survival for the world's greatest tropical forest will require huge changes.

Those include big infusions of corporate cash to protect nature, better law enforcement, new guidance for farmers and - critically - more political recognition of the natural world's value, said the biologist, a George Mason University professor.


When political will to protect the Amazon is lacking, finding a counter-balance is key, Lovejoy said. A promising one looks like the surge of corporations seeking to meet their net-zero emissions goals and green their image, he noted.

"You have to look for where the levers are, and at the moment the most promising is international private-sector initiatives around trees and storing carbon," he said.

Companies that have promised to reach net zero can do so either by slashing pollution from their own activities or by reducing an equal amount of planet-heating emissions elsewhere.

Many firms are now planning to protect or plant forests - which absorb carbon dioxide as they grow - to meet a share of their commitments.

Such investments, by driving up the value of forested land, can reduce the profits from cutting it down and encourage smarter Amazon farming such as retaining trees that stabilise rainfall and shade cattle alongside crops, Lovejoy said.

Besides buying more electric delivery vehicles and renewable energy, online retailer Amazon Inc., for instance, last month said it would help 3,000 farmers in Brazil's Amazonian state of Para restore degraded cattle pasture as native forests and "agroforestry" systems combining crops and trees.

The aim of the project is to help farmers make more sustainable profits - through things like planting cocoa trees - while also retaining more forest, according to The Nature Conservancy, an environmental group partnering with Amazon.

"If you can convert some of these basically disastrous cattle pastures into something that's productive but also includes some trees, you're contributing to the solution," Lovejoy said.

Farmers are coming under growing economic pressure as rapid deforestation disrupts rainfall patterns across Brazil and the continent, worsening drought and extreme rainfall, the conservation scientist said.

Amazon farm plots that once produced three crops a year are down to two and the hydrological cycle of the Amazon and South America "is going splat, which is already impacting agriculture and reservoirs", he added.

In a country heavily reliant on hydropower and income from farm commodities, that could lead to everything from blackouts and more frequent and severe wildfires to growing political dissatisfaction, analysts have warned.

"Bolsonaro's smart response (to growing water shortages) has been to say brush your teeth one day less a week," said Lovejoy.


One problem in securing better forest protection is that few people understand how intimately nature and forests influence their daily lives, the biologist said.

Beyond nature supplying clean air and water and a stable climate, plants and animals are the basis of many life-saving medicines - including a pioneering malaria vaccine this week, developed using compounds from a native Chilean evergreen tree.

"Most people are completely oblivious to how biology supports their lives. They are completely oblivious to the biological origins of a medication when they go to get a refill at the pharmacy," Lovejoy said.

The polymerase chain reaction, PCR, developed from a bacteria's enzyme, has now given its name to a key test for COVID-19 infection used around the world, he added - something most people are unaware of.

"Biodiversity is a living library of 4 billion years of evolution, with each organism and species daily working on biological challenges and solutions in their own existence. It's a pretty powerful way to generate a lot of knowledge," he said.

"Societies like to have libraries - but this one is going."


In some political circles in Brazil, awareness about the risks of continuing deforestation is rising, Lovejoy said.

The Amazon state of Mato Grosso, for instance - which lost huge areas of forest over the last two decades - has stepped up enforcement of rules requiring farmers to keep a share of their land in forest, he said.

"Already there the dry season is longer and hotter, and the species of trees in the forest is changing to ones that can cope with dry conditions," he noted.

But shifting the broader trajectory for the Amazon forest may require changes in leadership - something in the hands of Brazilian voters as presidential and congressional elections approach next year, he emphasised.

"The incoming administration in Brazil - if it decides it wants to take leadership on this globally - could become a hero, like Brazil was a hero at the time of the Earth Summit" in 1992, Lovejoy said.

"There's no reason Brazil can't return to that important role of being one of the main environmental leaders in the world," he added.


Two years on, forest pact's 'good intensions' do little to protect the Amazon

As Amazon losses continue, Brazil faces a future of floods and droughts

More deforestation and less rain threaten Brazilian agribusiness    

(Reporting by Laurie Goering @lauriegoering; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)

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