The Amazon is the largest tropical forest on our planet. It houses 33 million people from nine countries and is home to extraordinary biodiversity. Its dense vegetation and wet soils contain 140,000 million tons of carbon, capable of disrupting the global climate if released into the atmosphere. Preserving the Amazon is a matter of global interest and must become one of the great priorities of our time.
In the last 50 years, we have already lost 17 per cent of this vital forest. Despite efforts to protect it, there is an alarming increase in deforestation, with effects that are expected to intensify due to the climate crisis.
The voracious fires that are devastating large patches of the Amazonian forest show how an inclement agrarian expansion and a growing mining demand -coupled with increasingly extreme weather conditions- are accelerating ecosystem degradation.
This is true not only in the Amazon but also in other vital landscapes, such as the Arctic, where more than 100 large, unprecedented fires have been reported since June. Both places, although dissimilar and distant, suffer the effects of an extraordinary global warming. Last July could go down in history as the hottest month ever recorded, and it is possible that 2019 will become one of the five warmest years in the last centuries.
In this context, the efforts to save the Amazon have to tackle both global and local issues. We must transform our national land-use policies as well as accelerate the fight against the climate crisis. The 9 countries that share the Amazon biome must strengthen the governance of their forests, integrate the productive sectors and ensure a fertile ground for sustainable economic activities, without which it would be impossible to preserve the ecosystems while generating local socio-economic benefits.
All these nations have successful conservation experiences. Between 2004 and 2012, their efforts helped reduce deforestation in the Amazon by 80 per cent. There are important lessons learned from the effectiveness of management and governance of protected areas, and we must continue moving forward, in close cooperation with the States of the region and with the more than 400 indigenous communities of the biome, who can make great contributions to the implementation of innovative nature based solutions.
It is possible to preserve the Amazon and its biodiversity. But we need bold commitments and measures to increase ecosystem monitoring, restore degraded areas and create a vibrant market for sustainable productive activities, such as non-timber Amazonian products.
The Climate Action Summit, to be convened by the UN Secretary General in September in New York, and the COP25 on Climate Change, which will take place in Chile in December, are great opportunities to take these commitments to the highest level. Discussions on the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework offer another space to rethink conservation and sustainable use approaches for strategic biomes such as the Amazon. Similarly, the new United Nations Decade for the Restoration of Ecosystems provides a practical platform to advance the large-scale recovery the Amazon could need.
Without the Amazon and the tropical forests of the world it won’t be possible to halt global warming at 2 °C – far less at 1.5 ° C -, which will make it impossible to fulfil the commitments of the Paris Agreement. We don’t have time to lose.
Leo Heileman is the UN Environment Programme Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean.