The fate of the Amazon rests on Brazil’s national election on Sunday, according to experts, who say a continuation of the rampant destruction under President Jair Bolsonaro could push the world’s biggest rainforest past an irreversible tipping point.
In contrast, a victory for the former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who oversaw a sharp decline in deforestation when in power, could lead to the razing of forests falling by 90%, scientists estimate.
The Amazon rainforest plays a vital role in the global climate as a vast store of carbon dioxide, but recent research showed that fires and tree felling have left the region emitting more CO2 than it absorbs. Researchers showed in March that the Amazon was approaching a tipping point, after which the forest would be lost, with profound implications for the global climate and biodiversity.
Bolsonaro became president at the start of 2019 and has slashed environmental protections and promoted colonisation of the forest. research shows that CO2 emissions doubled in 2019 and 2020 compared with the average over the previous decade, driven by soaring deforestation and fires as law enforcement collapsed.
The latest data shows that almost a million hectares of rainforest have been burned in the past year. In the month to 26 September, fires soared to their highest levels in a decade. Brazil’s national space research agency, INPE, reported 36,850 fire alerts in the region, more than double than in the whole month in 2021.
The increase may be because of those illegally destroying the forest taking a final opportunity to grab land before the election, according to Amazon researchers.
“Bolsonaro has dragged Brazil back to the wild west days we thought we’d left behind,” said Adriana Ramos, at Brazil’s Instituto Socioambiental, which works to protect Indigenous peoples and their forest homes. “It’s no exaggeration, then, to say that the Amazon’s fate rests on the outcome of our election on 2 October. If Bolsonaro wins another term in office, the world’s biggest rainforest could pass its tipping point. If he loses, we have the chance to bring it – and Brazil – back from the brink.”
Ramos said violent conflicts and murders of Indigenous people and forest protectors by land-grabbers have risen sharply since Bolsonaro became president. She said: “Those perceived as obstacles to their activities – including [murdered activist and journalist] Bruno Pereira and Dom Phillips, and numerous Indigenous people, such as the forest protector Paulo Paulino Guajajara – paid the ultimate price.”
Dr Erika Berenguer, an Amazon deforestation expert at the University of Oxford, UK, told New Scientist: “I don’t say this lightly as a scientist, but this is the most important election ever in Brazil for the Amazon and its survival.”
Luciana Gatti at INPE, whose research showed the doubling of Amazon CO2 emissions under Bolsonaro, said the rainforest was changing dramatically because of the collapse in law enforcement and aggressive deforestation during the president’s tenure. “This is a big risk not only for Brazil but for the whole planet,” she said. “The reduction in law enforcement promotes the feeling of impunity for environmental crimes.”
The research by Gatti’s team, under review by the journal Nature, is based on hundreds of air samples collected in small planes above the Amazon over the last decade and showed “alarming” results. CO2 emissions rose by 89% in 2019 and 122% in 2020, compared with the 2010-18 average.
In 2020, the rise in emissions was mainly because of a 74% increase in deforestation and a 42% rise in the area burned by fires. In the same year, the number of fines paid for environmental crimes fell by 89% and the number of offences recorded by the authorities fell by 54%, with a similar situation in 2019.
Gatti’s team also produced the earlier research showing the Amazon rainforest has been transformed from a carbon sink to a source, meaning it is accelerating global heating rather than slowing it down. Most Amazon destruction is the result of beef production, with soy growing and mining also factors.
“The Amazon is getting dangerously close to a crucial tipping point, which could see large areas transform from a resilient, moist rainforest into a dry, fire-ravaged, and irreversibly degraded state,” said Mike Barrett at WWF.
“What we are witnessing is the end of the Amazon,” said Angela Kuczach, director of Rede Pro UC – National Network for Protected Areas in Brazil. “Right here in the heart of the southern Amazon, we are exchanging forest for desert, and biodiversity for ashes. We can no longer say we’re going to lose the Amazon in 20 or 30 years; we are losing it right now.”
Bolsonaro told world leaders at the UN general assembly last week that Brazil was a “reference to the world” for environment and sustainable development. “Two-thirds of the Brazilian territory remains covered by native vegetation, which is found exactly as it was when Brazil was discovered in 1500 [by Spanish colonists],” he said. “In the Brazilian Amazon, more than 80% of the forest remains untouched, contrary to what is reported by the mainstream national and international media.”
Brazil’s justice ministry claims to have been conducting a police operation since 2021 to fight illegal forest destruction and to safeguard Indigenous areas.
Most opinion polls suggest Lula is close to securing the overall majority of votes needed in Sunday’s first round to avoid a runoff against Bolsonaro in late October. Lula has said he will reverse Bolsonaro’s legal changes, reform environmental agencies and drive illegal miners out of indigenous lands. Under the presidency of Lula and his Workers’ party successor, Dilma Rousseff, deforestation fell by 72% from 2004 to 2016.
Nevertheless, reversing the impact of Bolsonaro will be challenging, according to Izabella Teixeira, Lula’s environment adviser and Brazil’s environment minister from 2010 to 2016.
“This is a huge challenge and is completely different than it was in the past,” she told New Scientist.
If Lula wins the presidency and recreates the successful reduction in deforestation in his previous term, forest destruction would fall by 90% over the next decade, according to analysis published by Carbon Brief. More than 75,000km2 of Amazon rainforest would be saved, researchers estimated.
Gatti said countries and consumers outside Brazil could also help. “We need to have an international commitment with countries, that they don’t buy the products that result in the destruction of nature,” she said.