Tag Archives: Amazon

Amazon indigenous people barely get dementia. Could a pre-industrial lifestyle protect against Alzheimer’s?

Nearly 1 in 10 Americans over the age of 65 have dementia, and as the U.S. struggles with an aging population, the proportion of elderly people with Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases is bound to increase. But in the Amazon basin, where some indigenous people still employ a subsistence lifestyle as they have for hundreds of years isolated from industrialized society, the rate of dementia hovers at around just 1%. These findings, reported by a new study from the University of South California, suggest that the Western lifestyle may be seriously putting people at risk of dementia in old age.

“Something about the pre-industrial subsistence lifestyle appears to protect older Tsimane and Moseten from dementia,” said Margaret Gatz, the lead study author and professor of psychology, gerontology and preventive medicine at the University of South California.

The Tsimane have little or no access to health care but are extremely active and consume a high-fiber diet that includes vegetables, fish and lean meat. (Photo/Courtesy of the Tsimane Health and Life History Project Team)

Gatz and colleagues traveled to the Bolivian Amazon jungle, where they closely studied the elderly of the Tsimane’ and Mosetén tribes — two indigenous peoples that have remained largely isolated from urban life elsewhere in the country.

The Tsimane’ number about 16,000 people living in mostly riverbank villages scattered across about 3,000 square miles of the Amazon jungle. They are forager-farmers who fish, hunt, and cut down trees with machetes, which keeps everyone very physically active throughout their lifetimes.

The neighboring Mosetén, which number around 3,000 and have close cultural ties with the Tsimane’, also reside in rural villages and rely on subsistence agricultural work. However, they live closer to towns, have schools, and access to health posts, as well as access to roads and electricity. Within the last decade, the Mosetén have also received cell phone service and running water.

Researchers employed computer tomography (CT) brain scans, cognitive and neurological tests, and questionnaires to assess the mental health among the Tsimane’ and Mosetén aged 60 and over.

According to the results, the study found just 5 cases of dementia among 435 Tsimane’ and one case among 169 Mosetén, which is much less than the rate of incidence in Western countries. Previously, studies of indigenous populations in Australia, North America, Guam, and Brazil found dementia prevalence ranging from 0.5% to 20%. The authors note that the apparent higher rate of dementia among older adults from indigenous tribes elsewhere in the world could be due to their higher contact with their industrialized neighbors, and subsequent adoption of more sedentary lifestyles.

In the same over-60 groups, the researchers also diagnosed about 8% of elderly Tsimane’ and 10% of Mosetén with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) — the stage between the expected cognitive decline of normal aging and the more serious decline of dementia. This condition is characterized by memory loss and a decline in cognitive abilities, such as language and spatial reasoning. The MCI rates were comparable to those encountered in high-income countries.

In high-income countries with high rates of dementia among older adults, the population generally does not engage in the recommended amount of physical activity and has a diet rich in sugars and fats. As a result, older adults are more susceptible to heart disease and brain aging. In contrast, the Tsimane’ people have unusually healthy hearts for their age. That’s not surprising considering they also have the lowest prevalence of coronary atherosclerosis of any population in the world.

Alzheimer’s has been previously associated with hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, physical inactivity, and even air pollution. It’s no coincidence that these chronic diseases and health problems are staples of modern Western lifestyles.

In 2021, the same team from the University of South California found that the Tsimane indigenous people of the Bolivian Amazon experience less brain atrophy than their American and European peers. Their decrease in brain volume happened at a rate that was 70% lower than in Western populations.

“We’re in a race for solutions to the growing prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias,” said Hillard Kaplan, a study co-author and professor of health economics and anthropology at Chapman University who has studied the Tsimane for two decades. “Looking at these diverse populations augments and accelerates our understanding of these diseases and generates new insights.”

If the Tsimane’ and Mosetén offer any indication, a pre-industrial lifestyle can offer significant protection against dementia. But that doesn’t mean we can all revert to foraging in the woods and living under the stars. In case someone is romanticizing life in the Amazon jungle, bear in mind that the Tsimane’ have an average of nine children per family who live an average of just over 50 years compared to the world average of 71.5 years. So while it may be true that indigenous Amazon people rarely suffer from dementia at old age, what’s certain is that even fewer actually make it that far.

The findings were published in Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association.

Amazon rainforest approaching tipping point of turning into savannah

A combination of climate change, deforestation, and fires has put immense strain on the Amazon basin — home to the single largest remaining tropical rainforest in the world, housing at least 10% of the world’s known biodiversity — since the early 2000s. A new study suggests that over three-quarters of the Amazon region is showing signs that rainforests may be nearing a tipping point, where they could turn into a savannah.

“There is a lot of discussion about the future of the Amazon rainforest and its tipping point. This comes from model studies that originally showed a fast loss of the Amazon rainforest. Since then there has been a lot of uncertainty about its future based on models not agreeing with each other, different future scenarios of climate change, etc. This leads us to look at the real world Amazon to actually see what is going on, and why wouldn’t you if the data is there? We use well-established indicators to measure the changing resilience of the forest, finding that 75% of the forest is losing resilience,” Chris Boulton, Associate Research Fellow at the University of Exeter in the UK, told ZME Science


R(1) values at each location are measured over time and approximate how much memory the forest has (how similar the forest is compared to how it was previously). Higher values suggest more memory, meaning the forest is responding more slowly to weather events, having lower resilience to them. Over the years, the increasing AR(1) values at individual locations, as well as the average behaviour over the region (shown by the time series) shows that there has been a loss of resilience in the Amazon rainforest, particularly over the last 20 years. Credit: Boulton, et al.; Nature Climate Change

Resilience, Boulton added, refers to an ecosystem’s ability to recover from strenuous events such as droughts. Monitoring ecosystem resilience is paramount because it can help determine the magnitude and timing of ecological interventions, such as environmental watering, as well as provide trajectories we can expect in highly disturbed ecosystems subject to ongoing change. And few regions across the world are under as much stress as the Amazon basin is currently experiencing.

Aggressive modern human economic invasion in the area over the past decades has supplanted once tropical foliage with roads, dams, cattle farms, and huge soy plantations. Adding insult to injury are the hundreds of wildfires that lit large chunks of the iconic rainforest up in flames. In 2020 alone, fires razed more than 19 million acres of the world’s largest tropical forest.

With the forest habitat shredded, many endemic species are under threat of extinction, their previous role being filled by often invasive animals. For instance, we’re seeing giant anteaters being replaced by rats and Brazil nut trees making way for weeds.

Using remote satellite sensing data, Boulton and colleagues modeled changes in the resilience of the Amazon rainforest between 1991 and 2016, coming to some stark conclusions. The analysis revealed that 75% of the Amazon has been steadily losing resilience since the early 2000s, which in simple terms means that the rainforests are finding it increasingly difficult to recover after a big drought or fire.

“I think the biggest challenge with this work was the amount of robustness checking that needed to be done. To have such a striking result, all of our coauthors had to be confident that what we were seeing stood up to various tests,” Boulton said.

These concerning developments suggest to the study’s authors that the Amazon may be approaching a critical threshold. Once crossed, key regions of the Amazon may irremediably transition into a new state, from luxurious rainforests to savannas.

The loss of resilience is most prominent in areas that are closer to human activity, as well as in regions that receive less rainfall. That was to be expected. But what was particularly surprising was finding loss of resilience did not necessarily overlap with loss in forest cover. That’s worrisome because it suggests ecosystems that look to be doing well from up above may be actually more vulnerable to changing their mean state than previously thought.

“On the surface, the Amazon may appear comfortable (by looking at the state of the forest), but you need indicators like the ones we use to really see its health. There is a section in the new IPCC report regarding the ‘committed response’ of the Amazon; that in the future, the Amazon may appear stable but the climate it is experiencing may not be good enough for it to survive. Because the forest overall responds slowly to change, it may have passed a tipping point without being realized from the outside,” Boulton said.

The study did not attempt to offer a timeline for this possible transformation of the rainforests. When such a threshold could be reached if things continue business as usual is a big enigma at this stage. But these alarming findings suggest that, if ecosystem resilience is any indication, the Amazon basin is heading towards this critical point of no return. Furthermore, the level of uncertainty is compounded by the many dependencies that characterize such a complex ecosystem like the Amazon.

“Losing part of the forest will also affect rainfall in other areas, which could create losses of resilience in areas where we do not see it at the moment. As for when, I think this is tough to answer, I am surprised to see these signals now over such a large area, and if others are too then it could give people a wake-up call to do something about it,” Boulton said.

Amazon has a big plastic problem — and it’s getting worse

The plastic packaging waste produced by Amazon last year soared by almost a third amid the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a report by the marine NGO Oceana, Amazon generated about 599 million pounds of plastic waste, a 29% increase from 2019 estimates, stemming from the many packages delivered during the pandemic.

An Amazon warehouse in the UK. Image credit: Flickr / DK.

Plastic is one of the largest environmental problems of our time. Up to 55% of sea birds, 70% of marine mammals, and all sea turtles have ingested or become entangled with plastic, according to previous studies. We are also exposed to plastic in our food and water, with reports estimating we eat about five grams of microplastics per week. Overall, the world produces over 500 billion tons of plastic waste per year.

“Amazon’s plastic packaging pollution problem is growing at a frightening rate at a time when the oceans need corporate leaders to step up and meaningfully commit to reducing their use of single-use plastic. Amazon has shown it can do this in large markets,” Oceana’s VP for Strategic Initiatives Matt Littlejohn said in a statement. 

In its report, Oceana highlighted steps taken by Amazon in India, where it eliminated single-use plastics for packaging by introducing paper alternatives after the country’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi pledged to ban single-use plastics by 2022. The company also recently announced it will stop using single-use plastics in Germany. 

Nevertheless, this is not enough, Oceana concluded. Using surveys with Amazon Prime customers, interviews with municipal waste officials, and with store owners, the NGO said Amazon’s recycling efforts won’t “significantly reduce its enormous (and growing plastic problem.” The company should instead become a leader in plastic reduction. 

The figures were rejected by Amazon officials. speaking with The Guardian. Amazon said Oceana overestimated the plastic waste by 300% but didn’t give its own estimated figure. A spokesperson said to share the NGO’s concern for the ocean and said it’s making “rapid progress” in reducing and removing single-use plastics in packaging materials. 

A growing problem

The plastic packaging used by Amazon falls into the category of plastic film, a material very difficult to be recycled and that it’s not accepted by most curbside recycling programs in the US and the UK. In most cases, it’s burned or landfilled, polluting the environment. Only 9% of all plastic ever produced has been recycled, studies showed.

To address this, Amazon asks its customers to drop the plastic waste into selected stores so it can be later recycled. Oceana sent secret shoppers to 186 of these stores in the US and the UK. Representatives from over 40% of the stores visited told the shoppers that they wouldn’t accept Amazon packaging, unaware that such a program even exists. 

Oceana also surveyed over 1,400 Amazon Prime Customers in both countries. Up to 39% said to leave the Amazon plastic into municipal recycling bins, while 35.5% said to put the packaging into the trash. This means the plastic waste of three-quarters of those surveyed ends up in landfills, incinerators, or into the natural environment, Oceana said. 

“Amazon is now bigger than Walmart, and is the largest retailer in the world outside of China. The company is now defining how products are packaged. It must stop hiding behind false and ineffective solutions, like plastic film recycling, and instead, do what it is doing in India and in Germany all around the planet, added Littlejohn in a statement. 

The full report from Oceana can be accessed here. 

Your favorite fashion brands are putting the Amazon rainforest at risk

Major clothing companies are obtaining their leather from manufacturers and tanneries linked to deforestation in the Amazon rainforest, according to a new report. Researchers went through 500,000 rows of customs data and found over 100 brands such as Adidas, Nike, and New Balance are connected to an industry driving deforestation in some of the world’s most delicate ecosystems.

Image credit: Flickr / Quapan.

The findings come after the fashion industry claimed to raise its collective ambition at the COP26 climate summit and do more for the environment. Companies said they recognized the fashion sector as a major global player needing to take an active part in delivering on the Paris Agreement targets and declared their commitment to sourcing environmentally friendly raw materials and using 100% renewable energy. But things are different in reality.

Raising cattle for beef and leather is one of the main drivers of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest – one of the world’s largest carbon sinks. An estimated 13,235 squared kilometers of forest were lost between August 2020 and July 2021, according to the most recent official data. This is the greatest area lost to deforestation since 2006, a trend that is contributing to climate change as well as environmental degradation. 

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has been accused of promoting policies that favor the agribusiness sector at the expense of the environment. The government recently presented new environmental pledges at the COP26 climate summit, showing a different stand than before, but this was regarded with a general lack of trust. Meanwhile, fashion companies are also benefitting from this indirectly. 

“If you’re wearing leather shoes, a leather belt or carrying a leather handbag, it’s highly likely that it was made from cowhide that contributed to the destruction of the Amazon rainforest,” Slow Factory, the NGO behind the report, wrote in a statement. “Brazilian leather is used by tanneries and manufacturers around the world to make countless branded consumer-facing products.”

Fashion and deforestation

The researchers found that a group of 100 fashion brands and companies are working with tanneries and manufacturers that also have links to cattle raised on cleared rainforest land. Half of the companies in the report had links on their supply chain to JBS, the biggest leather exporter in Brazil that has been accused of participating in deforestation.

According to the Soy and Cattle Deforestation Tracker from Mighty Earth, JBS is linked to 42,538 hectares of deforested land in the two years since March 2019 – with half classifying as possibly illegal. Earlier this year, JBS made a commitment to achieve zero deforestation across its global supply chain by 2035 – a target that campaigners say is largely insufficient.

The report found that one-third of the fashion brands identified in the report have made a set of voluntary environmental commitments, such as no-deforestation pledges or agreeing to participate in the Leather Working Group, a global certification and membership body. But the new findings show they have been violating their own policies.

Looking ahead, the report called the fashion industry to no longer buy leather from companies that can’t source their products directly to the farm they came from and to support legislation for the cattle industry to trace its supply chain. At the same time, they should make a public pledge to both points as well as eliminate deforestation from their supply chains. 

The full report can be accessed here. 

Why Jeff Bezos’ retirement from Amazon means big things for space

Credit: Blue Origin.

In a short letter to Amazon employees on February 2, Jeff Bezos announced he would be stepping down from his role as chief executive of the company, in order to focus on other initiatives. One of these initiatives is Blue Origin, a space exploration company that has been sitting in the shadow of SpaceX for years. Will Bezos use this newly opened up time and energy to finally one-up his long-time rival Elon Musk?

Jeff Bezos: space tycoon

Bezos has had one of the most epic runs in business — ever. Starting from humble beginnings in which he bootstrapped Amazon in his garage in 1995, the company is now worth $1.7 trillion. The company first started out selling books, but now offers basically everything from kitchen appliances to container houses.

After 25 years of relentless growth, Bezos, now 57, is ready to move on to other things. In his letter, he explained he’ll transition to the role of executive chair of the Amazon board, while Andy Jassy, the current chief of the incredibly successful Amazon Web Services, will step up as CEO of the company.

However, this doesn’t mean that Bezos is ready to retire to some private island and enjoy the spoils reserved for the world’s richest person. On the contrary, he seems quite keen on pursuing his other ventures.

“Being the CEO of Amazon is a deep responsibility, and it’s consuming. When you have a responsibility like that, it’s hard to put attention on anything else. As Exec Chair I will stay engaged in important Amazon initiatives but also have the time and energy I need to focus on the Day 1 Fund, the Bezos Earth Fund, Blue Origin, The Washington Post, and my other passions. I’ve never had more energy, and this isn’t about retiring. I’m super passionate about the impact I think these organizations can have,” Bezos wrote in the farewell letter to his Amazonians.

Bezos has always been passionate about space exploration. While a student at Princeton, where he majored in electrical engineering and computer science, he headed the local chapter of Students for the Exploration and Development of Space.

But after university, he started a career in finance, working as the vice-president of a hedge fund before founding his legendary first business. Once Amazon took off, his sights were set back to space ventures.

Not a lot of people are aware of this, but Bezos actually founded Blue Origin in 2000, which is two years before Elon Musk started SpaceX.

But while SpaceX has steamrolled its competition, including NASA itself, by launching a record number of commercial satellites and astronauts to orbit, Blue Origin is lagging far behind — or at least that’s what seems to be happening.

From what we know, which is very little, Blue Origin may actually be ahead (although that’s unlikely). Since it was founded, Blue Origin has always been shrouded in mystery and secrecy.

It was only in the last five years or so that the company’s public relations started to open up, steadily emerging from stealth. Bezos himself even welcomed a group of reporters during a tour of the company’s headquarters in Kent, Washington, where he talked about some of the company’s major projects.

One of them was New Shepard, the company’s first operational rocket and the world’s first reusable rocket that touched down on a landing pad, just a couple of weeks before SpaceX demonstrated its Falcon 9 reusability in December 2015. Granted, New Shepard can only operate in the suborbital field, while Falcon 9 has a much bigger range capable of sending payloads to orbit.

New Shepard rocket gently landing. Credit: Blue Origin.

Bezos has presided over some high-profile publicity events for the company, such as the unveiling of the Blue Moon lunar lander or the first touchdown of the New Shepard reusable rocket, his role at Blue Origin has always been limited.

Up until now, Bezos devoted around one day a week to Blue Origin operations, which he kept alive by funding the company with $1 billion of his own money every year.

Building the space infrastructure of the future

While Musk’s ultimate vision is that of founding a Martian colony inhabited by thousands of people during his lifetime, Bezos is no less ambitious. His long-term vision for Blue Origin is to provide a platform where millions of people live and work in space in free-floating colonies.

That might sound like a pipedream, but the Amazon founder speaks from experience. He witnessed first-hand how computing power and bandwidth combined to create multi-trillion dollar markets for online businesses. Once space is cheap and safe, entrepreneurs will rush to the market just like they did when they felt confident the internet was mature enough.

In fact, Bezos’s idea of the future implies that for most of us Earth would be just a place to visit. Instead, someday, much of the world’s population will live and work in space, thereby sparing the planet from pollution and the encroachment of nature. We’d visit Earth as we would a national park today..

Bezos has often remarked that there have never been more than 13 humans in space at one time. He finds this reality sad and woefully unambitious, which is why he’s funneling billions of his own money to change things.

A sneak peek of this vision can be seen in the company’s upcoming projects, which include taking tourists on suborbital trips, launching satellites on its reusable rockets, as well as astronauts to the space station, and developing a lunar lander for NASA. Mirroring SpaceX’s Starlink satellite internet venture, Amazon is developing Project Kuiper, which will form a constellation of satellites meant to beam the internet to any place on Earth. Blue Origin will of course be in charge of putting all of these tiny internet satellites into orbit.

For most of the two decades since its existence, Blue Origin was often seen as Jeff Bezos’ ‘rocket company’, almost like it was some hobby, a pet project. But now that he seems more committed, Blue Origin could occupy a more central role in Bezos’ life. We know that it was his relentless drive for growth that propelled Amazon to the stratosphere, where the air is so rare only a few tech giants like Google and Apple can boast of over $1 trillion market caps. Perhaps the same attitude and energy might drive BlueOrigin to shoot for the stars. 

Amazon’s plastic packaging waste could encircle the globe 500 times

The plastic packaging of the products we buy online is actually hiding a major environmental problem, a new report showed. Amazon, considered the world’s largest retailer, was responsible for 211,000 metric tons (465 million pounds) of plastic packaging waste last year, 10,000 tons (22 million pounds) of which ended up in the world’s freshwater and marine ecosystems.

Image credit: Flickr / Marco Verch

The waste includes air pillows, bubble wrap, and other plastic packaging items added to the approximately 7 billion Amazon packages delivered in 2019, said Oceana, an ocean conservation organization, who published the report. The plastic packaging waste would be enough to circle the Earth more than 500 times, the authors of the report said.

Oceana also did a survey with more than 5,000 Amazon customers in the UK, the US, and Canada in 2020 and found that 86% were concerned about plastic pollution and its impact on the oceans. At the same time, 87% said they wanted online retailers like Amazon to offer plastic-free packaging choices at checkout.

“The amount of plastic waste generated by the company is staggering and growing at a frightening rate,” Oceana’s Senior Vice President, Matt Littlejohn, said in a statement. “The plastic packaging and waste generated by Amazon’s packages is mostly destined, not for recycling, but for the landfill, the incinerator, or the environment.”

Plastic is a massive source of pollution and is creating a big effect on the world’s oceans. Studies estimated that 90% of all seabirds and more than half of all sea turtles have ingested plastic. The wild creatures mistake the kind of plastic used by Amazon for food, which can ultimately prove fatal. Only 9% of all plastic ever produced has been recycled.

Most of Amazon’s plastic packaging is not really recyclable

Oceana said that the type of plastic often used in packaging by Amazon, known as plastic film, is largely not recycled, despite the company’s claims of recyclability. The company has some collection programs in grocery stores but in practice, most of the packaging ends up in curbside recycling bins.

Anthony Brocato, who manages Recology’s sorting plant in South Seattle, said the plastic mailers from Amazon are so stiff and thin that they end up in the streams of paper. At the same time, the air pillows become trapped in screens used to separate different materials, making the facility less effective.

A Greenpeace report published earlier this year showed that most of the plastics that Amazon uses in its packaging in the US are either not recyclable or have little value in the recycling market. And even when plastics are actually recyclable, there’s still a lack of recycling facilities and a low return rate.

The report raises difficult questions for Amazon’s founded Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, who created the “Earth Fund” to support climate action. Still, Oceana claims the company has already implemented changes in India, where it eliminated plastic packaging due to local law, and could do the same elsewhere.

The company said it uses about a quarter of Oceana’s estimate, according to an email reply to The Verge. Still, if that’s actually the case, Amazon would have used more than 53,000 metric tons (116 million pounds) of plastic packaging last year. The exact figure wasn’t included in its most recent sustainability report published last September.

Amazon has said in the past that since 2015 it has reduced the weight of its outbound packaging by more than 33% and cut out 900,000 tons of packaging material. It also claimed to have taken measures to make its packaging easier to recycle and that it will recycle as much as 7,000 tons of plastic film at 55 of its fulfillment centers per year.

“Amazon continues to, in response to questions about plastic use, offer anecdotes about packaging weight rather than transparency,” a spokesperson for Oceana told The Verge. “Even the low number claimed by the company for its plastic packaging footprint would still be an enormous amount of plastic waste.”

Oceana suggested Amazon to “aggressively” scale up its existing in-company programs to reduce plastic packaging, as well as broadening the use of reusable containers. They called on Amazon to improve sustainability transparency around reporting on plastic usage, and to take into account the environmental impact of plastics in its decision.

Large parts of the Amazon rainforest risks turning to savannah

As much as 40% of the Amazon, the world’s largest rainforest, could be on the verge of crossing a tipping point and converting into a savannah, according to a new study. Rainforests are sensitive to changes in rainfall and moisture levels. Fires and droughts can also lead to areas losing trees and shifting to a savannah.

Credit Flickr Katarina.

The findings are especially concerning because parts of the Amazon region, which includes nine countries in Latin America, are currently receiving less rain than they were previously. This trend is expected to worsen as the region gets warmer due to rising levels of greenhouse gas emissions. The Brazilian Amazon is now dealing with the worst forest fire season in a decade.

A shift from rainforest to savannah would take decades to take full effect, but once it starts it’s hard to reverse. Rainforests support a much broader range of species than savannah and play a larger part in absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. While rainforests have trees, savannah has a mix of woodland and grassland.

“In around 40% of the Amazon, the rainfall is now at a level where the forest could exist in either state—rainforest or savanna, according to our findings,” said in a statement lead author Arie Staal, a former postdoctoral researcher at the Stockholm Resilience Center and the Copernicus Institute of Utrecht University.

Alongside a team of Europe-based scientists, Staal used the latest available atmospheric data to simulate how tropical forests might respond to changing rainfall levels. In particular, they simulated the effect of continued emissions from burning fossil fuels between now and the end of the century.

Staal said that rainforests normally generate their own rainfall through water vapour, sustaining tree growth and even extending their reach. But the inverse is also true. When precipitation levels fall, the forests begin to disappear. It’s a vicious cycle, Staal said. Forests shrink, we get less rainfall and this causes drying, leading to more fires and less forest.

The study explored the resilience of tropical rainforests under two additional extreme scenarios. In the first, researchers looked at how fast the world’s forests would grow back if they suddenly disappeared. The second looked at what would happen if rainforests covered all tropical regions on Earth

They found that many of the world’s rainforests would struggle to grow back once lost, leading to a far wider savanna-like mix of woodland and grassland. In addition to the Amazon loss, the team found that the forest in the Congo basin was at risk of changing to savanna and that large swathes would not grow back once gone.

“We understand now that rainforests on all continents are very sensitive to global change and can rapidly lose their ability to adapt,” said in a statement Ingo Fetzer, also from the Stockholm Resilience Centre. “Once gone, their recovery will take many decades to return to their original state,” he said.

The study was published in the journal Nature Communications.

Fires in Brazil’s Amazon are the worst in a decade

The Brazilian Amazon is experiencing the worst expansion of forest fires in almost ten years, according to official figures released by the government yesterday. Fires increased 14% in the first nine months of the year compared with a year ago, as the rainforest sees a severe drought.

Image credits: NASA.

The space research agency INPE recorded in September a whopping 32,017 fire hotspots in the Brazilian Amazon — a 61% increase from the same month in 2019. August had already surpassed last year’s single-month high, showing a worrying trendin the world’s largest rainforest.

“We have had two months with a lot of fire. It’s already worse than last year,” Ane Alencar, science director for Brazil’s Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM), told Reuters news agency. “It could get worse if the drought continues. We are at the mercy of the rain,” Alencar added.

The Amazon is experiencing a more severe dry season than last year, which scientists link in part to warming in the tropical North Atlantic Ocean pulling moisture away from South America. The entire Amazon, which spans over nine countries (60% of the rainforest is contained within Brazil), currently has 28,892 active fires, according to a fire monitoring tool from NASA.

This time of the year is usually the beginning of the fire season in the Amazon, as farmers and ranchers who have felled trees on their land take advantage of the dryer weather to set them on fire. While this is the common practice, its extension suggests deforestation is ramping up in several areas of the Brazilian Amazon, presumably due to intensified ranch activity.

Environmentalists link the forest fires with President Bolsonaro’s vision of economic development, which essentially allows illegal loggers, cattle ranchers, and miners to destroy the forest with little to no repercussion. Bolsonaro has repeatedly said that mining and farming are needed to take people out of poverty and has shown a lack of interest for the Amazon and has shown no concern for the environmental preservation of the Amazon.

The warming of the North Atlantic is also helping drive drought in the Brazilian Pantanal, the world’s largest wetland, which has suffered more fires this year than ever previously recorded, according to official data. A Federal University of Rio de Janeiro analysis found that 23% of the wetlands have already burned. Earlier this week, Bolsonaro, an ally of US President Donald Trump, questioned US Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden for “disastrous and unnecessary” comments on the destruction of the rainforest. Biden said if elected he would raise $20 billion to help Brazil to “stop tearing down” the Amazon.

Later, in a video address to a UN biodiversity summit, Bolsonaro said Brazil was “firm in its commitment to sustainable development and preserving our environmental wealth.” At the same time, he accused “certain non-governmental organizations” of perpetrating “environmental crimes” to stain the country’s image. But Bolsonaro’s actions do little to match his words.

Brazil is coming under growing pressure from foreign governments, international investors and trading partners over the scale of deforestation and forest fires. In June, investment firms managing nearly $4 trillion in assets sent an open letter to Bolsonaro, urging him to change policies.

Fires devastate the world’s largest tropical wetland in Brazil

The world’s largest tropical wetland, the Pantanal, is burning at a record speed in Brazil, with fires expanding fast and threatening its biodiversity. This is happening on a backdrop of a record fire season in the whole Amazon region, with President Bolsonaro being questioned by the international community.

The Pantanal. Credit WWF

With an area of 150,000 square kilometers, the Pantanal crosses the Brazilian border and extends through Bolivia and Paraguay. It’s known for its impressive biodiversity, attracting visitors from around the world eager to see jaguars, caimans, toucans, monkeys, giant otters, and many other species living there.

“Very few animals survive. The ones that do often suffer very severe effects. They’re burned to the bone, they often have to be euthanized, or die of hunger and thirst,” said Juliana Camargo, head of wildlife conservation group AMPARA Animal, in a statement. “The only hope is for it to rain, but that’s not expected until November.”

Nevertheless, over the last few months, the area has been challenged by record flames, fueled by an extended drought in the region. So far 12,567 fires have been recorded in the Brazilian Pantanal, which is more than in all 2018 and 2019, according to satellite data collected by Brazil’s national space agency INPE.

The flames even reached the Encontro das Aguas State Park, a nature reserve known as the home to the world’s biggest jaguar population. The park is crisscrossed by five rivers and spans 109,000 hectares or 270,000 acres. According to state authorities, firefighters are trying to protect the farms, hotels and the park itself.

Júlio Cesar Sampaio, leader of WWF-Brazil’s Pantanal Initiative, said the region is seeing one of the worst droughts in the last 47 years. The water level in the Paraguay River, which is one of the most important in the biome, is critical. While climate change partly explains the drought, human actions also have accelerated the degradation of the Pantanal, he said.

In fact, most of the fires that have happened over the past few weeks started with fires made to clean cultivation areas or pastures. The Pantanal is facing large pressures because of the extensive agriculture and livestock activities in the whole Amazon region, which have been encouraged by President Bolsonaro since he took office.

Farmers and ranchers introduce non-native crops to the region, as they burn more easily than native vegetation, forestry engineer Vinicius Silgueiro of the Life Center Institute (ICV), said. The government has cut funds for environmental protection agencies, creating a widespread sense of impunity, he argued.

The Amazon fires

The Pantanal crisis is part of a larger forest fire problem across all the Amazon region in Brazil. Satellite images showed a record number of 29,307 fires in August, the second-highest number in a decade and only 5.2% lower than the absolute highest, in August 2019.

Environmentalists link the forest fires with Bolsonaro’s vision of economic development, which essentially allows illegal loggers, cattle ranchers, and miners to destroy the forest. Bolsonaro has repeatedly said mining and farming are needed to take people out of poverty and has shown a lack of interest for the Amazon’s conservation.

The Brazilian president is doing his best to undermine the Amazon. He came to power promoting an agenda based on more extractive activities in the Amazon, even asking Congress to change environmental protection laws and to cut the budget and staff of the federal environmental protection agency IBAMA.

Under growing pressure from global leaders, Bolsonaro recently deployed the army to the Amazon to crack down on deforestation and fires, and decreed a ban on all agricultural burning. But environmentalists remain critical of the far-right leader, asking for further action to better protect the country’s natural resources.

Burning in the Amazon is already reaching the record levels seen in 2019

Despite pressure from civil society and foreign investors, forest fires seem to be unstoppable in the Brazilian Amazon. The number of fires last month was the second-highest for August in a decade. This nears the crisis level that led to a global outrage last year against the Jair Bolsonaro administration.

Credit CIFOR Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Satellite images gathered by Brazilian space agency INPE showed a record number of 29,307 fires in August, the second highest number in a decade and only 5.2% lower than the absolute highest, in August 2019. The number might have even been larger than reported as one of the satellites had technical problems, INPE said.

Last year the number of forest fires in Brazil rose 200% in August compared to the same month in 2018, reaching 30,900 and sending smoke all across the country. This created a global alarm regarding the devastation of the world’s largest rainforest, highly important as a carbon source and for its biodiversity.

But that’s just the environmental costs. A recent report by a group of health and environmental organizations highlighted the health costs of the fires, estimating they caused 2,195 hospitalizations due to respiratory illness last year. This includes 500 infants under one year old and more than 1,000 over 60.

“The data confirm the failure of the costly and badly planned operation by the Brazilian armed forces in the Amazon, which the Bolsonaro government has tried to substitute for a real plan to fight deforestation,” said in a press release the Climate Observatory, a group of Brazilian environmental NGOs.

Slash and burn

August is usually the beginning of the fire season in the Amazon, as farmers and ranchers who have felled trees on their land take advantage of the dryer weather to set them on fire. While this is the common practice, its extension suggests deforestation is ramping up in several areas of the Brazilian Amazon.

Environmentalists link the forest fires with Bolsonaro’s vision of economic development, which essentially allows illegal loggers, cattle ranchers, and miners to destroy the forest. Bolsonaro has repeatedly said mining and farming are needed to take people out of poverty and has shown a lack of interest for the Amazon.

The Brazilian president is doing his best to undermine the Amazon. He came to power promoting an agenda based on more extractive activities in the Amazon, even asking Congress to change environmental protection laws and to cut the budget and staff of the federal environmental protection agency IBAMA.

Under growing pressure from global leaders, Bolsonaro recently deployed the army to the Amazon to crack down on deforestation and fires, and decreed a ban on all agricultural burning. But environmentalists remain critical of the far-right leader, asking for further action to better protect the country’s natural resources.

“Last year, images of the Amazon in flames made headlines around the world. This year, the tragedy is repeating itself. Yet the government wants to cut the (environment ministry’s) budget next year,” Romulo Batista, spokesman for environmental group Greenpeace, said in a statement, accusing Bolsonaro of “dismantling” Brazil’s environmental protection agencies.

While Bolsonaro dismisses any sense of urgency, international pressure is mounting on Brazil to protect the Amazon. Global investors managing more than US$2 trillion threatened to pull back their investments if Bolsonaro doesn’t take action. However, Bolsonaro’s outward denial of facts seems to spell more trouble for the Amazon.

Environmentalists argue there’s no time to lose. The tropical forest is close to a tipping point as deforestation could alter the entire forest’s ecology and turn large areas into an arid savanna, with devastating consequences not only for the Amazon but for the entire planet’s climate.

Bolsonaro calls Amazon fires a “lie”, dismisses own government data

Facing a global pressure over his environmental policies, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro described the fires in the Amazon rainforest as a ‘lie’, despite data from his own administration actually shows that there are thousands of open fires across the tropical region.

Aerial view of a large burned area in the city of Candeiras do Jamari in the state of Rondonia. Credit Greenpeace

A report from Brazil’s national space research agency INPE showed that in the first 10 days of August forest fires were up 17% compared to the same period last year. Deforestation has grown 34.5% in the 12-months through July compared to the same period a year ago, according to INPE.

Nevertheless, Bolsonaro contested the data, claiming that those traveling by air in the Brazilian territory wouldn’t see a single flame.

“They won’t find any spot of fire, nor a quarter of a hectare deforested,” he said in a meeting of members of the Leticia Pact, an agreement between Amazon countries to protect the rainforest.

“This story that the Amazon is going up in flames is a lie and we must combat it with true numbers,” Bolsonaro said, claiming that Brazil proved that it can protect the Amazon alone as most of the forest is still standing. He said media and foreign governments are presenting a “false narrative” about the Amazon.

Nevertheless, environmentalists argue that isn’t the case. They link the forest fires with Bolsonaro’s vision of economic development, which essentially allows illegal loggers, cattle ranchers, and miners to destroy the forest. Bolsonaro has repeatedly said mining and farming are needed to take people out of poverty and has shown a lack of interest for the Amazonian environment.

There are over 240 satellite images of fires uploaded on Planet. This is just one of them.

“This is not because of government incompetence in combating devastation; it has been happening because the Bolsonaro administration’s agenda is to actively promote devastation. This is not incompetence; it’s a design,” said the Climate Observatory, a group comprised of more than 30 non-governmental organizations from Brazil.

It should surprise no one that the Brazilian president is doing his best to undermine the Amazon. Bolsonaro came to power promoting an agenda based on more extractive activities in the Amazon. He even asked Congress to change environmental protection laws and cut the budget and the staff of the federal environmental protection agency IBAMA, recently replacing its managers and coordinators.

The red dots represent the current forest fires in the Amazon forest. Credit Greenpeace

Back in May, a video of a governmental meeting showed Environmental Minister Ricardo Salles claiming the government should take advantage of the media’s focus on the Covid-19 pandemic to loosen the environmental restrictions. The video was disclosed as part of a Supreme Court investigation. The deregulation of the Amazon has been a core part of the Bolsonaro approach so far.

When deregulation could not be done, it’s lack of enforcement. Environmental groups have called the government to better penalize the major loggers in order to truly protect the Amazon, using not only sanctions but also blocking bank accounts, for example. A study by InfoAmazonia showed that only 3% of the fines imposed since October 2019 were actually paid.

International pressure

While Bolsonaro dismisses any sense of urgency, international pressure is mounting on Brazil to protect the Amazon, the largest rainforest in the world and a vital ecosystem to preserve climate change. Global investors managing more than US$2 trillion threatened to pull back their investments if Bolsonaro doesn’t take action. However, Bolsonaro’s outward denial of facts seems to spell more trouble for the Amazon.

But there are some good news yet.

The Brazilian government launched in June the Green Brazil Operation 2, a military mission headed by the Vice President Hamilton Mourão with the aim of curbing illegal deforestation.

“Our goal is to take the fires in the second half (of the year) to the minimum acceptable,” Mourão said in a press conference.

Bolsonaro also said last week his administration will launch a sustainable development fund in partnership with the Inter-American Development Bank. It will be “an innovative financial mechanism for countries in the region and investors willing to promote the bioeconomy with respect for our standards,” he argued. Whether or not this project will be carried out responsible remains to be seen.

Environmentalists argue there’s no time to lose. The tropical forest is close to a tipping point when deforestation could alter the entire forest’s ecology and turn large areas into an arid savanna, with devastating consequences not only for the Amazon, but for the entire planet’s climate.

Fires in the Brazilian Amazon last month were the worst since 2007

Forest fires in the Brazilian Amazon rose 19.5% in June compared to the same month last year, making it the worst June in 13 years. With such an increase, environmental organizations are worried that this year could surpass the disastrous fires registered last year across the Amazon.

Credit Flickr

Last month was the start of the dry season in the Amazon and 2,248 forest fires were recorded, according to the National Institute for Space Research (INPE). But the worst is actually expected in August. Last year there were more than 30,000 fires that month, a figure that will likely be exceeded this year.

Most of the forest fires in the Brazilian Amazon are caused by arson and are directly linked to deforestation, often caused by crop farmers for cultivation. Deforestation was high this year even before the start of the dry season, with more than 2,000 square kilometers lost between January and May.

INPE estimates that 9,000 square kilometers of jungle already cut down since last year could go up in flames before August begins. This also has indirect consequences, as the smoke could aggravate the chaotic situation caused by the coronavirus outbreak in Brazil. The country already has the world’s second-highest number of cases.

Environmental organizations have accused Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro of promoting deforestation by calling for the legalization of farming and mining activities in protected zones. “We cannot allow the 2019 situation to repeat itself,” Mauricio Voivodic, executive director of the WWF NGO in Brazil, told local media.

Bolsonaro has repeatedly dismissed the criticism of his handling of the Amazon, claiming the rainforest belongs to Brazil and that its natural resources should be used for the economic development of the country. Foreign interest in the Amazon is only due to their intention of controlling its mineral resources, he has said.

Defiantly, the country’s Environment Minister Ricardo Salles had said the government should take advantage of the fact that people are distracted by the coronavirus epidemic to move forward in the deregulation of environmental policies. “We have to push through and change all the rules,” he said.

The Amazon spans multiple South American countries but most of it (60%) lies in Brazil. Usually described as the lungs of the Earth, the Amazon is a key carbon sink that slows down the pace of global warming. It is also highly relevant for biodiversity as it hosts about three million species of plants and animals.

Many researchers have argued that the Amazon could be close to “the tipping point,” when its nature completely changes. This will actually happen when total deforestation in the area reaches between 20% and 25%, something that could happen in the next 20 or 30 years.

A study in February showed Amazon’s capacity to absorb carbon dioxide (CO2) is now being impaired because of illegal logging, especially in Brazil. During the last 10 years, up to 20% of the Amazon has become a net source of CO2 in the atmosphere, a piece of very bad news for the world’s climate.

The soil of the Amazon is filled with fungi – and we should do more to protect it

Just a teaspoon of Amazonian soil contains as many as 1,800 microscopic life forms, of which up to 400 were classified as fungi, a new study found. Researchers described the fungal diversity as the “dark matter” of life on Earth, calling for further protection of the Amazon to study it.

Credit Flickr

Fungi are a key component of tropical biodiversity. However, due to their inconspicuous and largely subterranean nature, they are usually neglected in biodiversity inventories. Most of the estimated 3.8 million fungi in the world haven’t been formally classified yet.

If there’s a place where fungi are abundant in the soil, that’s the Brazilian Amazon rainforest. And in order to help protect the area, currently challenged by extractive activities such as deforestation and mining, it’s essential to understand the ecological role of fungi, researchers have argued.

“Take a teaspoon of soil and you will find hundreds or thousands of species. Fungi are the next frontier of biodiversity science,” Alexandre Antonelli, director of science at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and co-author of the study, told the BBC.

Antonelli and his team characterized fungal communities across Amazonia using environmental samples of soil and litter. They sampled four representative localities across the Brazilian Amazonia: Benjamin Constant, to the south of the Amazon river, Jaú, located to the west, Caxiuanã, located to the south, and Cuieras, located to the east.

The researchers sampled all depths of the litter layer above the mineral soil (all organic matter, including leaves, roots, and animal debris) and the top 5 cm of the mineral soil in a total of 39 circular plots. They also chose 20 random trees inside each plot and collected litter and soil on both sides of each tree. Then they pooled the samples by substrate to produce one litter sample and one soil sample per plot.

Genetic analysis of the samples showed hundreds of different fungi, including lichen, fungi living on the roots of plants, and fungal pathogens, most of which are unknown or extremely rare. Most species have yet to be named and investigated. Areas of naturally open grasslands, known as campinas, were found to be the richest habitat for fungi overall.

“We were surprised to find that campinas were, on average, the richest habitat for fungi. This stands in contrast to patterns observed for animals and plants. One explanation for the campinas being the richest environment may be the need for plants to associate with micro‐organisms that fix nutrients in the poor soil habitats,” the researchers wrote.

Fungi are highly important for recycling nutrients, regulating carbon dioxide levels, and as a source of food and medicines. Yet, some species can also affect trees, crops and other plants across the world, wiping out animals such as amphibians. Fungi in soil from tropical countries are particularly poorly understood.

The findings highlight the need to improve our understanding of the patterns and drivers of fungal diversity and community composition, the researchers argued. This is one of the most diverse eukaryotic kingdoms, whose members play key roles in nutrient cycling and biotic interactions in terrestrial ecosystems, they added.

“Deforestation of Amazonia is increasing rapidly and to protect this vast biome it is fundamental to understand the processes underpinning ecosystem stability. For this, we have to identify and understand the distribution and diversity of organisms essential for ecosystem functionality, including fungi,” the team concluded.

The study was published in the journal Ecology & Evolution.

Brazilian Amazon readies for record burn season this year amid coronavirus

An area 11 times the size of New York City could be incinerated this year in the Brazilian Amazon as the annual fire season is set to begin soon. A new report warns that the country could see a “catastrophe” if the peak of the fires overlaps with the current coronavirus epidemic.

According to the Institute for Environmental Research in the Amazon (IPAM), as many as 4,500 square kilometers (1,740 square miles) have already been readied for burns starting July, when the region’s dry season and blazes begin. This would be larger than the forest fires registered last year — when images of the burning Amazon circled the world, shocking readers from all corners of the planet.

Every year, farmers around the Amazon burn down some parts of the rainforest to expand farming activity. Sometimes, the burns are legal; other times, they are not.

As president Jair Bolsonaro continues to cut down on environmental protections, this year is shaping up to be a disaster for the Amazon.

The burned area could even double to some 9,000 square kilometers as tree felling continues, said IPAM, citing data from Brazil’s national space institute. Researchers have already detected the “first major fire of 2020” in the Brazilian Amazon three months ahead of the fire season, so the outlook isn’t positive.

Unlike last year, little stands now on the way of growing deforestation in Brazil. The government officials that have to patrol the rainforest have been sidelined due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has been used by the Brazilian government as an opportunity to weaken environmental regulations and enforcement.

“Deforestation is almost entirely a reflection of public policy signals from President Bolsonaro’s government,” Tasso Azevedo, general coordinator at MapBiomas, a land-use monitoring platform, told Bloomberg. “And what he’s signaling is that illegal actors won’t be punished.”

The smoke generated by a larger fire season could aggravate the chaotic situation caused by the coronavirus outbreak in Brazil. The country already has the world’s second-highest number of cases, at 672,846, according to the Johns Hopkins University site, with growing concerns on the country’s most vulnerable communities. Adding the burden of respiratory problems caused by rainforest burning could be catastrophic for the country’s health system.

Last year, air pollution rose 53% in the Amazon cities near the burned forest and the number of respiratory conditions surged. Health clinics and hospitals in Brazil typically see an increase in patients in the periods when the country experiences forest fires. But beds are already occupied by those infected with the coronavirus. The northern areas of Brazil could see the higher risk, as its death rates from coronavirus exceed by twice the national average.

President Bolsonaro has repeatedly dismissed the criticism towards the situation at the Amazon, claiming the rainforest belongs to Brazil and that its natural resources should be used for the economic development of the country. Foreign interest on the Amazon is only due to countries’ desire to control its mineral resources, he has said.

Defiantly, the country’s Environment Minister Ricardo Salles had said the government should take advantage of the fact that people are distracted by the coronavirus epidemic to move forward in the deregulation of environmental policies. “We have to push through and change all the rules,” he said.

Deforestation and fires in the Amazon rainforest could bring about the next pandemic

Credit: Matt Zimmerman.

The coronavirus that originated in Wuhan, China, swept the world fast and furiously — and we’re barely starting to experience the first wave of the pandemic. However, to biologists and virologists, the sudden appearance of the coronavirus wasn’t surprising. It is simply a natural consequence of humans disturbing ecosystems in equilibrium and wildlife trade, something that we’ve done at an increasing rate with each passing decade.

Pandemics such as COVID-19 might become increasingly frequent as humans continue unabated on their course to expand their range at the expense of wildlife.

High rates of deforestation in Asia over the last four decades have prompted many scientists to sound the alarm, warning the world of the risk of dangerous microorganisms migrating to humans.

That’s because certain wildlife, especially rodents, bats, and primates, are reservoirs for pathogens that are new to the human immune system. By clearing their habitat, we dramatically increase the risk of a spillover event, like it happened in Wuhan.

This risk is very much real. In 2002-2003 we had SARS, in 2012 there was MERS, and now we have SARS-CoV-2, the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Who’s next?

Southeast Asia is one of the regions of the globe with the highest population growth rates, as well as a high rate of deforestation.

Much of the same can be said about the Amazon, which has experienced wide-scale destruction since the turn of the last century, particularly in recent decades.

In 2019, 9,762 square kilometers (3,769 square miles) of the Brazilian Amazon rainforest was cleared — the highest level in ten years. This trend has actually increased even under the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic, doubling from August 2019 to March 2020, compared to the same period in 2018-2019.

What’s particularly depressing is that illegal deforestations and land grabbing in the Amazon at an unprecedented rate are all openly encouraged by the Brazilian head of state, Jair Bolsonaro. Climate News Network reports that the so-called Amazon Council, which was set up by Bolsonaro’s cabinet, “does not include a single scientist, environmentalist or Amazon researcher, or even any experts from the government agencies for the environment and indigenous affairs.”

According to various studies, there’s a direct relationship between deforestation and the increase of disease incidence in the Amazon. One 2015 study of the populations of 773 Amazon towns found that for each 1% of cleared forest, malaria cases spiked by 23%.

The world is teeming with viruses, most of them unknown to humans

In a new study published in the Annals of the Brazilian Academy, Brazilian researchers found that deforestation in the Amazon not only exacerbates climate change but also increases the risk of unleashing a new pandemic.

“Amazonia has a prominent role in regulating the Earth’s climate, with forest loss contributing to rising regional and global temperatures and intensification of extreme weather events. These climatic conditions are important drivers of emerging infectious diseases, and activities associated with deforestation contribute to the spread of disease vectors,” the authors wrote.

These findings reiterate a 2019 statement made by an international group of experts on zoonotic diseases.

“The Amazon region of Brazil, endemic for many communicable or zoonotic diseases can, after a wildfire, trigger a selection for survival, and with it change the habitat and behaviors of some animal species. These can be reservoirs of zoonotic bacteria, viruses, and parasites,” the authors wrote.

To all of us, the message should be clear: if we’re to avert or at least delay the onset of the next devastating pandemic, we need to heed scientists’ warnings. The truth is that it’s not just the Amazon; wide-scale disruption is taking place all over the world, from Congo to Indonesia. Even the Arctic is a dangerous hotspot, as the thawing permafrost contains many unknown dormant viruses.

The Amazon was an early agricultural hotspot, new study shows

The Amazon is a vast region that spans across eight rapidly developing countries in Latin America. Harboring half of the planet’s remaining tropical forest, it is one of the most important biodiversity hotspots of the world.

A forest island in the Amazon. Credit José Capriles

The Amazon is now severely affected by deforestation, both legal and illegal, mainly to make room for agriculture. While this effect was seen as being something recent, some regions of the Amazon were now found to have been profoundly altered by humans dating back 10,000 years.

Crops were first domesticated in China, with the extensive use of rice, in the Middle East, with grains and pulses, Mesoamerica, with beans and squash, and the Andres, with potatoes and quinoa. But those weren’t the only regions that engaged in agriculture.

Everybody was kung-fu-farming

A study discovered a fifth global domestication area of early agriculture in the southwestern Amazonia. Squash, manioc and other edibles were used as garden plants during the early Holocene, over 10.000 years ago, modifying the landscape in the region.

“Our results confirm the Llanos de Moxos as a hotspot for early plant cultivation, and demonstrate that ever since their arrival, humans have caused a profound alteration of Amazonian landscapes, with lasting repercussions for habitat heterogeneity and species conservation,” the researchers wrote.

Located in Bolivia, the Llanos de Moxos is a savannah of approximately 48,700 square miles in southwestern Amazonia. It has a landscape dotted by earthworks, including raised fields, mounds, canals, and forest islands. The researchers looked at the forest islands located within the vast savannah for signs of early gardening.

“We basically mapped large sections of forest islands using remote sensing,” said José Capriles, assistant professor of anthropology, Penn State. “We hypothesized that the regularly shaped forest islands had anthropic origin.”

There are more than 4,700 artificial forest islands in the Llanos de Moxos savannah according to the researchers, who looked at approximately 30 of these islands and showed that many might have served as human planting areas.

“Archaeological evidence for plant domestication is very poorly available, especially in Amazonia where the climate destroys most organic materials,” said Capriles. “There is no stone in this area because it is an alluvial plain (water deposited) and it is hard to find evidence of early hunter-gatherers.”

Amazonian crops

The researchers analyzed phytoliths, tiny mineral particles that form inside plants, from radio-carbon-dated samples taken from forest island archaeological excavations and sedimentary cores. The shape of the silica-based phytoliths depends on the plants in which they form, allowing archaeologists to identify the plants that were grown in the forest islands.

The team found evidence of manioc 10,350 years ago, and squash 10,250 years ago. Early maize appears 6,850 years ago. Manioc, squash, maize and other carbohydrate-rich foods such as sweet potato and peanuts probably made up the bulk of the diet in Llanos de Moxos, supplemented by fish and large herbivores.

Researchers have argued for many years that this area was a probable center of early plant domestication because many important cultivars like manioc, squash, peanuts and some varieties of chili pepper and beans are genetically very close to wild plants living here.

The data indicate that the earliest inhabitants of Southwestern Amazonia were not just hunter-gatherers, but engaged in plant cultivation in the early Holocene. The earliest people in the area may have arrived in the region already possessing a mixed economy.

“It’s interesting in that it confirms again that domestication begins at the start of the Holocene period, when we have this climate change that we see as we exit from the ice age,” said Lombardo. “We entered this warm period, when all over the world at the same time, people start cultivating.”

The study was published in the journal Nature.

The Amazon is on its way to becoming a full carbon source, researchers claim

The Amazon in South America is one of the most biodiverse areas of the world and one of the few remaining rainforests in the world. It plays a key role in maintaining Earth’s climate because of its capacity to absorb carbon dioxide (CO2), a greenhouse gas causing global warming.

Credit Wikipedia Commons

But the Amazon’s capacity to absorb CO2 is now being impaired because of illegal logging, especially in Brazil. A study carried out during the last 10 years (not yet published), shows that 20% of the Amazon is now a net source of CO2 in the atmosphere.

The results mean the Amazon could be on its way to become a carbon source faster than originally estimated. This is bad news for the world’s climate, as countries seek to fulfill the Paris Agreement, with the goal of limiting temperature increase to 2ºC (or ideally 1.5ºC).

Deforestation soared in Brazil in 2019 and the trend seems to continue this year. A total of 280 square kilometers, or 108 square miles, were cleared in January, 108% more than the same month last year and a record for the month, according to Brazil’s space research agency INPE.

Researcher Luciana Gatti from INPE worked with a group of researchers to measure greenhouse gas emission levels in the Amazon basin every two weeks for the past 10 years. To do so, they used an aircraft with sensors that flew over different parts of the rainforest in Brazil.

Forests can shift from being a carbon sink to a carbon source after the death of trees, caused for example by logging. And that’s what happened in a large area of the Amazon. According to the team’s measurements, a part of the rainforest is now a carbon source, while the rest of the rainforest remains capable to absorb CO2.

“Each year is worse,” Gatti told BBC News. “We observed that this area in the south-east is an important source of carbon. And it doesn’t matter whether it is a wet year or a dry year. 2017-18 was a wet year, but it didn’t make any difference.”

The finding by Gatti and her team means the Amazon could soon be reaching a tipping point, after which it will lose the capacity to renew itself and instead emit more carbon than it’s capable of absorbing. Researchers have long warned of this possibility, which now seems more real than ever.

Carlos Nobre, who worked with Gatti on the study, said that half of the rainforest, shared by several countries in South America, could transform into a savanna in the next 30 years. This would mean the release of massive amounts of CO2 and negative effects on the biodiversity of the region.

Last year Brazil declared a state of emergency due to a record number of forest fires in the Amazon. Almost 73,000 fires were detected, which represented the highest number since 2013 and an increase of 83% from 2018. Those fires were directly connected to illegal logging to expand agriculture in Brazil.

Tropical forests and coral reefs are buckling under interacting threats

Climate change, extreme weather, and human pressure are causing ecosystems across the tropics to collapse, a new study reports.

Image via Stokpic

The authors analyzed over 100 locations where tropical forests and coral reefs have been affected by hurricanes, floods, heatwaves, droughts, fires, and other types of extreme climate. The findings expand our understanding of the health of these ecosystems, especially in the wider context of climate change and damage caused by human activity.

The findings weren’t encouraging. The team echoes previous research and warns that only decreasing CO2 emissions can help reverse the damaging trend of climate change on ecosystems.

Compounding issues

“Tropical forests and coral reefs are very important for global biodiversity, so it is extremely worrying that they are increasingly affected by both climate disturbances and human activities,” says lead researcher Dr. Filipe França from the Embrapa Amazônia Oriental in Brazil and Lancaster University. “Many local threats to tropical forests and coral reefs, such as deforestation, overfishing, and pollution, reduce the diversity and functioning of these ecosystems. This in turn can make them less able to withstand or recover from extreme weather.”

“Our research highlights the extent of the damage which is being done to ecosystems and wildlife in the tropics by these interacting threats.”

Climate change is causing an increase in the frequency and strength of storms and marine heatwaves, which are very damaging to coral reefs; they both reduce the cover of live coral (i.e. they shrink reefs) and cause long-lasting changes in coral and fish communities, which reduce their ability to reduce further impacts.

On land, tropical forests are also threatened by more frequent and extreme hurricanes, the team explains. Such storms cause the destruction of plants which in turn affects the whole of the ecosystem, as animals, birds, and insects directly rely on the plants for food and shelter. The team explains that in some regions, such as the Caribbean, extreme weather events have decimated wildlife by more than half.

Finally, the interplay between higher average temperatures and shifting precipitation patterns has led to a rise in large-scale wildfires in the tropics, the team explains.

“We are starting to see another wave of global extinctions of tropical birds as forest fragmentation reduces populations to critical levels,” explained Dr Alexander Lees, from Manchester Metropolitan University, co-author of the paper.

The team took the 2015 El Niño as an example. One of the areas that felt its impact the most was Santarém, a city in the Brazilian state of Pará, which experienced “a severe drought and extensive forest fires” that affected local wildlife, the team explains. The drought associated with El Niño impaired the forests’ ability to recover from these fires by affecting dung beetles. The species plays a key role in spreading seeds in the forest, and the dry conditions during the 2015-2016 El Niño caused their activity levels to plummet. Coral reefs were also critically damaged by the same El Niño, explains Professor Nick Graham from Lancaster University.

“The 2015-16 coral bleaching event was the worst ever recorded, with many locations globally losing vast tracts of valuable corals,” he explained.

“Worryingly, these global bleaching events are becoming more frequent due to the rise in ocean temperature from global warming.”

The team underlines that we need new conservation strategies to help ecosystems — especially rainforests and coral reefs — handle multiple, concurrent threats and that we need them fast. However, they also explain that local action may simply not be enough if we don’t tackle global climate change.

The paper “Climatic and local stressor interactions threaten tropical forests and coral reefs” has been published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

The Amazon is facing its tipping point, scientists warn

Reaching most headlines this year because of a set of forest fires, the Amazon in South America represents more than half of the remaining rainforest and is one of the most biodiverse places of the world. Nevertheless, the region is already close to its tipping point, researchers warned.

The Amazon has its own hydrological cycle through which rainforest trees regulate evaporation, transpiration, and rainfall in the region. Nevertheless, as tree cover is loss, droughts are intensified. For the rainforest, not getting enough rain means trees die off and transform into a form of savanna or shrubland.

Climate scientist Carlos Nobre and conservation biologist Thomas Lovejoy in a new science policy editorial warned the Amazon is on a self-destruct mode, dealing with the consequences of growing deforestation and the effects of climate change in recent years.

“Current deforestation is substantial and frightening: 17% across the entire Amazon basin and approaching 20% in the Brazilian Amazon,” they wrote in Science Advances. “We are scientists who have been studying the Amazon and all its wondrous assets for many decades. Today, we stand exactly in a moment of destiny: The tipping point is here, it is now.”

For the researchers, the solution to the changes currently experienced in the region is an ambitious reforestation program, improving the quality of life in most Amazonian cities and the development of a bio-economy based on the forest. Plus leaving behind the current drive for agriculture and cattle driving deforestation.

Previous predictions of the Amazon tipping point were mainly based on climate models developed through mathematics. But now there are real-life manifestations of the changes happening in the Amazon, which led researchers to believe that there are signs of a tipping point happening on the ground and the atmosphere.

A study by NASA in October recorded a growingly dry Amazon via satellite. Also, in 2018, a study that combined the findings of 103 researchers showed that tree species that were adapted to a wet climate were dying at a record rate, while species adapted to dry weather were thriving.

Moving from a rainforest to a savanna has severe consequences for the Amazon, according to Lovejoy and Nobre. It would mean the release of large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, a change in the natural water cycle, likely affecting Brazilian aquifers, and a sudden effect on biodiversity.

Biomes like Amazon have been subject to changes in the past. But the problem here is how sudden the move is and the consequences it brings for species and biodiversity in general. Without further action, researchers warn, the shift to a savanna will happen in just a few decades.

Despite the scenario they describe, Lovejoy and Nobre agree there’s still a way forward. “The peoples and leaders of the Amazon countries together have the power, the science, and the tools to avoid a continental-scale, indeed, a global environmental disaster. Together, we need the will and imagination to tip the direction of change in favor of a sustainable Amazon”.

In 2019, Brazil cut down twice as much of the Amazon as it did in the previous year

Deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon forest has risen by 104% compared to November of 2018, according to data released by Brazil‘s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) on Saturday.

Image credits Rosina Kaiser.

All in all, some 563 square kilometers (217 square miles) of forest were cut down in November, the largest area ever felled since November of 2015. It’s not only the sheer scale of deforestation that’s worrying, but also that it took part during the rainy season — when, traditionally, deforestation efforts slowed down.

A terrible toll

INPE’s report explains that between January and November of this year — which were the first 11 months in office for Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right leader who has eased restrictions on exploiting the Amazon — a total of 8,973.3 square kilometers (3464.6 sq mi) of the forest have been cut down.

That is almost double the total recorded over the first 11 months of 2018 (4,878.7 sq km).

The data was recorded by the DETER (Detecção de Desmatamento em Tempo Real), a satellite-based real-time deforestation detection system employed by INPE. The system uses data from the MODIS sensor aboard the Terra and Aqua NASA satellites. The system is mostly used as an indicator of the rate of deforestation but does not represent the whole area cut down, which is measured by the PRODES project.

According to PRODES readings — the system is more reliable but slower to compile data than DETER — between August 2018 and August 2019, the total deforested area in the Brazilian Amazon exceeded the 10,000 square kilometer threshold for the first time since 2008. It would represent a 43% increase over the preceding 12 month period (when the total was 7,033 sq km).

Areas of the Amazon that see indigenous habitation have experienced some of the fastest-rising rates of deforestation (74.5%) over the preceding period, INPE adds.

Ricardo Galvao, INPE’s former president, was sacked by the Bolsonaro government in early August under accusations of exaggerating the report on deforestation. On Friday, Galvao was named one of the 10 most important scientists of the year by the journal Nature.

The full report (link in Portuguese) can be read here.