Deforestation does not appear to be the biggest problem facing the Amazon rainforest. An international team of researchers writes in the journal Science that more than a third of the remaining forest area in this region has been affected by human intervention in several ways. This leads to carbon emissions equal to or higher than deforestation.
Experts talk about degradation. One-sided cultivation, incorrect irrigation, disproportionate use of pesticides, intensive cultivation or excessive use can permanently upset the biological balance and make the soil unusable. This evolution is also happening in the Amazon. The study stated that the main causes are wildfires, change in the forests adjacent to the areas where they were cleared, selective logging such as illegal logging and severe drought. Different forest regions may be affected by one or more of these disturbances.
Joss Barlow of Lancaster University stresses that “despite uncertainty about the overall impact of disturbances, it is clear that their cumulative impact on carbon emissions and biodiversity loss could be as significant as deforestation.”
The study shows that up to 38 percent of the remaining forest area is affected. Scientists from Brazil’s University of Campinas, the Amazon Institute for Environmental Research, the National Institute for Space Research and Lancaster University analyzed previously published scientific data based on satellite images showing changes in the Amazon region between 2001 and 2018.
Degradation differs from deforestation, in that the forest is completely cleared and a new land use, such as agriculture, is created in its place. Although degraded forests can lose almost all trees, land use itself does not change.
Few benefits, many burdens
According to scientists, this process also has significant social and economic impacts. “Reduction benefits a few, but burdens a lot,” says co-author Rachel Carmenta of the University of East Anglia. “Few people benefit from these processes, and yet many lose out on all dimensions of human well-being – including health, nutrition and the importance they place on the forest landscape in which they live,” Carmenta explains.
In the team’s 2050 projections, the four factors of degradation will continue to be the main sources of carbon emissions to the atmosphere, whether or not deforestation increases.
“Even in the optimistic scenario of no deforestation, the effects of climate change will perpetuate the process, leading to more carbon emissions,” explains study leader David Lapola of the University of Campinas.
However, preventing deforestation remains crucial and could also make it possible to pay more attention to other causes of forest degradation, the researchers wrote in their paper.
They propose setting up a monitoring system for forest degradation, preventing and stopping illegal logging and controlling fire use. One proposal is the concept of “smart forests,” which are similar to the idea of “smart cities,” in that they use different types of technologies and sensors to collect useful data and improve the quality of the environment.
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