What will happen if the Amazon rainforest collapses? To learn more, we travelled to Brazil to visit a forest that is in the process of collapsing right now.
Text and photo: Rainforest Foundation Norway
Additional photo: Shutterstock
We glide high above vast fields of soya in our little Piper Seneca plane. We are in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso, on our way from the sleepy soya town of Sinop to Leonardo Post in Xingu Indigenous Territory. Indigenous people from the entire territory have assembled here.
There is just one issue on their agenda: How to respond to a newly-elected president who wants to strip them of the rights they have spent several decades fighting for?
Xingu Indigenous Territory has always been associated with hope. As the first territory granted to indigenous people in Brazil in 1961, it gave hope to other groups of indigenous peoples that they might also own their own land again one day.
And that hope was justified – since 1961, 721 indigenous territories have been established, covering a total of 1.1 million km2.
But Xingu has also given us hope that we can save the rainforest.
The soya and maize fields, which have been gnawing away at the forest for years, stop at Xingu’s territorial border. Today Xingu is like a green island surrounded by an ocean of fields and plantations. The territory can be clearly seen from space.
The forest stands as a powerful symbol, signifying that granting indigenous people the rights to their traditional forest regions can, in fact, save the entire rainforest.
It worked in Xingu, after all. Why not in other places?
The small aircraft shudders its way through yet another low-lying bank of cloud, as the rain drums loudly on the windshield. It’s the end of the wet season. The pilot glances around, looking for the little airstrip at Leonardo Post.
‘Luckily it’s dry enough to land,’ he confirms.
Crisis meeting in the forest
Leonardo Post consists of a couple of meeting houses, a school and several other small buildings.
There are no permanent residents, but this week, it’s swarming with people. It’s just a few months since Jair Bolsonaro was sworn in as president. Prior to his election, he said he would not demarcate one square centimetre of new indigenous territory.
Indigenous people throughout Brazil are frightened and upset at the moment. Xingu is no exception. The territorial borders protect the forest today. But what will happen now that the newly-elected president is talking about reducing that protection? Plantations to the east, south and west have already eaten their way right up to the border.
The people of Xingu are not naïve. Alarm bells are ringing.
Under the circumstances, it wouldn’t be out of place for the Rainforest Foundation Norway to visit Leonardo Post to report on the mobilisation of indigenous people in Brazil to fight for their basic rights yet again.
But that isn’t why we’re here.
We sit down beside the river with a woman and turn on the camera. She is calm and clear:
‘We have to be out in the fields much earlier than before because it’s so hot. It burns our skin.’
Watatakalu Yawalapati is the first person we speak to in Xingu Indigenous Territory.
Within 30 seconds she has confirmed what we have been told – that this forest is drying out.
We are in Xingu because the forest around us is probably dying.
And because this may be the future for large tracts of Amazonia.
Several days earlier in São Paulo.
The largest city in South America is, if possible, even more chaotic than usual on this Monday in March. A violent thunderstorm accompanied by torrential rain has brought everything to a standstill.
Twelve people have lost their lives and thousands have been forced to flee from the flooding. It isn’t the first time this has happened. In 2016 twenty-four people died during similar weather conditions.
It seems strange to be talking of drought when rubber dinghies have taken over the streets in parts of the city.
But it’s only four years since São Paulo experienced the worst drought in its history. One of the world's largest cities came close to running out of water.
The story dominated the media all over the world.
A couple of hours drive east of the city, in a sparsely-furnished office in the National Institute for Space Research in Brazil (INPE), we meet someone who believes that the drought in São Paulo was a warning.
Antonio Donato Nobre is a research scientist specialising in climate change. He wrote The Future Climate of Amazonia Scientific Assessment Report, a collection of available research material showing how the world’s largest rainforest affects its surroundings.
Nobre is a warm and friendly man. His sandals and slightly oversized shirt give him an air of informality, not what you might expect from a scientific authority. But perhaps that’s what an alarmist looks like.
Nobre has certainly pressed the red button, in any case.
It’s difficult to interpret statements like this in any other way:
‘We must stop completely. Cutting down trees should be regarded as a crime against humanity.’
The sixty-year old is absolutely serious. He believes that the deforestation, which has gone on for many decades, is pushing large parts of the Amazon towards its destruction.
Consequently, Nobre doesn’t mince words. He hammers his message home with a sledgehammer:
‘Never before has a civilisation had the knowledge to change its destiny, but we have.’
‘Soon people are going to start shouting, “What’s going on?”.’
‘As scientists we have an ethical obligation to tell people what we know.’
But what is it exactly that he claims to know?
'The Amazon Effect' giving life to a continent
It is almost five years since Nobre published the report that set the alarm bells ringing for the future of Amazonia.
In The Future Climate of Amazonia Scientific Assessment Report, Nobre tried to solve five mysteries concerning the world’s largest rainforest. He tried to find out why Amazonia breaks all the rules about rainfall, for example, and why large parts of South America are not desert.
He found the answer to these mysteries in the theory of the biotic pump, the work of Russian physicists Victor Gorshkov and Anastassia Makarieva, who has worked closely with Nobre over several years.
According to the biotic pump theory, Amazonia continually draws in moist air from the Atlantic Ocean. This water falls as rain over the forest before continuing its long journey:
- The trees draw water up from the earth, which then transpires through their leaves.
- The wind catches the moisture and sends it further inland, where it falls as rain once again.
- This process repeats a number of times.
- Finally, the water falls as rain in areas outside of Amazonia, such as the vast agricultural regions of southern Brazil and northern Argentina.
- The water is then carried out into the Atlantic Ocean by the River Amazon and the process starts all over again.
As long as the forest survives, this pump will continue to function. Nobre likes to speak in metaphors, comparing it to a beating heart.
The problem is simply that Amazonia has not been left in peace.
In Brazil 762,679 km2 of forest have been chopped down over the last forty years. In addition, a much greater area has been damaged. This destruction has impaired the forest.
But Antonio Nobre and other scientists fear a scenario in which ‘South America’s heart’ stops beating altogether.
They are afraid that the Amazonian ecosystem will collapse.
The dreaded point of no return
The world’s largest rainforest has a tipping point, a point at which so much forest has been chopped down that it sets in motion a chain of destruction.
That is the point of no return.
While an intact rainforest will not burn, a rainforest that is split up into smaller areas will dry out, becoming vulnerable to fire.
Fires and long periods of drought will therefore play a central role in the event of Amazonia’s collapse. There will be an increase in temperatures and a reduction in rainfall in areas that once were forested. The forest ceases to be a carbon sink and turns into a source of carbon emissions.
Even though there are many studies which show that deforestation will lead to an increase in temperatures and a reduction in rainfall, scientists disagree about the scale of the consequences.
Antonio Nobre is not like other scientists.
He believes, for example, that Amazonia cannot afford to wait for scientific consensus on all the different scenarios. He thinks that the ‘worst case’ scenario is so bad that we cannot risk taking a chance on it.
Nobre is afraid that rainfall can disappear entirely because the forest’s ability to draw moisture in from the ocean and disperse it over large areas will cease to function.
‘It can be compared to a patient who is lying in intensive care after having abused their body with alcohol and tobacco for several decades. The body has an extreme ability to endure abuse, but every instance is registered and archived.'
'Finally, the bill arrives. '
He is afraid that the bill for years of deforestation is on the way to humankind. In some places the collapse has already begun, Nobre claims.
‘When people say that deforestation in Amazonia has decreased this year, I ask them, “What about the total deforestation over the past decades?” We can see a decrease in rainfall, and even forest that is supposedly protected within the territories is starting to burn. What was predicted to happen in 2050 or 2100 is happening now!’
One of the protected areas which burns regularly is Xingu Indigenous Territory. Nobre mentioned the territory in a Skype interview with us a year ago, when we asked him if there were examples of forest which is in the process of collapse.
‘Go to Xingu,’ was the scientist’s immediate reply.
So we did. We had to go to Xingu to understand what may be about to happen.
The headlights on the rusty old Toyota pickup illuminate the rainforest in front of us on the wet and muddy road between Leonardo Post and the village of Piulaga. Darkness has fallen, and the delegation from Piulaga are on their way home after the meeting.
We have been offered a lift and accommodation in a house belonging to the Rainforest Foundation’s cooperative partner, ISA, on the outskirts of the village.
A violent thunderstorm passes on the horizon while the driver weaves between enormous puddles and branches which have blown down from the trees. The rain has by no means disappeared from Xingu.
But now the wet season is coming to an end, and the inhabitants of Piulaga and other places within the territory know that they have several months of hot weather before them.
We are dropped off in front of our house, a traditional long and enclosed Xingu house with a little opening in the middle. Before the pickup disappears in the darkness, we are given a friendly piece of advice.
‘When you go out to pee shine a light into the bushes around you. If you see two eyes gleaming back at you, then run.'
An old jaguar has attacked a number of people in the area over the past few months. Several have been injured and some have been killed. The presence of dogs’ carcasses show that the jaguar is still active. The hunting party who have spent the last couple of months trying to track it down have been unsuccessful so far.
Jaguar attacks are a relatively new phenomenon and a sign that the forest is shrinking. Predators have less space and have to share their habitat with humans.
Unfortunately this isn’t a tenable solution. The old jaguar who is slinking around in the forest about us is condemned to death. The hunting party will track it down in the end.
‘Unfortunately we must kill the animals to defend ourselves,’ a woman says.
She thinks it is sad that the forest is becoming too small for both humans and animals.
Atamapiyalu Waurá has grown different plants all her life. Both here in Piulaga, where she has lived ‘for a long time,’ and in the other village - the one she moved away from many years ago.
Years are not counted meticulously in Xingu – they come and go regardless. But she is fairly sure that she is 76 years old.
She shows us her vegetable garden. The family plants cassava, nuts and other things they use every day. But it isn’t so easy to cultivate plants in the extreme heat they have experienced during recent years.
She bends down and lifts up a leaf on one of the plants. It looks withered.
‘See how dry and parched my vegetable garden is. It didn’t use to be like this. It was much more fertile. It’s the heat from the sun which has made it this way.’
She has started to plant vegetables in the shade of large trees to prevent them from dying. Watering has also become a problem.
‘We used to have enough rain to keep the vegetable garden looking lush. Nowadays I have to water it regularly with water I get from the tap in the village. But when it’s hot and sunny it’s difficult to work in the field. The heat hurts us.’
The elderly woman is right. It is far too hot to stand out in the vegetable garden. It is only a little after ten but there are few people out working now. In Piulaga the working day starts at daybreak, around five in the morning. When the sun is at its peak you have to stay in the shade.
Makalu Waurá (70) is still working but only because she can sit in the shade. She makes different pottery utensils. It is a respected profession with long traditions. Xingu’s beautiful pottery is in demand far outside the territory’s borders.
She finds the clay on the banks of the river. But in recent years, a reduction in rainfall and extended heatwaves have caused the river to recede.
‘Before I could collect the clay myself, but now it’s too far to walk. Now the men have to help us. The river is this low because the farmers outside have logged the forest. I am begging you to give us the strength we need to take this up with the authorities, because it really worries us,’ she says.
Explosive increase in the number of forest fires
The meeting at Leonardo Post is about to end. The closing remarks receive nods of recognition and polite applause. However, there is something oppressive and anxious in the atmosphere at the post.
The participants know that the situation is grave and uncertain. What will happen to the forest around them now? What will happen to their homes? Several of them say that they must stand together now - that this is no time for quarrelling and disagreement.
We have promised to film a final appeal from the leader of ATIX, the Xingu indigenous peoples' own organisation. But he cancels it. It is understandable. Everyone seems thoroughly exhausted when the meeting finally draws to a close.
There has been enough talk. Now it is time to set the initiatives they have discussed into action. It’s time to roll up their sleeves.
We say goodbye and sit down in the boat that will take us four hours downstream to Moygu, the last village we are going to visit in Xingu. There they know just how dangerous drought can be.
A few years ago the entire village was almost engulfed in the flames of an enormous forest fire.
Forest fires are not unusual in Xingu. Between 1995 and 2000, 82 annual outbreaks of fire were registered on average, but most of them were minor. However in 1999 a large fire got completely out of control for the first time. A total of 770 km2 of forest burnt down.
In the years since then it has got worse. Large fires raged in 2007 and 2010. Both of these fires destroyed areas of forest larger than Greater London county.
And the frequency of fires in Xingu has exploded: On average, 638 forest fires were registered each year between 2010 and 2015 – an increase of 780% compared to the years between 1995 and 2000.
To complicate matters, fire has been used traditionally as an agricultural tool by the indigenous people of Xingu. Agriculture is based on controlled burning to ensure fertile soil and good crops. But the fires are also closely connected to the beliefs and identities of the indigenous people.
Among the Ikpeng people of Moygu, people are not allowed to be present near a fire when an area of land is being cleared. This is believed to diminish the harvest. That’s how it started, the fire that almost destroyed an entire village just a few years ago.
Kawire Ikpeng remembers that dreadful day clearly. He tells us that the fire started six kilometres away from the village.
‘That day, one of the elders went to burn his field. He left the fire so that it could burn the right way, just as we have always done according to our tradition. But this time it didn’t just burn the field. It also started to burn the forest beside it,’ Ikpeng says.
He was on duty for the village fire brigade when the alarm went off. The brigade is made up of ordinary villagers who are equipped with water tanks and simple tools, like rakes and hoes. They form the front line of defence against forest fires.
‘After the fire got out of control, it really raced along. The wind blew it all the way towards the village. The women and children had to run down to the river.’
The fire brigade managed to stop the fire just outside the village. But the incident shocked everyone who lives in Moygu. Next time they might not be so lucky. It must never be allowed to happen again.
Therefore, one of the most important things that the firemen do is to give the indigenous people in Xingu training in how forest fires start. In addition, the women plant vegetation closer together to delay fire if it first gets started.
It has reduced the number of fires, but it hasn’t removed the threat entirely. This is because it isn’t only people who cause forest fires in Xingu. A lightning strike is enough to ignite the forest during the dry season.
The tribal leader in Moygu, Melobo Ikpeng, is in no doubt about what is causing the increase in the number of forest fires, higher temperatures and longer dry seasons: deforestation and mining around Xingu are damaging the forest within the territory.
Melobo Ikpeng knows what he is talking about. As a youth, he and about 50 other surviving members of the Ikpeng people were forced to leave their land and move onto Xingu Indigenous Park after mining threatened to wipe them out.
The old man has never got over this.
‘We thought we would be able to return to our land. But time has shown that this was not to be,’ he says in a low voice.
He finds comfort in knowing that the Ikpeng people have survived. At present they number almost 500. But their charismatic leader becomes gloomy again when he talks about the future of his people.
There is something seriously wrong with the weather now.
‘It is obvious to us that the river is drying out and there are less fish to catch. When we swim in the river, the water is warm. I used to be the only one that was worried, but now my children are also perturbed.’
The tribal leader raises his eyes and stares at us. He continues, but this time his voice is slightly raised and he leans forward in his seat.
They are signs of his mounting distress:
‘Is it only indigenous people who are supposed to protect nature? Isn’t this important to the white man too?’
‘It appears to us, in any case, that the white men only want to destroy it when they chop down the forests and take the logs. It seems like they think they can get their food for nothing. They don’t understand the importance of nature. But we see our children becoming ill and there isn’t much fruit to find here.’
That’s all he has to say. Melobo Ikpeng is a polite and friendly man, who smiles warmly and takes us by the hand. But it is clear that he has had enough.
The casique for the Ikpeng people has been interviewed by countless ‘white men’ during his long life. It hasn’t helped much so far. Melobo Ikpeng hasn’t got his land back, and the illegal logging hasn’t been stopped.
The elderly leader grips his machete. There is vegetation hanging down over the path that leads to the river.
That won’t be allowed to happen in Moygu as long as Melobo Ikpeng is on duty.
A few hours later we are sitting in a small plane headed towards the little soya town of Canarana. Far below us we can see one round village after another, formed in the typical Xingu style with an open central space encircled by houses. The aerial view leaves us in no doubt; this forest is home to many people, thousands of them.
We are reminded of something Anaterra Yawalapiti told us at Leonardo Post a few days ago. She is a mother with small children and a member of the women’s movement in Xingu.
Anaterra Yawalapiti is afraid that nature ‘will be pushed so hard that it will strike back.’
She fears a gigantic natural disaster happening.
‘The trees have a life, the earth has a life, and the rivers and water have a life. You might not believe it but the water can fight back if we don’t give it enough space. Perhaps it will be the wind or the fire that endangers our lives. I’m not afraid for myself, but I am afraid for my children and their children.’
‘How will they be able to live if we push nature so hard that it explodes?’
The small plane rumbles its way across a cloudy sky. One last village comes into view through a break in the cloud cover.
Then the landscape gradually melts away into soy fields.
As far as the eye can see.