The contrast is staggering. On one side of a narrow track is cool, moist rainforest, stretching northwest for hundreds of kilometers through the almost intact Xingu indigenous reserve. On the other side is hot, bare ground being prepared to plant soy on a farm the size of 14 Manhattans.
This, says earth systems scientist Michael Coe, is the front line of deforestation in the Amazon—where the rainforest meets agribusiness, but also where a rainforest ecosystem is being degraded into savanna grassland. It is also “the perfect laboratory” for exploring how forests interact with climate, and how that changes when the forest disappears, says Coe, of the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts. And it is where Brazilian and American scientists are keeping watch for the long-predicted tipping point—the moment when the Amazon, the world’s largest rainforest, begins a process of runaway degradation, when so much forest has been lost that the transition to savanna is irreversible.
That will be the moment when the Amazon ceases to be a carbon sink that helps protect the planet from climate change, and turns into a global source for carbon emissions.
Following the widespread fires set this year on the fringes of the Amazon—breaking a run of 15 years during which deforestation had been dramatically reduced—places such as this are on the front line as the Amazon faces its most fundamental crisis, with temperatures rising, dry seasons lengthening, and rainforest trees being replaced by savanna species.
In August 2018 there were 3,500 fires in 148 indigenous territories, and while the Brazilian constitution protects both the environment and indigenous people who live there, the local agencies tasked with such protections often fail to protect either.
“We have over a decade of data here. Nowhere else in the tropics has that,” says Coe. What they’re seeing is alarming.
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Photo Credit © David Tesinsky via ZUMA Press