Antonio Donato Nobre is one of Brazil’s leading scientists. He belongs to the IPCC group, which is monitoring global warming, and is an Amazon specialist. He has just spent four months looking at all the recent scientific studies on the Amazon. His summary, entitled “O Futuro Climático da Amazônia – Relatório de Avialação Científica”, is available, in Portuguese, here.

Antonio NobreHe says that, after reading over 200 articles, he was “profoundly shocked” by the gravity of the situation. Recent research suggests that forests, particularly the Amazon forest, play a crucial role in regulating the climate and in bringing rain to the rich agricultural lands of southeast Brazil. The climate of the southeast is already being severely affected by the deadly combination of deforestation of the Amazon and global warming, he warns. Climate change is no longer a prediction; it is happening. And today it is no longer enough to end deforestation. Brazil needs to start replanting forests. Now. Straightaway. Or head towards the abattoir … Strong words for a scientist.

He gave this interview to IHU (Instituto Humanitas Unisinos) in late October, when São Paulo was in the midst of a severe drought. It was translated into English for LAB by Emma Pigram and Sue Branford. The original is available here.

 IHU: How much of the Amazon has been deforested?

AN: Over the last forty years an area three times the size of the state of São Paulo, that is, about two Germanys or two Japans. It adds up to 184 million football pitches, almost one pitch per Brazilian. The average speed of the deforestation of the Amazon, over forty years, has been the equivalent of a tractor with a blade of three metres travelling at 726km/hour – the tractor of the end of the world, one could say. The amount of land destroyed is that of a path 2km wide stretching from the Earth to the moon. And I am not including forest degradation in this figure.

IHU: Is that the “tree guillotine” that you have spoken of?

AN: Some 40 billion trees were destroyed over 40 years, almost 3 million trees per day, 2,000 trees per minute. And the climate feels every tree that is lost from the Amazon. The reckless deforestation has encountered a judge in the climate that does not forget nor forgive.

IHU: Could you explain what you mean?

AN: The scientists studying the Amazon are worried because they’ve realised that the forest is powerful and really shapes the climate. It is like a factory of environmental services. As the Amazon is being deforested, so the climate changes.

IHU: The climate changes …

AN: Climate change has arrived. It is no longer just a prediction; it can be observed. The climate change deniers won a landslide victory in that they convinced governments not to believe in global warming. But, of course, they were wrong. Emissions have increased and the planetary climate system is beginning to fail as scientists predicted, only at a much faster pace than was foreseen.

IHU: Does your study create a relationship between forest destruction and the climate?

AN: The literature about this is huge.  Millions of articles have been written. More than two dozen big scientific projects have been carried out in the Amazon, involving dozens of scientists. In my research for my study, “O Futuro Climático da Amazônia – Relatório de Avialação Científica”, I read more than 200 articles in four months. I wanted to clarify the connections, because there is so little joined-up thinking. “We have to develop agribusiness. But the forest? Ah, the forest is not my concern”. Everyone is involved in this fragmentation, having their own area of interest, and this is proving deadly for humanity. When I synthesised the studies, I was profoundly shocked by the gravity of the situation.

IHU: What is the situation?

AN: The situation is that climate change is upon us. It is no longer just a warning. In the so-called ‘arc of deforestation’ [an arc going from Pará, across the north of Tocantins and Mato Grosso, down to Rondonia and then TO Acre, where a great deal of forest has been cleared for farming], the climate has really changed. The length of the dry season has been increasing and that of the rainy season has been decreasing. And this has affected the climate elsewhere. Farmers in Minas Gerais haven’t been able to plant soya because the rains have failed. Year after year, in the southern and eastern regions of the Amazon, the climate has been changing. The drought of 2005 was the worst in a hundred years. Then five years later, in 2010, it was worse still. Global warming is affecting the Amazon, The system is breaking down.

IHU: Is this year’s drought in São Paulo related to climate change?

AN: Judge for yourself. Look at the news: isn’t the climate is changing in California, Central America, in parts of Colombia? It’s global. You could say – then it is a global problem, it has nothing to do with the Amazon. And that is where people’s lack of understanding about what drives climate change becomes apparent. Because what is happening has everything to do with what we have done to the planet, particularly our destruction of the forest. Destroying the forest not only increases greenhouse gas emissions but it also plays havoc with the planet’s system for controlling the local climate. And it means that we have no cushion.   

IHU: What do you mean? Cushion? 

AN: The forest is our security, our protection system, like a piggy bank. If something unexpected happens and you have some money saved, you will be able to get through it. This is what was happening until recently; we did not feel the effects of destroying the Atlantic rainforest over a 500 year period, because we had the Amazon to cushion the impact. The humidity of the Amazon rainforest meant that we could absorb the impact of the destruction of local forests. We didn’t feel it. 

IHU: You have spoken of the Amazon as a technical treasure trove? What do you mean? 

AN: I used this expression to give an idea of the technical richness of the forest. Even a eucalyptus plantation is more valuable on the market place than the rainforest. Yet if we look through a microscope, the rainforest contains a huge abundance of living beings and each one of these living beings surpasses the sum of all human technology. The technological treasure trove of the Amazon is the fantastic assembly of living beings that operate at the level of atoms and molecules and regulates the flow of substances and energy, controlling the climate. 

IHU: You speak of the five secrets of the Amazon. What are they? 

AN: The first is the way moisture is brought into the continent. The ocean is the main source of all the planet’s water. This water evaporates, the salt stays in the ocean, and the wind pushes the vapour and it rises and flows into the mainland. In South America, it is carried over 3,000 kilometres into the Andes with all its humidity intact. The secret? The geysers of the forest. 

IHU: Geysers of the forest? 

AN: That is a metaphor. A big tree in the Amazon, with a canopy radius of about ten metres, gives off more than a 1,000 litres of water a day in transpiration. We have calculated the amount transpired for the entire Amazon basin: the basin covers about 5.5 million square kilometres and some 20 billion tonnes of water are transpired from these wooden geysers every day. The Amazon river, the biggest river on earth, accounts for about 20 percent of all fresh water that goes into the oceans; it dumps 17 billion tonnes of water per day. And, remarkable as it sounds, more vapour is transpired from the trees each day than is contained in the Amazon river. The air that is travelling into the interior of the continent receives the vapour that comes from the trees’ transpiration and this maintains the air’s capacity to produce rain. This is one of the characteristics of the forest. 

IHU: Doesn’t this process happen in São Paulo? 

AN: No. Because we have totally destroyed Atlantic Rainforest. There is virtually no forest left. 

IHU: What is the second secret?

AN: It rains a lot in the Amazon yet the air is very clean, just as in the oceans where it rains very little. Why are the atmospheres so similar? The answer comes from a study of the aromas and smells of the trees. These odours go up into the atmosphere and, as there is solar radiation and water vapour there, these odours react with oxygen and precipitate a very fine dust that attracts the water vapour. When it rains, this dust is carried away and the air is kept clean.

IHU: And the third secret? 

AN: The forest is like an air-conditioner that produces an Amazonian river of water vapour. This massive formation of clouds brings down the air pressure over the land so the air over the oceans is pulled down into the forest. It is like a tug of war. The trees act like a biotic pump, a conveyor belt, puling the air down, with the air from the area of higher pressure being pulled down to one of lower pressure.  And in the Amazon, the trees are old and have roots that go 20 metres deep, connecting with the groundwater. The forest is connected to an ocean of fresh water underneath it. When the rain falls, the water filters through the ground into this groundwater. 

IHU: How is all this related to the drought in Sao Paulo? 

AN: The fourth secret. We are situated in what has been called a ‘lucky quadrangle’ – a region that goes from Cuiabá in the north to Buenos Aires in the south, from São Paulo in the east to the Andes in the west. This quadrangle produces 70 percent of South America’s GNP. If you look at a world map, this region is on the same latitude as the Atacama Desert and the deserts in the Kalahari and in Namibia and in Australia. This region ought to have been desert too, but it is not; it is irrigated  to it.  For several months of the year humidity arrives in this region with the help of “flying rivers”, which bring vapour down from the Amazon. This is the sources of this quadrangle’s rain. 

IHU: And the fifth secret? 

AN: Wherever there are forests there are no hurricanes or tornadoes. The forest regulates the climate, attenuates the excesses; it doesn’t let these destructive events happen. It is like an insurance policy. 

IHU: So what is the impact of deforestation? 

AN: Deforestation creates an inhospitable climate, one which destroys the way the forest conditions the climate and eliminates the extremes. It is like having a pump that sends water to a building, but then it is destroyed, so there is no more water in the tap. This is what we are doing. With deforestation, we are destroying the mechanisms that produce these benefits and so we are exposed to geophysical violence. An inhospitable climate is now a fact of life. It is no longer a prediction. Deforestation should have been stopped ten years ago. It is not enough now just to stop the destruction. 

IHU: Why doesn’t stopping deforestation solve the problem? 

AN: Stopping deforestation is fundamental, but it is no longer the solution. We have to repair the damage as much as possible. Stopping deforestation was yesterday’s solution. The only evidence tells us that we must stop deforestation, not just reduce it. But this in itself will not be enough. We have to replant the forests, remake the ecosystems. This is our great opportunity for turning the situation around 

IHU: And what happens if we don’t do this? 

AN: Look out of the window and you will see that the sky over São Paulo looks like the sky over a desert. The destruction of the Atlantic rain forest created the illusion that everything was alright, that we could do same with the Amazon and get away with it. But by destrying such a lot of the Amazon forest we ruptured the system’s capacity for compensation. That is what is happening today. This is very serious, very severe. We are heating straight for the abattoir.

IHU: What are you saying? 

AN: That we have to face up to the deforestation we have caused. We can’t put off the time for radical action by saying “we will reduce the rate of deforestation gradually, year by year”. We have to deal with the damage we have caused. The future of our climate is at stake.

IHU: Some people say that some of the cleared ‘football pitches’ are being turned into soya plantations and that this is a solution 

AN: The climate doesn’t give a fig about soya. What it needs is trees. Soya has shallow roots. It doesn’t have a canopy. It can’t pump water down from the clouds. Farming is highly dependent on the forest. If the rain doesn’t come, the crops die. 

IHU: What does this mean? That it will rain less and less? 

AN: It means that all the environmental services supplied by the forest are being destroyed. It is like breaking the turbines in the Itaipu hydroelectric power station – if you do that, you don’t have electricity any more.  It is the climate that we are talking about, the humidity that comes from the Amazon. It is something very serious that we are losing. We are losing a service that was free and brought well-being, that provided fresh water and a stable climate. A study carried out in Georgia by an association of agribusiness with environmental NGOs measured the services that forests provided for urban areas. They found that they were worth US$37 billion. It is this that we are talking about, a ‘factory’ of environmental services. 

IHU: The drought in São Paulo has made people more aware of the environment. 

AN: Yes, but how many paulistas [people living in São Paulo] have bought furniture or built their houses out of wood from the Amazon and never even asked about its origin? I am not blaming the paulistas for their lack of awareness. But the role of science is to provide the facts. We have reacged a turning point and we need to warn people about that. 

IHU: Is this turning point that water may run out? 

AN: That among other things. We are ‘transposing’ [altering the course of] the São Francisco river to resolve a problem in a place where it has not rained for three years. But what if there is no water in other places? And what happens if mankind destroys and deforests in such a way that an area that produces 70 percent GDP fulfils its geographical destiny and becomes a desert? Will we look for water in the aquifer? 

IHU: Isn’t that an option? 

AN: In the north of Beijing, the wells are already two kilometres deep. We can’t use fossil water indefinitely. It needs some way to be restocked. There is a finite amount, just like petroleum. One uses it and then it runs out. There is only one place where it does not run out, the ocean, but there the water is salty. 

IHU: Is the war that you talk about a war to end deforestation? 

AN: Deforestation should have ended yesterday and it has to end today. We have to start replanting the forests. This is the war effort |I’m talking about. We have our best ally in the forests. They are a natural technology that is at hand. I am not proposing that we uproot the soya fields or get rid of cattle pastures to plant forest. But we need to make intelligent use the land, to rebuild the Permanent Preservation Areas (PPA) and to replant forests on a large scale. Not only in the Amazon. Here in São Paulo as well. If there were forests here, we wouldn’t have what I call the ‘atmospheric monster’. 

IHU: What is that? 

AN: It is a mass of warm air that “sits” on the southeast and won’t allow in the cold front from the south or the flying rivers of the Amazon. 

IHU: What should the state government do?

AN: First of all, São Paulo has to have zero tolerance of deforestation. Second, it has to start replanting forest. Now. Straightaway. And I don’t mean planting eucalyptus. Eucalyptus monocultures don’t play a role in the hydraulic cycle. We have to replant forest and stop burning fields. We could start by rebuilding ecosystems in degraded areas so as not to compete with agriculture. 

IHU: Where? 

AN: On hills where there is pasture, in valleys, in steep areas. We have to plant native species, trees from the Atlantic Rainforest. The whole of society has to join the war effort to replant. We need to rebuild the forests, in the quickest, best way possible.

IHU: And legal deforestation. Can it continue? 

AN: It can’t even be thought of. A law that didn’t take into consideration science and the impact of deforestation on society, that takes water out of the taps, needs to be changed. 

IHU: What did you think about Dilma [Rousseff, Brazil.s President] not signing the agreement on zero deforestation by 2030, in the UN meeting in New York? 

AN: An absolute absurdity. The reality is that we are descending into chaos. We now have trucks distributing water all over metropolitan São Paulo. We are losing billions of dollars from everything that has been destroyed. Who is responsible for this? One day, when society realises what has happened, there will be court cases, with people wanting to punish those responsible. Imagine if those in the big urban areas, which have water shortages, put the blame on the big bosses of agribusiness, those who carried out part of the deforestation in the Amazon. I hope it never comes to that. But the reality is that the tap in your house is running dry. 

IHU: How much damage can the forest take? 

AN: We have had forests here for more than 50 million years. During that period there must have been cataclysms, glaciations and warming, and even so the Amazon and the Atlantic rain forests survived. It is the same capacity that an alcoholic’s liver has, which survives drinking binges, provided it is intact. But deforestation means that the capacity for resilience that we once had is being lost. 

If further stress comes from changes in the climate linked to global warming then we are very vulnerable. It is like the ‘atmospheric monster’ that is sitting on the southeast of Brazil. If the region were forested, it wouldn’t happen because the forest would cool the surface and evaporate water to help to cause rain. 

IHU: Will the war effort give results? 

AN: This is not guaranteed, because of global climate change, but the best option that we have is to rebuild ecosystems. Who knows, mankind could develop another form of agriculture, a more harmonic one, that would provide services for the agroecosystems. There is no reason for the current antagonism between farming and environmental conservation. Rather the contrary. If the farming sector knew what the scientists know, they would be in the streets with placards calling on the government to protect the forests. And, on their own initiative, they would be replanting forests on their own properties.