When we think of climate change, we often envision it in terms of forest clearance, shrinking ice caps, melting glaciers and rising oceans. But just as important is the question of land and the way humanity makes use of it. Rachel Simon has examined it for LAB.
August this year saw the publication of the IPCC’s Climate Change and Land Report which presented the latest science on the state of the earth’s land – under threat from rising temperatures and land exploitation. IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) is the United Nations body for assessing the science related to climate change. The full report can be downloaded here. An extremely serious and comprehensive study, it runs to a mere 1,542 pages with a vast array of statistics and graphs and thousands of references to scientific papers.
A key message from the report is that forests play a crucial role in maintaining land quality, ecosystems, and holding back climate change. Forests play a dual role: first, curbing deforestation and forest degradation reduces the level of greenhouse gas emissions that come from land. Secondly we also need to be sucking carbon out of the atmosphere to tackle climate change. Here maintaining, restoring and re-planting forests offers the greatest potential according to the report.
However things are going in the wrong direction globally and especially in Brazil. Analysis from the World Resources Institute found that tropical deforestation in the past three years was 63% higher than in the preceding 14 years. Forest cover losses in Brazil (which holds 60% of the Amazon) far topped those of any other country in 2018. While some of this is attributable to wildfires most appears to be human driven, with areas near indigenous territories particularly affected.[i]
This year Brazil’s deforestation rate has picked up. There is evidence that deforestation rates surged during Brazil’s election period in 2018, within the first months of the new presidency, and now the latest widely publicized forest fires make the picture even bleaker. With fires ravaging the ‘lungs of the earth’ in past months, Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) show that the forest has experienced record fires this year.
There is a prevalence of burning in Mato Grosso and Para, an area where land clearance for farming is increasingly pushing into the Amazon basin. Illegally clearing land by starting forest fires is a common practice in cattle ranching. The Bolsonaro adminstration’s land use policies and the impunity that ranchers face are incentivizing burning of forests.
In terms of climate impacts, deforestation to clear land for cattle-rearing is an especially dangerous combination. The IPCC land report highlighted that methane emissions (a particularly potent greenhouse gas) from agriculture are increasing, and livestock production and ruminants – namely cattle – are a major source.
The report also highlights the solutions we need: indigenous communities’ roles as forest stewards, their knowledge and practices as important contributions to climate resilience. Strengthening indigenous communities’ tenure security can lead to better forest maintenance and management. But it is also necessary to prevent other actors from exploiting their land.
Boycott and battle lines
In the face of this organisations are beginning to coalesce around efforts to boycott Brazilian products, to try to exert economic pressure to put a halt to deforestation. The Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB) has called for a boycott of companies – those foreign companies that engage with Brazilian companies who appropriate land and resources from areas where deforestation is taking place.
Brazilian Firm JBS, under investigation by numerous civil society and rights groups for driving deforestation and committing human rights abuses, still supplies European supermarkets, and while at the moment the UK accounts for a very low percentage of Brazilian beef exports, this could rise significantly after a no-deal Brexit.
In the UK, Christian Aid launched a petition urging the UK Government to prioritise the wellbeing of people who depend on the rainforest for their survival, and to ensure that any trade and investment talks with Brazil and Bolivia safeguard communities’ rights and ecosystems. The charity is also inviting faith leaders to sign a declaration in solidarity with churches and communities across the Amazon region.
The window of opportunity to act on climate change is very short. Right now the world’s land acts as a carbon sink: it absorbs more carbon than it emits, so helps to balance out some of our climate change causing emissions. However if human exploitation of land and land degradation continues, exacerbated by increasing climate change, that will change. The Amazon is the most important battleground.
[i] Ituna Itata reserve saw more than 4,000 hectares of illegal clearing within its borders in the first half of 2018, more than double the total loss from 2002-2017. The reserve is home to some of the world’s last remaining uncontacted peoples, who depend on the forest for survival and have conserved it for centuries.