Can we save the Amazon rainforest?

By simply respecting existing laws, it should be possible to save a million square kilometers of rainforest by 2050 according to the Woods Hole Research Center (WHRC). On the contrary, if nothing changes, two more million square kilometers will disappear.

There are plenty of alarming reports on the future of our planet, such as the oceans rising by several meters before 2100. Still, there are things we can do to improve the situation. For example, by simply respecting existing laws, it should be possible to save a million square kilometers of rainforest by 2050 according to the Woods Hole Research Center (WHRC). On the contrary, if the current forces of destruction continue to be active without opposition, two more million square kilometers of the Amazon forest will disappear in less than half a century.

Scientists from several institutions in Brazil worked with the Woods Hole Research Center on a modeling project to simulate "future trends in deforestation, forest fire, rivers, fauna, and climate." And here is what their model told them.

It shows that simply implementing existing laws and proposed protected areas would spare the Amazon one million square kilometers of deforestation (one fifth of the entire forest area), avoiding 17 billion tons of carbon emissions to the atmosphere, the elimination of several forest formations, and the degradation of several major watersheds.

The whole project is known as Amazon Scenarios and looked at several hypothesis. Below is a picture showing the different components of the model. (Credit: WHRC)

Amazon Scenarios: model components

At the core of our Scenarios research is an integrated, computer-based model system that simulates the complex interactions among Amazon ecosystems, economies and climate, and allows us to assess the potential effectiveness of policy interventions and reserve designs in avoiding forest destruction.

Here is a short description of the two extreme scenarios.

The first of the two futures discussed is a business-as-usual scenario in which the forces of destruction continue unopposed. Specifically, this scenario (abbreviated as BAU) [leads] to a loss of nearly 2 million km2.
The second is a frontier governance scenario in which society and government, together with the scientific and environmental communities, work to control frontier expansion and insure the ecological integrity of the basin. [...] Under this scenario, 73 percent of the original forest would remain in 2050.

Now, let's look specifically at the logging situation. The illustration below shows the projected logged areas in the year 2050 for high value (light green), medium value (yellow), and low value timber (pink). (Credit: WHRC)

Amazon projected logged areas in 2050

And here is a short explanation about this logging model picked from this page about logging at WHRC.

As part of the Amazon Scenarios model, we are developing a logging model for the Amazon. This model attempts to estimate potential logging profits for the extraction of three different grades of timber in response to transportation and milling costs and installed sawmill capacity. The data for this model came from extensive surveys of the industry in Brazil to determine costs for harvest, transportation and milling, and we are beginning similar surveys in Bolivia and Peru.

For more information, this research work has been published by Nature under the name "Modelling conservation in the Amazon basin" (Volume 440, Number 7083, Pages 520-523, March 23, 2006). Here are two links to the abstract and to the editor's summary called "Choose it or lose it."

Deforestation is continuing in the Amazon basin as the cattle and soy industries expand. The main conservation policy there involves 'protected areas': areas designated by national governments that are left undisturbed to allow natural vegetation to develop. But this alone may not protect the rainforest ecosystem from collapse. A new estimate of forest losses made using the SimAmazonia 1 computer model suggests that by 2050, agricultural expansion will eliminate two-thirds of the forest cover of five major watersheds and ten ecoregions.

So will the Amazon forest grow or shrink? We'll see in 45 years.

Sources: Woods Hole Research Center news release, via EurekAlert!, March 22, 2006; and various web sites

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