The beef industry is the biggest driver of Amazon deforestation. A new report by the Climate Observatory notes that Brazil’s beef industry now has a bigger carbon footprint than Japan.
Cows, dust and smoke. That was what greeted me on my return home to Altamira, after several weeks on the road. An unusually fierce dry season has taken a horrific toll on the Amazonian landscape, swathes of which are already denuded by cattle ranches. Together, they threaten the integrity of the world’s biggest tropical forest.
I will get to the science behind that horrifying statement shortly. But first, let me describe what is happening on the ground, in and around my home in Altamira, in Pará state, northern Brazil.
Everything is parched. The vegetation crunches underfoot. Compared with the rainy season, the forest has visibly shrunk back several metres from the roadside. The more resilient trees are holding on, but at the fringes, the weaker palms have started to shrivel up and turn brown.
Several areas in my neighbourhood are charred black from recent burning. Criminal land-grabbers are taking advantage of the tinder-dry conditions. Each morning when I wake, the air tastes of smoke. A pall blurs the horizon. Solar panels are unable to function as normal because the sunlight cannot pierce the haze.
And then there are the cows, poor creatures, that amble through sickly brown pastures looking for the last few leaves or patches of grass that haven’t been coated with dust. Innocent victims though they are, their presence has contributed to this bleak scene.
October, November and December are usually a period of transition. By now, the dry season would normally have peaked, and rivers and aquifers would start to replenish. But the rains refuse to come. And with every day that passes, the sense of foreboding grows stronger.
The Xingu River, where we take our dogs each morning, is 4 metres below its peak and the small tributary, where I usually canoe, has shrunk to an ankle-deep stream. In the house, the kitchen and bathroom taps run dry for a few hours every two or three days. Wasps that usually buzz around the fruit bowl now congregate near the pipes, seeking drops of water ahead of nectar. Toads seek refuge in our dogs’ water bowls.
To a lesser degree, all of these things happen every dry season, but this is no normal year, as I confirmed with a couple of Brazil’s top scientists. Marcelo Seluchi, the head of modelling and operations at the Natural Disaster Monitoring and Alert Centre, told me this is already one of the worst droughts in the history of the Amazon, an area the size of Europe.
Many rivers in the region, including the mighty Rio Negro, he said, have fallen to levels not seen since measurements began more than a century ago. I saw that shocking sight myself a couple of weeks ago.
Temperatures in many areas have hit record highs and the drought is far from over. Seluchi said the latest forecasts suggest rains will not return to most parts of the Amazon until the end of this month.
At a recent crisis meeting organised by the National Water and Sanitation Agency and president Luis Inácio Lula da Silva’s chief of staff, experts warned of threats to hydroelectric dams and river transport of essential commodities, such as food, fuel and medicine. Meteorologists explained that this year’s Amazon drought is anomalously severe due to the El Niño effect, Atlantic Ocean heating and the climate crisis.
This explanation is accurate but narrow, missing many of the main causes of this problem and the most workable solutions. The most important of those, proved by recent studies, is that a healthy forest does not only generate its own rainfall, but also acts as a powerful regional cooler. If you clear the vegetation, as many farmers continue to do – albeit at a much slower rate than they did under the rule of the rightwing former president Jair Bolsonaro – then the region will become hotter and drier due to local effects and global climate disruption.
This is where my bovine neighbours come into the picture. The beef industry is the biggest driver of Amazon deforestation. Nothing else comes close. Land-grabbers use cows as occupying armies to strengthen their claims on stolen and cleared forest. This has become one of the world’s most heinous climate crimes. A mind-boggling new report by the Climate
Observatory notes that Brazil’s beef industry now has a bigger carbon footprint than Japan. Dwell on that for a moment. This country has 220 million cows, 43% of which are in the Amazon. Their global heating emissions – from their burps and farts, but mostly through their owners’ connections to forest clearance and fires – are now greater than all the cars, factories, air conditioners, electric gadgets and other forms of carbon consumption of 125 million Japanese people living in one of the most industrialised economies on Earth. When slaughtered, the cattle make billions of dollars for global food conglomerates. Through cows, these companies intensify the climate crisis and, thus, probably help to make El Niños more likely.
Carlos Nobre, one of Brazil’s most influential climatologists, confirmed to me that cattle farm deforestation is contributing – along with the primary causes of El Niño and Atlantic warming – to this year’s devastating dry season. The danger, he warned, is that such extreme climate events will, within two decades, push the Amazon to a critical point, after which the region will desiccate and be unable to maintain itself as a tropical rainforest.
In the southern part of the south-eastern Amazon, he said, the forest is very close to that point of no return. The dry season there is four to five weeks longer than it was in 1979, tree mortality is rising and the forest emits more carbon than it absorbs.
On a more hopeful note, he says that deforestation slowed rapidly in most Amazonian countries this year. That alone will not be enough to prevent reaching that critical moment. Regional governments will also need help from wealthy nations – which are historically largely responsible for the climate crisis – to reduce fires and forest degradation, and to embark on large-scale reforestation programmes.
At Cop28 in Dubai later this month, Nobre will help to launch one such project, named Arc of Restoration.
It feels long overdue. The Amazon cannot endure unless cows are replaced by trees, dust by plants, and smoke by rain.
Original source: https://www.theguardian.com