Conference tackles the ‘generational and Earth-defining’ challenge of safeguarding Amazonia

Written by
Miqueias Mugge, Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies
Rodrigo Simon de Moraes, Brazil LAB
May 20, 2022

Home to hundreds of Indigenous groups, Amazonia has more species of animals and plants than any other ecosystem. Because of this, threats to the rainforest imperil chances to fulfill Paris Agreement commitments to tackle climate change and its negative impacts.

“Safeguarding the Amazon is a generational and Earth-defining problem,” said João Biehl, Princeton’s Susan Dod Brown Professor of Anthropology and director of the Brazil LAB, who co-organized the conference “Amazonian Leapfrogging: Tackling the Climate Crisis and Social Inequality with Nature-Based Solutions” at Princeton University. “Under an authoritarian government, we have witnessed an accelerated march of extractivism and illegality in the rainforest and extreme violence against Indigenous peoples amid generalized poor living standards.” 

The conference was hosted by the Brazil LAB, together with the High Meadows Environmental Institute (HMEI), Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies (PIIRS), the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA), the Brazilian research initiative Amazônia 2030, the University Center for Human Values, and the Program in Latin American Studies at Princeton.

“We should remember that we cannot save nature unless we save the people protecting it,” said Brazilian Indigenous leader Txai Suruí in her opening remarks.

Amaney Jamal, dean of SPIA and the Edwards S. Sanford Professor of Politics and International Affairs, recalled Suruí’s powerful message at last fall’s UN Climate Summit in Glasgow: “Indigenous peoples are on the frontline of the climate emergency and must be at the center of decisions.” She also highlighted the transformational potential of “social and political innovations emanating from the Global South.”

Gabriel Vecchi, director of the High Meadows Environmental Institute (HMEI), professor of geosciences, and deputy director of the Cooperative Institute for Modeling the Earth System, described the Amazon as a “complex interactive problem.”

At the conference, more than 80 Brazilian and international guests across academia, business, government and activist sectors interacted with Princeton faculty and students, probing nature-based solutions that might guarantee the conservation of this vital planetary nexus and “leapfrog” the region into much-needed socioeconomic development. 

Marina Hirota, professor of physics at the Federal University of Santa Catarina and a fellow of the science foundation Serrapilheira, explored the central place of the Amazon rainforest in the current climate crisis. “The latest scientific studies point to the possibility of diverse tipping points already happening in certain parts of the forest,” she said.

Hirota, a visiting scholar at the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, demonstrated that three regions of the Amazon have been changing — and they have been changing differently. Drawing from deforestation, rainfall and wildfire data, as well as recent modelling, Hirota warned, “The Amazon is a tipping element of the Earth’s climate and its deforestation destabilizes temperatures in Florida and in countries as such England and as far north as Finland and Norway.”

Stephen Pacala, a member of President Joe Biden’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and Princeton’s Frederick D. Petrie Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, urged participants to consider the specific actions that Brazil and the international community can each do to halt further degradation of this vital biodiversity hotspot and climate regulator.

“The story is amazingly more precise than just a few years ago,” he said. “We are watching the train approach the edge of the cliff with increasing clarity and it is disturbing, to say the least.”

 “For the past three years, Brazil’s best minds have been generating evidence for a blueprint on how to keep the forest standing and improve the livelihood of Amazonians,” said Beto Veríssimo, senior researcher at Imazon and conference co-organizer. Veríssimo and collaborator Juliano Assunção presented over 60 studies from the Amazônia 2030 initiative. “A zero-deforestation policy should be a priority, along with investments to increase the productivity of deforested areas, to expand agroforestry, and to reforest, with a pointed focus on security and creating opportunities for the youth.”

“We need to build a broad pro-Amazonia coalition that comes from the citizenry,” said Alessandra Orofino, Brazilian social innovator and Skoll Fellow. “During this presidential electoral year, we have an opportunity to leapfrog people’s concern with the rainforest, beyond political parties and candidates. We need public policies for the Amazon that are immune to dismantling; this is the imperative of our generation.”

Indigenous leader Juma Xipaya said: “Indigenous and forest peoples have been talking about this for centuries. And not just speaking, but also defending the rainforest and the equilibrium of the planet with our own bodies.” 

Conference participants affirmed their solidarity with the struggles of Indigenous peoples and their call for protection, rights, and wellbeing. 

“Everyone must understand the importance of the forests and of Indigenous peoples in attaining climate justice and for the future of our planet,” said Suruí. “We need genuine, concrete action in order to keep on fighting for all of our lives.”