Each day the life of the forest is at stake. Photo: Karina Segovia.

The Amazon on the Edge of the Abyss: The Battle to Prevent Irreversible Loss

August 9th, 2023

The Amazon is in a critical state, on the verge of irreversible loss due to rampant deforestation. This report highlights the urgent call to save our planet and preserve this invaluable ecosystem. Worried voices, impactful testimonies, and alarming data reveal the serious situation that the Amazon region is facing. It is time to act before it’s too late and to listen to the silent cry of the jungle.


Roberto Navia Gabriel

CEO Nómadas of Magazine

This research has been prepared by Revista Nómadas, with the support of WWF Bolivia.

The recent rains have fallen on a deserted land, and the water has drained away within a handful of hours. Not like before when, even after the dark clouds finished emptying themselves, it kept raining inside the forest because the drops that remained on the treetops and palms descended unhurriedly and fell leisurely throughout the night, reaching the ground where wild animals dwelled.

«Many things are changing in the northern Amazon,» laments Constancio Chávez, as he gazes at the horizon where there was once beautiful vegetation he loved to see every time he passed through this region of the Beni department, where his mud house with a motacú roof is located on the outskirts of Riberalta.

But deforestation has been relentless, brought on by a Mennonite colony and a peasant community that, attracted by the construction of the Riberalta-Rurrenabaque road in the Bolivian department of Beni, entered to produce soybeans where there used to be natural wetlands teeming with capybaras and lizards, and where wide-crowned trees served as nesting grounds for herons that came from other continents.

The point of no return in the Amazon refers to a critical threshold beyond which processes of degradation and deforestation in the Amazon region become irreversible.

Constancio Chávez’s concern about forest losses is not isolated. Like his, in Bolivia, there are many voices confirming the global concern that the Amazon is being ravaged by deforestation, affecting not only the lives of indigenous communities and wildlife but also the rest of the planet.

The evidence from the testimonies collected now by Nómadas Magazine from different places within the Bolivian Amazon, as well as from the Chiquitano Dry Forest and the transition zones between both biomes, confirms the data from a technical study presented in November 2022 by WWF UK, in collaboration with WWF Brazil and WWF’s Amazon Coordination Unit. The study revealed that we are facing a critical risk of abrupt vegetation change, a tipping point or a point of no return.

The point of no return in the Amazon refers to a critical threshold beyond which the processes of degradation and deforestation in the Amazon region become irreversible, significantly compromising the ecosystem’s ability to recover. This point implies that the damages caused to the forest and ecological balance are so extensive that the ecosystem can no longer regenerate by itself or reverse the negative impacts within a reasonable period.

Deforestation around Concepción lagoon.

The point of no return in the Amazon is a cause for concern due to the serious consequences it entails for biodiversity, ecosystem services, and the global climate. The massive loss of Amazonian forests could trigger a process of desertification, transforming large areas of the jungle into dry and degraded ecosystems. Furthermore, the Amazon is considered one of the planet’s largest carbon sinks, so its destruction would mean the release of significant amounts of greenhouse gases, exacerbating climate change.

Early warning indicators – as per the WWF’s technical study – based on observation data and models, already revealed a possible destabilization of the Amazon rainforest, and the critical tipping point for annual precipitation, the duration of the dry season, and average deforestation issues the alert that one-third (34%) of the Amazon biome has already experienced at least one critical tipping point. That percentage is comparable to an area of 2.4 million km2, approximately one-fourth of the size of Europe.

The document issued by WWF highlights the Amazon’s astonishing facts: «Covering approximately 6.9 million km2, the biome spans nine countries and territories, with just over half of the forest located in Brazil. An incredible 15% of all photosynthesis occurring worldwide takes place in the Amazon, and it is estimated that around 17% of all the world’s plant carbon is stored there. The Amazon is so vast and located in the trajectory of the Intertropical Convergence Zone that the entire forest acts as a gigantic water pump, so powerful that each raindrop can be recycled through the trees and fall 5 or 6 times as it crosses the basin from east to west. A short and stable dry season, the arrival of adequate water from the tropical Atlantic, and this donated cascade of water are all essential to maintain the forest.»

However, the health of this extensive natural lung that occupies 40% of South America’s territory and produces 20% of the planet’s pure air—as demonstrated—is not encouraging.

By the end of last March, the sun was setting on the horizon over several indigenous communities in Bolivia, visited by Nómadas Magazine to evidence the environmental crisis and show how the shadow of tragedy looms over the majesty of the Amazon. An agonizing whisper echoed among the centuries-old trees of Porvenir, Piso Firme, and Bella Vista (in the Noel Kempff Mercado National Park), as estimates of carbon reserves came to light thanks to the technical study presented by WWF in 2022, revealing the magnitude of what was at stake.

The figures were overwhelming. Between 100 billion and 200 billion tons of carbon, equivalent to 367 and 733 Gigatons of carbon dioxide (CO2), are held captive in the depths of the Amazon jungle. It was an invaluable wealth, a treasure hidden in every leaf and every breath of nature. But, at the same time, it was a fragile balance, vulnerable to human greed and indifference.

The fate of the Amazon swings on a narrow thread. Scientists issued their warning that to stay within the 1.5°C climate target, the global carbon budget ranged from 360 to 510 gigatons of CO2. Missing the opportunity to keep the planet within the 1.5-degree Celsius limit —as several environmental experts and scientists agree— would leave us without the possibility of confronting the climate crisis. The Amazon acts as a regulator of the regional and global climate, so losing it would affect the lives of more than 300 million people living in South America, which demonstrates the gravity at both regional and planetary levels. A sigh of anguish escaped from the lips of those who understood the meaning of these figures. One of them was Hortensia Gómez, the chief of the indigenous community of Piso Firme, the community located at the doors of Noel Kempff Mercado.

«If the attacks on the forests don’t stop, the entire planet will fall sick. We know this because our ancestors had been repeating it to us,» said Hortensia Gómez.

Ancient wisdom is supplemented by technical evidence, like the WWF study that refers to the total loss of the Amazon, that green lung that spans vast expanses of land, could deplete the remaining carbon budget to achieve the 1.5°C target. The future of our climate, our lives, and the entire planet is at risk, threatened by the voracity of deforestation:

If the loss of the biome is realized, 47 million people living in the Amazon region would see their lives affected, their livelihoods threatened, and their homes stripped of their essence. Terrestrial biodiversity, that vast tapestry of life interwoven in the Amazon, would stagger on the edge of the abyss. Ecosystems and unique species would be at risk of disappearing forever, leaving an irreplaceable void in the very heart of the Earth.

Concepción Lagoon, dry and surrounded by deforestation.

It is worth remembering that historically, the Amazon has suffered the whims of governments, policies, and decisions that led to an unbridled increase in deforestation. But now, at this crucial moment, the situation must change. A collective voice rises to demand a new course, to prevent the catastrophic and abrupt change that the Amazon is heading towards.

Action to protect the Amazon must go hand in hand with a global commitment to meet climate objectives and eliminate the two main threats.

In another part of Bolivia, the increase in temperature is felt and suffered for much of the year. The moment one hectare of Amazonian forest is removed, the temperature rises, and that devastated area becomes a heat island. As the temperature rises, the remaining trees also suffer the consequences because evapotranspiration – the loss of their moisture – increases, making them vulnerable to forest fires.

This increase in heat has been experienced by Dirlene Mejía, a former park ranger of the Comprehensive Management Natural Area (ANMI) Laguna Concepción, whose water mirror of over 5,000 hectares has disappeared entirely, twice the size of Plan 3.000, the largest and most populous neighborhood of Santa Cruz de la Sierra.

Laguna Concepción – Dirlene laments – was crucial to the life of the Chiquitano communities of Motacucito and El Cerro.

In the geographic heart of the Bolivian department of Santa Cruz, lies the dry body of Laguna Concepción, framed by the imposing Chiquitano Dry Forest and extending into the municipalities of Pailón and San José. Despite bearing two scrolls on its chest that should have protected it and caught the attention of its guardians, its presence has been ignored. Since 2002, the lagoon holds the title of a RAMSAR site, a recognition that should guarantee its importance as an internationally relevant wetland under the UNESCO environmental treaty established in 1971. Additionally, in 2009, it was designated as a protected area, currently known as the Conservation Unit of the Natural Heritage (UCPN) – Departamental Wildlife Refuge Laguna Concepción, covering an area of 135,566 hectares. Despite these recognitions, Laguna Concepción has been neglected, and urgent measures must be taken to preserve this natural treasure and ensure its existence for future generations.

The San Ignacio de Velasco Lagoon. Wounded, due to deforestation and other threats. Photo: Nomadas Magazine.

But Concepción is not the only lagoon affected by the damaging hands of humans. In the last four years, 181 hectares of the water mirror have vanished from the San Ignacio de Velasco reservoir. The tributaries of the basin have also dried up as logging destroys the forests to expand the agricultural and livestock frontiers.

The challenge of avoiding the tipping point will require bold actions in the nine Amazonian countries and territories, surpassing any previous efforts.

This phenomenon has chain consequences. The Chiquitano indigenous communities inhabiting the entire basin suffer the consequences, just like the urban areas such as San Ignacio de Velasco, which for years has relied on the reservoir built near this warm locality to satisfy its water needs.

The potters of Sutuniquiña, an indigenous community two kilometers from San Ignacio, not only suffer from the scarcity of drinking water that they used to get from the reservoir but also for their crafts since the clay they use for their products requires a considerable amount of water.

Over the last 37 years, Bolivia has lost a total of 7.9 million hectares of forest, reducing its forested area from 63 million hectares in 1985 to 55 million hectares in 2022, as explained by Marlene Quintanilla, the Director of Research and Knowledge Management at the Friends of Nature Foundation (FAN) in Bolivia, using data from MapBiomas Bolivia and the collection of annual maps that reveal changes in land cover and land use in Bolivia between 1985 and 2022, conducted by FAN Bolivia with the support of the Amazonian Network of Socio-environmental Information (RAISG).

The year 2021 marked a concerning milestone in deforestation and land conversion in Bolivia, according to data compiled by MapBiomas Bolivia. Throughout the country, a total of 380,249 hectares of forest and 259,002 hectares of non-forest ecosystems were lost. In other words, around 639,251 hectares of nature vanished, which is equivalent to approximately one-sixth of the territory of the Tarija department.

Footprints of an animal walking along the banks of the Tuichi River. Photo: Lisa Corti.

Deforestation and land conversion have been increasing year after year since 2016 when 279,158 hectares were lost, and since 2019, when the figure rose to 442,188 hectares, reaching historical records each time. The devastation observed in 2021 represents 33.4% of the total of the previous five years combined. Unfortunately, the trend continues in 2022, and preliminary data indicate that 429,000 hectares of forest have been lost, nearly reaching the record level registered in 2019.

In the vast territory of the Amazon, a vital lung for the planet, time seems to be running out. The threat of the tipping point looms, but there is still hope to reduce the risk. However, any solution to preserve this crucial ecosystem must include safeguarding and strengthening the rights of indigenous peoples.

The ancestral peoples are the guardians of the Amazon. Their forested lands, which hold one-third of the region’s carbon and have the lowest deforestation rates, act as a bulwark against degradation. Protecting and recognizing these rights becomes essential to maintain the balance and richness of the Amazon rainforest.

The challenge of avoiding the tipping point will require bold actions in the nine Amazonian countries and territories, surpassing any previous efforts. A long-term commitment is imperative to prevent harmful interests from prevailing in the region. New and ambitious approaches are needed to achieve deforestation-free objectives and financing.

Unfortunately, many internal commitments are far from fulfilling their goals at present. It is urgent to eliminate deforestation from supply chains, but additional solutions are required. Budgetary changes in Brazil during recent administrations exemplify how the stability of national agencies is linked to the deforestation trajectory in the Amazon.

However, there are signs of hope. The reactivation of the Amazon Fund, halted during the previous administration, provides an opportunity to stabilize protection policies. But beyond this, a solid and long-term approach supported by forest and environmental management units in the nine countries and territories is needed.

Action to protect the Amazon must go hand in hand with a global commitment to meet climate objectives and eliminate the two main threats: climate change and forest loss and degradation. Past institutional reforms have proven to be transient, so it is crucial to establish robust protection systems and a stable climate that allows the Amazon to thrive as the «living Amazon.»

As concern grows for the Amazon, there are indigenous communities, such as Palmarito de la Frontera and those living in Laguna Marfil de San Ignacio de Velasco, working to find solutions to the problems caused to nature by human hands.

The hope of fighting for nature has not been lost. Photo: Karina Segovia.

Palmarito de la Frontera is a centuries-old community residing in the southern part of the Monte Verde territory, which covers an area of one million hectares. Their forest organization combines local knowledge with current norms to keep forests standing in the transitional area from the Amazon rainforest to the tropical dry forest.

It is imperative to engage in long-term commitments to prevent harmful interests from prevailing in the region.

«The area where there are timber species allows us to have sources of income for our community and also to manage the forests properly so that we can continue to have timber in the future. This way, we are also taking care of our forests,» says Mauricio Tomichá, former legal representative and current president of the OTB of Palmarito de la Frontera.

The timber in the forest, though at the initial link of the production chain, sustains the rural economy in indigenous communities. Nevertheless, Palmarito de la Frontera faces high pressure from neighboring Mennonite colonies year after year to prevent deforestation of their territory, defending their forest management model against agricultural models proposing land conversion.

In the Municipal Integrated Natural Management Area of Laguna Marfil in San Ignacio de Velasco, Bolivia, a story of hope and resilience is unfolding. Forestry has emerged as a fundamental tool in protecting and conserving the diverse ecosystems and wildlife that inhabit this protected area. The residents of local communities have joined forces and firmly believe that forest management, based on scientific knowledge and ancestral practices, becomes a protective shield against forest fires, land invasion, drought, and deforestation.

With determination and dedication, the women of the communities, such as Marcia Macoñó in Laguna Marfil, have embraced this holistic approach, recognizing the importance of their role as guardians of nature. Together, they are implementing strategies for sustainable forest management, promoting forest regeneration, and responsible use of natural resources. Through community empowerment and training in sustainable forestry practices, they are forging a future where balance between man and nature becomes the norm. This story of collaboration and commitment inspires others to follow their footsteps, demonstrating that the union of science and ancestral wisdom can be the key to preserving the natural treasures that surround us.


This research has been prepared by Revista Nómadas, with the support of WWF Bolivia.






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