Conservation scientist Jos Barlow landed in Santarém, a small city on the Amazon River in northern Brazil, for annual fieldwork researching biodiversity and ecosystem services. It was November 2015 and large swaths of forest were on fire.
“Normally, you get off the plane, and you are hit by this wall of heat and humidity, but this time, you got off the plane, it was acrid smoke burning the back of your throat,” says Barlow. “The whole region was under a pall of smoke.”
A professor of conservation science at Lancaster University, Barlow presented at the 2021 AAAS Annual Meeting held earlier this month about his research studying restoration, biodiversity and climate adaptation in the Amazon.
Together with collaborators in the U.K. and Brazil, he helped establish the Sustainable Amazon Network in 2008. Now involving researchers from more than 30 institutions, the group’s long-term monitoring has contributed valuable insight about the ecosystem and effectiveness of various restoration approaches. Barlow’s AAAS Annual Meeting talk “How Restoration Can Support Climate Change Adaptation and Biodiversity Protection” outlined eight evidence-based recommendations being developed for the UN-supported Science Panel for the Amazon.
For example, restoration efforts that prioritize benefiting people can help ease the pressure to cut trees from more intact forest regions, by providing alternative income sources. Some deforested areas can be planted with fast-growing trees for timber production. Restoring rivers can help rebuild fisheries as an alternative livelihood or food source to other types of agriculture. The overall benefits of this could be crucial to preventing the collapse of the entire system.
“Any conservation intervention in the Amazon has to consider local people,” Barlow says. “We need to find solutions that integrate and support them.”
But Barlow stressed that while restoration is important, it won’t matter if deforestation and fires are not stopped.
“The scale is immense,” Barlow says. “Five million hectares of restoration seems like a lot, but it’s a drop in the ocean when compared to deforestation.”
Barlow’s long career of 20 years studying the Amazon started as he finished his undergraduate work. Brazilian ecologist Carlos Peres funded him and a master’s student to study how fires following the 1998 El Niño weather event had affected bird and tree communities.
That field experience was life-changing.
“It was six months of living in small villages with households that live by the river,” Barlow says. “We would walk to the forest every day, mist netting to catch birds. It was a huge learning curve in terms of language, species identification, living in the tropics.”
At the time, the researchers thought the 1998 El Niño fires were bad. Then came 2015, when the Sustainable Amazon Network had just finished setting up a series of long-term monitoring plots spanning from severely degraded to intact forests. They thought they were going to be able to measure how fast the forest was recovering. Instead, they watched as the slow-moving fires crept through the undergrowth, ultimately burning 1.7 million hectares of forest in the region, including half their study plots and equipment.
Since they had just surveyed the trees on their plots, the researchers were able to learn what characteristics make trees more susceptible to fire. Frequent monitoring of the plots has revealed lasting damage from the fires. “Some of the largest trees are still dying,” Barlow says.
While it can be disheartening to see these changes, Barlow also finds it motivating.
“You want to go out there and do really good science to show in very precise terms what is happening, so at least no one can say they didn’t have the information at hand,” Barlow says.
And in the State of Pará – it’s working. In 2020, the state government declared it wants to be climate neutral by 2035. To estimate how much restoration will be required, officials used data provided by Barlow and his collaborators about how fast secondary forests are growing. The research had revealed growth rates are slower there than in more intact, wetter sections of the Amazon.
“Actually using the data we collected to set targets for the state, and seeing it in a state decree, is really encouraging,” Barlow says.
Barlow usually visits the Amazon at least once a year, though fieldwork is on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Talking to local people on those trips is vital to setting a relevant research agenda, he says. On his last visit in November 2019, Barlow heard how farmers are unable to work in their fields past 10 a.m. because it has gotten much hotter than in the past. This inspired him to propose tests of different restoration measures that might also reduce local temperatures.
He’s also involved in a project, led by Joice Ferreira, Ph.D., at the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation, co-developing solutions for forest fires with local communities and reserve managers. For example, linking remote sensing information with reserve managers and local communities could help firefighters on the ground to detect and extinguish fires early. Because fires in the Amazon burn slowly, it’s possible to extinguish them before they get out of control.
“Science needs to move much more towards finding the solutions and showing what solutions work,” Barlow said. “If we can move beyond describing the problem and actually be evaluating the solutions, then we can have a much more positive role in the discussion.”