By joining forces, we can build an alliance that is big enough, and loud enough, to not be ignored.
The headlines this week are full of images of the Amazon on fire; meanwhile, environmental groups have been attacked for using pictures of burning forests that are years out of date.
Yes, these images are causing confusion and in an era of fake news when accuracy is important, it’s right that they are being challenged. However, this discussion really is a distraction from the main issue: the Amazon is burning.
Once upon a time, Brazil achieved a dramatic reduction in rainforest destruction across a vast area, in just a few short years.
Starting in 2005, the Brazilian Government ramped up law enforcement in the Amazon, using homegrown satellite technology, operated by the Brazilian Space Agency, to pinpoint illegal clearing and fires.
Brazil’s annual loss of tropical rainforest plummeted by a remarkable 80 per cent over the following decade; to this day, it is the only country to reduce deforestation on that scale – an incredible achievement that few thought possible.
Tragically, Brazil’s new Government is now undoing those precious gains at breakneck speed. If it continues, the consequences will be catastrophic for Brazilians and for us all.
There are many reasons why protecting the Amazon rainforest is so vital: ecological, economic and the basic human rights of those who live there.
The Amazon rainforest is as large as the continental United States and by far the largest expanse of tropical rainforest in the world. To put this into perspective, it takes a full five hours to fly over the Amazon in an plane.
It is home to more species of animals and plants than anywhere else. It also plays a central role in global climate and weather patterns: vast amounts of carbon are stored in the trunks of trees and soil and when the forest is cleared and burned, that carbon is emitted into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming. When the Amazon is protected, it absorbs millions of tons of carbon dioxide from the air.
Research is also helping scientists understand how important the region is as a giant water pump. The Amazon transfers water from the soil into the atmosphere, fueling rainfall across the entire Western hemisphere.
Other cutting-edge research shows that the trees release certain volatile chemicals into the air, which may also play a key role in climatic regulation.
Messing with the Amazon’s role in climate and rainfall patterns will hurt Brazil first and foremost. The country is an agricultural superpower that exports enormous volumes of soy, beef, coffee and other commodities. Risks of droughts and other weather disruption will bring high and immediate costs to this industry.
Furthermore, well-organised advocacy groups in Europe, North America, and elsewhere will likely call for boycotts of these and other Brazilian products if the situation worsens.
Then there is the water stress facing São Paulo, the largest city in South America, which has previously almost run out of water completely. If rains the city’s reservoirs are not filled by rainfall then a vast urban economy will become unlivable in, affecting 20 million people.
Clearing also affects the millions of acres of forest that is home to indigenous peoples. These are areas previous administrations have worked hard to protect.
Some of these peoples have never had contact with the modern world, and they depend on the forest for their culture and livelihoods. Some will defend their lands against invasion, which could lead to serious violence.
To date, about 20 per cent of the Amazon has already been cleared. The good news is that it’s not too late to save most of it – but it will require a massive, immediate response.
Scientists fear the Amazon could reach a tipping point if more than about 25 to 30 per cent of the forest is lost, leading to an irreversible flip in local weather that could dry out the forest, increase its susceptibility to fire, and cause most of the Amazon to die off. It is a possibility too terrible to imagine.
So what needs to be done? Most important is for the Brazilian Government to quickly reaffirm its commitment to environmental enforcement and restore full funding to the agencies responsible.
While top officials seem unlikely to pay attention to environmentalists, they will listen to Brazilian and foreign business executives and investors, as well as officials from countries that are major trading partners (such as the United States and European nations).
It is now more critical than ever that these leaders speak up, at least in private meetings with Brazilian officials, to make it clear that unless there is a change of course, irreparable damage will be done to Brazil’s image and position as a preferred partner in business and commerce.
Meanwhile, we can all help by providing financial support directly to Brazilian groups on the front lines of the fight to save the Amazon and defend the rights of the indigenous and forest communities most vulnerable in this crisis.
We can also write to the CEOs of major brands and the supermarkets where we shop to urge them all to ensure that the goods they sell did not cause deforestation in Brazil or elsewhere.
This includes soy or meat products originating in Brazil, and meat from animals that have been fed on soy from Brazil, such as pigs raised in factory farms in Europe.
By joining forces with local environmentalists and campaigners in Brazil, the global companies who do business there, our company partners, and the public, we can build an alliance that is big enough, and loud enough, to not be ignored Brazil’s new Government.