The fires in the Amazon have stirred up a lot of debate recently. Like the burning of land cleared for cattle ranches, it seems to have caught the edge of consciousness even for people not usually all too interested in the environment. I think that’s because most of us grew up with the Amazon as a backdrop for environmentalism. The lungs of our planet they called it. We sang songs to save the Amazon and watched terrible adverts to protect the rainforest. Largely, it gets sold as a success story and indeed deforestation took a drastic downwards swing through the 2000s (I beg you to not call the post 90s anxiety years, the naughties).
The conversations that have enflamed us since the scale of the fires was reported in mainstream media have been full of constructive chatter and also a significant amount of mistruths, misinformation, and confusion. There is a huge discussion intersecting the burning with veganism. Some of that makes sense. Some of it understandably loses its nuance in 300 characters. Some of it turns on proponents of veganism. Some of it is entirely privileged and exclusive. Some of it is completely unnecessary infighting when it’s the entire system we’re up against. So let’s clear some of the most pervasive issues up here and how we need to move forward together.
Aren’t forest fires normal?
Yes. And controlled fires are normal too. First Nations people in Australia have used them effectively for tens of thousands of years. It’s also simply reckless behaviour that can cause fires. It’s dry season so lighting a little patch may quickly spread into a massive fire region.
So many fires at this scale are not natural in the Amazon though which is a rainforest; a wet forest. It is drenched most of the year. Fires here are ignited by humans. Although this is carried out every year, it’s part of the slash-and-burn strategy by farmers in the Amazon, this is not a normal year. The deforestation rate has increased 88 percent over the past year. The number of fires has increased 84 percent compared to the same time in 2018, according to INPE (the National Institute for Space Research) in Brazil. And the dry season, the season for burning, has only just begun.
How many fires have there actually been?
There have been more than 74,000 fires across Brazil this year, and nearly 40,000 fires across the Amazon, according to INPE (updated data shows 41,858 fires recorded in the Amazon as of August 24).
Though the number of fires is indeed a whopping increase on last year, it’s not when you consider the past two decades in total. 2005 (a year which suffered a severe El Niño-induced drought), 2007 and 2010 were by far the worst years for burning in this period.
What is more worrying than the number of fires is the extent (area size) of the burning. INPE only releases data monthly so we’ll shortly see how much area has been burned through but this does appear to be higher than trends after 2005 and is definitely accelerating the wrong way. Most fires generally occur from September to December so this could become hugely destructive in terms of scope. According to INPE, deforestation is 57 percent ahead of last year through the end of July, the fastest rate of deforestation since 2008.
Important to note: satellites do not detect most fires that are burning beneath the canopy of standing forests. These fires actually do the most damage.
“It is these low fires, that rarely reach the knee, that do the most damage, burning slowly across the forest floor, killing giant trees with thin bark. Once these trees die, they fall to the ground, opening up huge gaps in the forest canopy that allow more sunlight to reach the forest floor, drying the fuel layer and making the forest more prone to further burning.” – Daniel Nepstad (Scientist & Head of Earth Innovation Institute)
Are these fires caused by climate change?
No. They have been started by humans. Dry season makes them easier to spread and with the loss of trees, vegetation alights easier and quickens their pace. Climate change does indeed intensify fires, or create the conditions that can see wildfires start, in many places of the world (like California last year) but these are not fires burning due to climate change. They were ignited by people. That said, climate change can – and does – make drought conditions worse or more regular. It will make the Amazon more vulnerable to fires like this.
The loss of forest itself can also be part of the cause of drought and forest fire. Rainfall of the Amazon depends upon water released into the atmosphere by its trees.
“Fire is a huge problem in the Amazon region. Large-scale fires in standing forests during extreme dry periods are the biggest threat to these forests in a warming world. Once burned, forests become more vulnerable to further burning. And as deforestation and repeated fire reduce forest cover, rainfall is inhibited.” – Daniel Nepstad (Scientist & Head of Earth Innovation Institute)
Why is the Amazon burning?
The majority of the fires burning in the Amazon right now were started by humans for agriculture, mining and logging. Fires are generally started by farmers using slash-and-burn techniques which return nutrients in the soil for crops, largely for cattle ranching and animal feed. Burning forests also helps to clear areas and drive Indigenous peoples off their land.
Cattle ranching makes up approximately 65-70 percent of the deforestation rates in the Amazon. The World Bank actually reports that cattle ranching occupies 80 percent of converted lands in the Amazon. Although it’s predominantly for meat and animal feed, it’s not just the agriculture industry. Illegal mining and logging for timber have been taking a massive toll on the Amazon too. Gold, aluminum, and oil deposits in the Amazon have seen a surge in illegal mining to unprecedented levels, according to the Amazon Georeferenced Socio-Environmental Information Network, an environmental watchdog group. Gold mines in particularly have proven a nightmare for the environment and Indigenous groups. All kinds of people are involved, including even Catholic missionaries (who have supported the mines).
It’s also the leather industry. Research shows raising cattle in the Amazon for leather is a primary industry; not just a by-product of the agriculture industry for food.
There’s also a sidebar here to add that land values would likely also play a part. Land holdings can increase in worth as they establish bigger pastures, and it’s therefore valuable for farmers and businesses to keep this land available for commercial interests. Land speculators are also part of the illegal deforestation work to sell land back to farmers at inflated costs.The problems feeds into each other too. Soy has driven up land prices in the region, creating literal fertile ground for cattle ranchers to sell their land to soy developers for larger earnings. I’m not sure why we don’t talk about this more globally actually; consistently increasing land values exist largely for commercialization, without any incentive to preserve trees, scrub and native species.
But, soy. That’s the fault of plant-based eaters!
No, it’s not. 80 percent of the soy produced in the world (as in the Amazon if not more) is destined for animal feed. We’re also not personally big advocates for soy due to the Monsanto takeover of the product – you certainly do not need it to live a healthy, sustainable plant-based lifestyle. But, your occasional tofu or soy milk is not killing the Amazon.
Will not eating meat stop these fires?
There is a clear and obvious connection between the pressure on the Amazon and meat. The Amazon is largely destroyed specifically for meat production and feed for livestock. That much is entirely clear. Remove this demand and the Amazon would not be under this pressure (though of course miners may step in more). The Amazon looked a whole lot different in 1950.
Brazil is the biggest exporter of beef in the world. It is followed by India, Australia and the United States. It is also now the biggest exporter of poultry too. In 2018 Brazil exported the most beef ever. Clearly our appetite for meat is growing. Generally speaking, the wealthier a country becomes, and the more our population increases, the more meat is eaten. Industrialized nations have long indulged in meat beyond sustainable practises and increasingly China is now wielding huge influence on the demand. Hong Kong (24 percent of the beef shipped) and China (23 percent) topped the demand for beef from Brazil last year. The EU, United Arab Emirates and Chile also increased their imports from Brazil whilst other major importers are Egypt and Russia. Brazil was also recently cleared to export to Indonesia which is an increasing importer of beef as the middle class becomes more affluent and already a major market of Australian beef (particularly in the live-cattle-for-meat export trade). If you live in one of these countries, and have access to other options and choices, definitely check your meat. Your purchase may indeed be contributing directly to Amazon fires and deforestation. The EU imports more than $600m worth of beef from Brazil each year.
Meat is a problem across the world full stop. It is a problem because of industrial agriculture also known as intensive animal farming. A majority of all our meat comes from factory farms. Our supermarket fridges and freezers are dominated by factory farmed meat.
Is it privileged to ask people to stop eating meat?
Yes. Perhaps it is so because the call to veganism is potentially best directed to privileged people. Those of us who are in that target audience – plus China and increasingly other BRAC countries like Brazil themselves – are the ones eating meat to excessive amounts. Not most of the public in the Global South. This message seems to be getting lost a lot. There is a very strong undertone of whiteness – and to some extent sexism – in the vegan movement.
Veganism will not solve all our problems by a long shot. But if white people in cities across the industrialized world and middle-high income China ate a lot less of it, we’d be decreasing a major emissions source. It’s simply not possible to eat so much meat even if it was obtained only from regenerative and truly sustainable farming which currently only exist on a tiny scale (and need to include adopting far better methods for land-use change and water usage). There are too many of us to eat that much meat each week for this to be feasible, so we absolutely do need to cut down on our meat in the Global North. Numerous scientific reports have now suggested this despite the extreme pushback they receive from meat eaters who wish to justify their habits. The countries that eat the most meat are United States, Australia, Argentina, Uruguay, Israel and Brazil in that order. Americans and Australians eat about 95 kilograms (209 pounds) of meat per person, per year. Canadians, EU citizens and New Zealanders come in at around 70kg (154 pounds) per person, per year.
I want to ensure we don’t miss this. I – and I am certain many of us – know many, many people who eat far too much meat who absolutely have access to different options. Australians telling me that their six figure household income is not enough to afford fresh produce, whilst they live in their half-a-million-dollar home with their big SUV, is extremely inaccurate. Laziness is absolutely part of the problem and so are selfish and indulgent lifestyle choices. I know many families who have children who can afford to buy ethical products (and less of these) who continue to shop at stores that sell items with slave labor as they do not care as long as it’s not their own children. I do not want to skim over this. There are many, many millions of people who exacerbate this issue who could not care less or do not care to make a change. They refuse to take responsibility for their choices and are soaked in a privilege that tells them they ‘deserve’ this, that they are ‘entitled’ to this and how they can justify these decisions. Culture plays its part too. So too does advertising and industry campaigns around dairy for bone strength and meat for protein. And, women remain the main source of the food shopping and cooking at home each week which means lifestyle changes and the burden of this and feeding kids, remains with us. It’s time we equalled this out much better too (the idea of meat also has some interesting masculinity lineage in it too).
But, and this is a big but, there are many people who eat meat sustainably or who do not have access to anything else. Our system screws this up for us again. We have food deserts in high-income countries like the States. We have subsidized agriculture in nations across the world where fresh produce is more expensive than meat and processed fast food. We have a work system where many of us are working 40 – 70 hours per week, plus longer and longer travel times (in places like California it is not uncommon to commute two hours per day). That makes it difficult to spend an hour or two cooking each day if you’re a family struggling to do everything else. Meat is fast and filling. Indigenous peoples absolutely eat meat sustainably. You only need look at First Nations people in Australia to understand how sustainably they managed their animals and land and the cultural rituals and traditions that went with taking the life of an animal to sustain your own. You do not need to be a perfect vegan (not possible). You do not need to cut out all your meat. Where possible we do need to be far more sustainable.
Factory farming will absolutely be on the wrong side of history. It is indeed appalling and when you see an issue, when your eyes are open to it, if it hits your heart, you advocate for it. You try and solve it. We should cut vegans a lot more slack in this regard. If you spend time in factory farms most of us will feel the extreme pain this causes. It’s empathy. Where it’s lecturing lower-economic communities and countries, or being exclusive to people of color and other cultures, we should absolutely point this out. We should be shifting this conversation to an intersectional one. And we should be remembering that veganism is in no way a white trend nor should it be. White people were not the original environmentalists either. Plenty of cultures around the world have led vegetarian diets for centuries whilst others incorporate significant plant-based eating and would never consume meat the way we do. We are a late adopter of this movement and for some reason made it extremely restrictive with a fancy name. It’s time we recognized the cultural practises of other peoples. It’s also high-time we acknowledge that white capitalism and industrialization got us into this mess. Talking about veganism without talking about that is useless. But let’s also educate and understand not every Instagram post can be filled with this (the character limit alone can be very restrictive!). Look at the broader information being provided and ensure it’s inclusive and understanding. If it isn’t, reach out and educate (white people especially, this burden should not fall on others but on us).
Eating vegan causes environment issues too doesn’t it?
It depends on how you eat. Nearly every part of our food system has problems. Major ones. You don’t even eliminate all these issues if you only buy local (within an hour or two), organic and plant food. You can’t stop the spread of all those pesticides flying across the land or being taken up through condensation then raining on that organic farm. We have depleted the nutrients in our soil significantly. Monocropping is a huge issue that we’re barely discussing in the public at large. You’re still causing emissions from farm to you unless those trucks are running on the electric highway in Germany. Eating like this is also incredibly expensive.
Vegan ‘superfoods’ and ‘exotic’ foods also absolutely cause local issues somewhere else. Jackfruit has become a famous vegan fruit with local ecosystem destruction. Almonds have experienced a resurgence for non-dairy milk but are typically grown in drought prone regions like California and use an enormous amount of water whilst then being packaged in plastic. Avocados are being priced out so that local people can’t afford to eat them and may even be supporting cartels. Same goes for quinoa. Cashews are pretty awful for unethical labor.
Vegan foods still include, a bit bizarrely so, palm oil. Palm oil is the biggest factor in the future extinction of orangutans and has wiped out millions of acres of forests in Asia destroying ecosystems, other animal species and local lives.
Of course, one of the arguments here is that this could be similar to regenerative meat farming as that would also still cause issues and you’re right, it can be. The answer here is that our population demands an enormous amount from the environment and at scale we are going to have problems. We just need to pick the smaller problems and which ones we want to have (and create systems that ensure the rewards and consequences of this are fairly distributed).
So does the Amazon belong to all of us?
Well no, not really. It affects us all but if we’re going to go ahead and divide the world up into borders, then no. Over half the Amazon (60 percent) is in Brazil’s territory. A legacy of colonization and the white saviour myth creates a real problem here; one that President Bolsonaro is currently trying to leverage with Brazilians.
The Amazon does however have a global value. So too, does all our environment. Privilege stains the words of leaders condemning Brazil whilst their own natural spaces are routinely destroyed for profit. In America, the UK & Australia there are far-right leaders in power. In the former and latter land is routinely stolen and mined. Australia has the highest rate of mammalian extinction in the world and is the only industrialized country on the deforestation hotspot list. None are acting enough on climate change (if at all as is essentially the case for two). Not exactly good examples for Brazil. China is essentially run by a dictator. India is not much better. In Germany, a left-leaning leader on her way out of a right party runs a country whose forests are dying. Do we expect these leaders to then tell Brazil what they can and can’t do with their forests?
The Amazon sequesters a significant portion of carbon for us, but it may emit a whole lot more carbon if it dies out. One fifth of the Amazon has already been lost in the past fifty years. Scientists suggest the dieback scenario will start if we lose 20 – 25 percent of the forest so we’re very, very close to seeing that begin and watching the Amazon slowly become a savanna. It’s therefore a crucial part of keeping climate change at bay, but, it’s only one part. We all have a lot of work to do in our own countries and scapegoating the Amazon doesn’t help anyone.
Is it really our lung? Does the Amazon really produce 20% of our oxygen?
No. Oxygen is not a key reason to worry here. This arbitrary figure is used all across mainstream media, by world leaders and has filled our social channels but it’s not accurate. Nearly 70 percent of our oxygen comes from phytoplankton (and other marine plants) in the ocean. Even then, it wouldn’t even be physically possible for the Amazon to produce that much oxygen into our atmosphere.
Scientists at Project Drawdown say the Amazon produces about 6 percent of the planet’s oxygen which also seems a much more realistic figure to us. That’s still a lot but that’s not net contribution. The Amazon also requires oxygen itself. The net contribution to the oxygen we breathe is minimal.
Instead of thinking of it like a lung, some scientists suggest thinking of it like an air conditioner. It pulls carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and cools the planet. It’s also much more concerning in terms of biodiversity; a conversation that often gets missed in the climate change discussion.
How does colonialism have anything to do with Amazon forest fires?
Read a history on Brazil. Initial colonization was to harvest wood. See how world leaders react. See how government departments want to control the land. Then read just a few of the things Bolsonaro has said about Indigenous peoples in his country. He wants them to “develop like the rest of the country”. Bolsonaro promised that under his presidency there would be no further demarcation of indigenous lands. Within the first month of his presidency he even transferred the demarcation of Indigenous lands from the government’s Indigenous Agency (FUNAI), to the ministry of agriculture.
This is a human rights issue. It’s a human rights due to the stealing of Indigenous lands & resources, their deaths and removal from land that is theirs. It is also a human rights issue due to the slave labor the cattle industry (and timber) promotes that is often overlooked. According to the Walk Free NGO, an estimated 160,000 people are trapped in some form of slavery in Brazil – nearly one-third from cattle ranches.
It is a major political issue. It is also an ecological issue and a climate issue, but firstly a human rights issue. Indigenous peoples have a right to their own land and their own management (including cultures and traditions) of it. Indigenous peoples will also be one of the groups hardest hit by climate change.
“For us to lose the forest and the animals in these fires … they are basically burning our rights and our way of life. The fires are destroying where we get our food; they are damaging the rivers where we get our water; and they are impacting our rituals. So these burnings are immeasurable losses.” – Sônia Guajajara, Indigenous leader in Brazil
Why are the Amazon fires more important than other fires happening right now?
Siberia has been on fire for weeks. More than 21,000 square miles of forest have gone up in flames this month and the peat that is burning is dangerous. Peat fires, which burn deep into the ground, can last weeks. As peat dries up it becomes highly flammable. In the Arctic, record amounts of CO2 are being released into the atmosphere as peat stores a lot of carbon. Equally concerning is Bolivia. Greenland, the Canary Islands, Greece, Turkey, Indonesia and Alaska have all been ablaze this month too. Angola and the Congo are currently absolutely ravaged with thousands of more fires than the Amazon. According to Bloomberg and Weather Source, there were 6,902 fires in Angola and 3,395 fires in Democratic Republic of Congo, compared with just 2,127 fires in Brazil. In fact, if you take a look at NASA’s fire mapping data, you’ll see this swath of Africa absolutely ablaze. Pretty much the entirety of Madagascar also appears to be on fire. We’re not sure what kind of fires these are yet entirely. Even right next to the Amazon, the Cerrado savanna is having plenty of issues (soy farming for livestock).
The Amazon has a few particular distinguishers. It is home to the largest concentration of biodiversity on the planet but the forest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is second (we’ve spoken before how little we talk about this ecosystem). The Amazon plays a role in regulating local climate but scientists are also still learning how it affects the global climate system. The Amazon also generates needed rainfall that benefits our ecosystems but also fills reservoirs Brazillians use, it moderates extreme weather, it controls flooding through its soil and it purifies water into municipal supplies. In fact the World Resources Institute suggests the Amazon “generates more value than the resources used to keep it whole” (Frances Seymour). Some of the other fires are wildfires, starting naturally and increasing, whilst the Amazon is human ignited.
The Amazon has also had a positive turnaround for years that has now significantly regressed. It is inching closer to a dieback scenario it will not recover from. Even if people were to eventually replant all the trees as new virgin forest and leave it alone, the diversity of animals and plants found in the Amazon would not be replenished for approximately 10 million years. It is not necessarily more important, it is different. I personally think as so many of us grew up on stories of the Amazon much more than the forests of the Congo, it hits a nerve with us somewhere else. We have some kind of stronger connection. We understand it a little more. And of course, our education systems have not helped.
It’s sad but none of this matters too much if we figure out technology to save us, right?
A classic white saviour complex and bleeding with the colonial mindset. We will colonize the world and then we will conquer our environment. Who wants to live in that world though?
I’m personally so tired of this argument. There’s a lot to say on this but for now, no. Geoengineering and other magical technological solutions are not even currently within our grasp and we rely heavily on the future idea of these without understanding the consequences. There are also little, if any, examples of humans interfering with our ecosystem and not having a negative consequence on the other side. Let’s care for the environment we already have and support those who have done this for thousands of years.
Are there better solutions? What can we actually do?
Yes. But these need to come mostly from Brazil. We can play our part, and certainly our governments can, but we must also be equal players and institute these policies within our own countries too.
The G7 leaders reign over a combined GDP of $300 trillion. Pledging $20 million is a drop in the bucket and to an authoritarian regime in Brazil will mean nothing, nor have any meaningful impact. Money is actually pretty useless at this point outside of donating to local grassroots organizations and Indigenous groups and finding ways to engage cattle ranchers and farmers. The problem is political and legal (exacerbated by economics).
Brazil can use their current laws
Brazil actually has laws in place to curb deforestation. It simply needs to choose to follow the law again. This hasn’t happened under numerous governments. Brazil is famously corrupt (important to remember all our countries are but with varying levels of obfuscation) and following the law does not appear to be on the current political agenda. The Brazilian environment ministry’s enforcement department issued nearly 30 percent fewer fines this year compared to last year. The Brazilian consistution also offers protection to Indigenous peoples (the least we can do). The problem of course is enforcement. You need a government, and supported government departments, non-corrupt local agencies, free press (a Brazilian senator from Bolsonaro’s party posted an image last week saying “the great danger today is not nazism it’s journazism”) and activism to enforce laws. We’ve talked previously about the Surui Paiter peoples for example and the illegal invasion of their land for mining.
Engage with cattle farmers & ranchers
Beef exports generated $6.7 billion for the Brazil’s economy in 2018. What will they replace this with? This shouldn’t be set up as a case of economy vs environment. That’s one of the most persistent and pervasive problems with the capitalist system we all find ourselves in. It seems to consistently forget that without an environment, we won’t have an economy. Between 2005 and 2014, deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon declined by 70 percent with improved environmental protections, international funding, pressure from activists, and more efficient farming. This cost the Brazilian government between $308 and $923 per hectare of avoided deforestation. During the same time, Brazil’s economy grew, 29 million people were lifted out of poverty, and income inequality decreased. We can have better living conditions and not exacerbate deforestation.
Brazil also already has the highest bar for forest conservation in the world for its farmers. An Amazon farmer must conserve at least 80 percent of their farm for forests. This has obviously been difficult to implement and farmers are obviously counting their economic losses from this where they should have been monetarily supported (through for example, reward schemes that compensated for these losses).
There are other options too. Costa Rica restricted logging permits that had decimated two-thirds of the forsest, implemented financial incentives in rural areas to fight poverty and preserve land, and in turn saw it’s economy grow, it’s rainforests double and will now most likely be one of the first carbon-neutral countries.
International aid can help here more again too. Germany and Norway already contribute to the Amazon Fund, an almost $880 million pool to combat deforestation in Amazon rainforest. It is mostly allocated to Brazil but also includes neighboring countries where the forest is found. The fund has so far disbursed $469 million including for restoration & Indigenous communities. That said, the fund has not made its way to most medium-sized farmers who are exasperated at not being able to use the land they consider their own. Just like we can aid lower-economic countries in setting up and supply renewable energy instead of relying on fossil fuels. There are now “pay-for-performance” contracts between the Brazil government and Norway and Germany which depend on deforestation continuing to slow in the Amazon.
In our highly complex, globalized world, trade wars have meaningful impact beyond their borders. Due to the US & China’s trade war, China placed retaliatory tariffs on US soybeans to hit farmers and therefore increased the need & import for soybeans from Brazil. We need to understand the implications of these and account for them much better when setting these out strategically, or doing so nilly-willy as in the case of Trump. Of course, this is a political matter, but we can put in place regulations that require an assessment of the material impacts of the new policy and empower groups on the ground to then be in a place to support and deal with these consequences and have a head start on emergency plans.
Local politics & voting
The country of Brazil needs to choose to vote in a better President. The rate of deforestation has severely increased since Bolosonaro’s election, he campaigned on exploiting the rainforest, and he has made clear his intention to pretty much cause genocide on Indigenous peoples. One of his aims is to support the construction of dams, bridges, and roads in the Amazon clearing the way – literally – for mining. Bolsonaro’s pick for environment minister, Ricardo Salles, was found guilty late last year of adjusting maps in an environmental protection program to benefit mining companies. We can’t talk of course – look at the right-wing leaders running many other influential nations in the world. We all need to do better and support people who are willing to take deliberate action on huge, underlying problems that keep underscoring the failures of our system and worsening them. We need better education and empathy.
Avoid the dieback scenario with better economics
In a recent PNAS study, scientists in Brazil calculated the costs of a dieback scenario. The social and economic damages from a dieback in the Amazon would cost between $957 billion and $3.59 trillion over 30 years. To avoid this collapse, the scientists also calculated the costs of mitigation. Efforts to stop deforestation and restore degraded areas came to $64 billion. Activities to preserve the forest like using more drought-tolerant crops, no slash & burn farming, and better water management would cost $122 billion. Mere pennies then compared to the dieback scenario.
Ensure INPE remains free from bias and political pressure
This is going to be difficult too but international governments may be able to exercise some influence here. INPE has recently appeared to stop releasing some public data since the firing of the head of their agency by Bolsonaro last month. We need this data (and more) and it should be made publicly available without political interference. Again, this is not just Brazil’s problem. Australia is infamously opaque on many data sets and just this week appeared to ensure the ‘independent’ Australian Bureau of Statistics distorted the truth of growing inequality in the country to keep with the political agenda of the current leader. In the States the administration ordered the removal of climate change references throughout the government and EPA and has called it’s own reports fake. This is a problem we all have. We need much better data transparency laws. We need to understand most data is tax payer funded or in public interest and should therefore by freely available in an easy to access format (something Hans Rosling set out to do with Gap Minder). We need to put in place laws that can be enforced by the courts for independent, bias free agencies to report on the data. It also means we need to support excellent journalism and investigative reporting. So much of what we know in the world today we would not know without this. This is an easy action – if you can spare a couple of dollars each month, donate it to reporting bureaus doing hard and complex work to bring this to light.
Supply chain transparency
We need supply chain transparency – and we needed it yesterday. It is absolutely ridiculous how hidden and unknown our supply chains have become. Governments across the world can immediately implement better reporting standards that list and verify the location and labor of meat, timber and minerals. Similar legislation can force major companies and products to know and disclose this information to consumers. Governments can also legislate that products may not be sold that arrive from unsustainable practises and deforestation.
Most of us can’t point fingers at the people of Brazil. As the saying goes in a democracy, “Toute nation a le gouvernement qu‘elle mérite.” Every nation gets the government it deserves.
Exert & sustain public pressure & activism
Companies and governments can also force the Brazilian government to demarcate more land to Indigenous peoples which environmentalists understand is a key tool for keeping the Amazon whole. This of course doesn’t feel good from a colonial mindset so I would add that that same pressure should also be applied within our own countries if those companies, governments and activists live in settler-colonist nations too. Companies can also be pressured by customers to force their sourcing to states and nations that limit deforestation and have truly sustainable practises in place.
Additionally, there is huge opportunity for farmers in Brazil to use their lands more efficiently and sustainably whilst improving rural livelihoods. We should carry out education and incentive programs that teach and reward this. We should ask Brazilians what they want, how to move forward and how to be sustainable environmentally and economically.
“Demarcated land has the lowest rates of deforestation, so there is nothing better than demarcating to guarantee the long life of the forest.” – Miguel Aparicio Professor of Ethnography
Support excellent local, and usually Indigenous managed, conversation projects.
According to these leaked documents, the Bolsonaro government wants to strategically prevent conservation projects in the Amazon. We also need projects that increase public education in Brazil about climate change, forest fires and fire prevention & management. Fire management is essential in maintaining our lands and part of our natural environmental cycles but slash-and-burn for profit is not, and it is causing massive damage.
Support regenerative farmers & consumers
Countries should be supporting local regenerative farmers. There probably shouldn’t be low tariffs on imported beef from countries and companies that cause mass environmental destruction. We absolutely will not meet the demand for meat with local, sustainable farms, and these practises also need a lot more work and implementation.
We can also play with the tax system more, and we likely should. It is ridiculous that fresh produce can be so much more expensive than meat and fast, processed foods. It’s not good for our societies due to the economic burden from healthcare and it doesn’t help our livelihoods. We have real problems with access to fresh produce and underlying issues of poverty, low wages, capitalism and colonialism that exacerbate access to these foods but we should – especially because of this – be doing more to make these foods accessible and more attractive than intensively farmed meat. Our local farmers also deserve much, much more support and public education is key here too. We seem wholly disconnected from how our food is grown and raised, expecting it to simply turn up in a monopoly led supermarket shelf. Let’s connect back to the land, to what nature offers, and to how farmers feed us all.
Offsetting won’t save us
I’m not sure why we seem to think as a world that we can entirely destroy an existing ecosystem somewhere but simply offset that loss with virgin trees somewhere else. It clearly isn’t a one-for-one. It alleviates some guilt though. Carbon credits are massively complex, have often not worked and are riddled with issues. One need only read this report on Brazil & Cambodia, or the failed EU scheme, or see this issue here, or look at the Tropical Forest Standard from California to know it’s a mine field to effectively implement a monetization program for emissions reductions is extremely complicated. Encouraging countries to preserve their natural resources through carbon credits and profits can work though. We should concentrate more on these programs as part of aid, alongside local people, with heavy monitoring and reporting.
Eat less meat where it is accessible to you and decrease your food waste
If you’re a heavy meat eater try Meatless Mondays to start. If you’re willing to go further, go for Meat on Mondays to limit it to once a week. Make a start and go from there. There are thousands of cooking sites and books that show you all kinds of ways you can use food to create plant-based meals. They’re varied, interesting and delicious. You don’t need to be strict. If all privileged people reduced their meat usage we would make a significant dent in the emissions from the agriculture industry. This won’t save the Amazon but it will contribute to reduce one part of our emissions and is a consumer action we can definitely choose to take if you have access to fulfilling your nutrition needs from fresh produce. Most of us across the world live in cities (this will increase to nearly 70 percent by 2050) and most cities in industrialized countries do allow you to adopt a more plant-based lifestyle. Recognize your own role in this issue and take control of it. On that note, where you can, try your hand at growing your own food too. From a tiny balcony to a big yard, if you’ve got some soil, we can all start with some herbs and go from there. It’s one of our biggest rebellions against the industrialized food system. Food sharing is also more popular and see if you can support your local community gardens or start one. Food waste also makes up a huge portion of our food emissions and across high-income nations, 30 to 50 percent of all food is wasted including meat and seafood products. Meal plan, budget, store, freeze, reuse, worm compost and ensure this becomes zero in your household.
Also watch this episode by by Hasan Minaj on Patriot Act which details JBS in Brazil. JBS is the world’s single largest supplier of beef, chicken and leather, with 350,000 customers in more than 150 countries. It hides under a lot of other subsidiaries in countries across the world. And it’s clever. For example, when the EU restricted Brazilian beef in 2008, JBS used its Australian subsidiary to continue exports. It’s everywhere. The UK imported 28,550 metric tons of corned beef in 2018, according to Earthsight and of that, 95 percent came from Brazil with nearly half of that from JBS. In fact once you head down the rabbit warren of all the subsidiaries JBS owns and the companies, brands and smallgoods they then acquired and control, you’ll likely find a lot of the meat you eat is in someway owned, managed or influenced by JBS. You can read this investigative piece here too.