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The Amazon rainforest is the best preserved of the three great tropical forest basins.
It is the biggest store of biodiversity in the world.
It regulates rainfall patterns across Latin America and beyond.
It is home to the world’s largest river, which is responsible for one-fifth of the freshwater flowing into the oceans and is one of the most important terrestrial carbon sinks.
So it is easy to understand the international outrage at the fires burning in the Brazilian Amazon right now and the pressure being put on Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro to take action to prevent this destruction.
I am an environmentalist who has been working for many years on reforestation and conservation projects in the Brazilian Amazon and Atlantic rainforests and would agree wholeheartedly, this destruction is a disaster. But I also feel some of the political statements and discussions on this topic lack nuance.
What follows is a series of observations, questions and proposals based on my own experience in the Brazilian Amazon. These are purely subjective opinions, but ones I hope will serve to generate debate and hopefully lead to solutions that will not just halt but reverse deforestation.
This is one of the most pressing issues of our time, which is why I firmly believe we need to go beyond finger-pointing and tossing money at the problem in the hope it will go away. It won’t go away unless we try to understand the causes behind it and come up with solutions that respect the needs and desires of the people who live there.
So who are those people?
In the western imagination, and in western media, the Amazon rainforest is often presented as a vast but sparsely populated wilderness with a predominantly Indigenous population. It is hard to get accurate figures in Brazil, but I would say a conservative estimate of the population of the Brazilian Amazon would be around 15 million, of whom approximately 400,000 are Indigenous.
If the Amazon is burning right now it is partly because of the Bolsonaro government, but it is also because there is a huge global appetite for certain agricultural products and certain minerals, writes Rufo Quintavalle:
The remaining population is, like much of the rest of Brazil, a mix of the descendants of black slaves and European settlers. Much of this population lives in large cities such as Belém and Manaus (roughly two million people in each), but there are also smaller towns and cities all over the region.
In determining what is best for the Brazilian Amazon as a whole, one can legitimately and for historical reasons say the needs of Indigenous people should be given special weight, but one cannot simply ignore the voices of the overwhelming majority. If one does, then that will inevitably lead to tensions and resentment. Why should a desperately poor ribeirinho (or river dweller) whose ancestors moved to the Amazon to escape starvation in the arid Nordeste region have his or her voice excluded?
Bolsonaro attracted votes in the Amazon
So what do these people want? That is of course an impossible question to answer since it reduces human complexity to positions that are at best generalizations and at worst outright falsehoods. But in democratic systems, and Brazil — while certainly a far from perfect and relatively young democracy — is such a system, people do from time to time get to express their opinions in the voting booth.
And in the last presidential elections in Brazil, a majority of the inhabitants of the Amazon voted for Bolsonaro. In some states, he won by a narrow margin. In others such as Acre and Roraima, he got over 70 per cent of the vote. In others still, like Pará, he lost. But taken as a whole, the population of the Amazon voted for the man whose policies are currently destroying the rainforest in which they live.
Some of these votes might have been bought — I was in the Amazon shortly before the election and spoke to farm owners who told me all of their employees voted as they were told to. I also witnessed vote-buying going in both directions in the form of house parties and barbecues put on to try to persuade local inhabitants to vote for a particular candidate. When people are desperately poor, a few cases of beer and a sound system can go a long way.
But many of these votes will have been free choices, and we can’t just ignore them because they don’t correspond with our own priorities. Not everyone who voted Bolsonaro voted for him because of his positions on environmental issues and Indigenous rights — his hardline stance on security was part of his appeal and it is hard to overestimate the disgust people all over Brazil felt toward the PT party that had been running the country previously.
But no one can pretend they didn’t know what he felt about the rainforest. For all his multiple faults, Bolsonaro was an outspoken and belligerent candidate whose positions were clearly and often crudely stated. People in the Amazon either voted for him because of his positions on these issues or because they felt protection of the rainforest and Indigenous rights were not the most important issues.
On a recent trip to Amapá in the northeast Amazon, I stopped by the side of the road with my Brazilian colleagues to get coffee and a snack. I ordered in my poor Portuguese and the woman serving me, who was clearly of Indigenous descent, replied in perfect English.
I asked her how she spoke English so well, and she replied she had lived and worked for many years in the U.K. before coming back to help her family run their roadside stall. We chatted a bit and I asked her if she preferred life in Cambridgeshire or Amapá. She told me she much preferred life in England, but it was too expensive for her, so she came back to live in the Amazon.
Here was an Indigenous person who not only did not live on tribal land (roughly half of the Indigenous population have left their ancestral lands, and indeed, Bolsonaro’s vice-president, Hamilton Mourão, is himself of Indigenous descent), but did not even want to live in her country anymore. She wanted to go where life was better.
No solution that doesn't acknowledge our culpability
On the other side of the Amazon river from Amapá lies the town of Barcarena, whose economy revolves around bauxite mining, alumina refining and a large and expanding transshipment and container port. Barcarena was in the headlines a few years ago when the alumina refinery owned by Norwegian company Norsk Hydro illegally discharged toxic residues into the local water supply.
The refinery, which is the largest in the world and whose sheer scale is hard to describe, has been half-closed since this incident, but nevertheless produces 1.5 million tonnes of aluminum a year. The port, which I had the opportunity to visit, has a current capacity for 200 refrigerated containers, shipping agricultural produce from the Amazon down to the south of Brazil and also to the rest of the world.
A short drive from Barcarena is another, very different port town called Abaetetuba. This is the main landing dock for açaí, which is harvested by smallholder farmers further upstream or on the Ilha de Marajó, a vast island the size of Switzerland, which sits in the mouth of the Amazon river.
The açaí is harvested during the early morning when the weather is cool, packed into traditional baskets, then loaded onto boats that begin arriving in Abaetetuba in the early afternoon. From that point on, there is a near-constant stream of boats arriving, docking and unloading. And a constant negotiation going on between the boat owners and the buyers.
Thiago, the man who was showing us around, owns a small açaí processing plant between Abaetetuba and Barcarena. His buyer would obtain fresh açaí for him, which he would process and freeze, then drive to the container port from where it would be sent all over Brazil and the rest of the world.
If the Amazon is burning right now, it is partly because of the policy decisions and provocations of the Bolsonaro government, which have created an environment of lawlessness in which people feel emboldened to cut down and burn vast swathes of land. But it is also burning because there is a huge global appetite for certain agricultural products and certain minerals.
The soya being grown in the Amazon is being shipped as animal feed to Europe and China, the cattle being grazed there end up in our burgers and the aluminum being produced in Barcarena ends up in our soft-drink cans.
The fires in the Amazon have caught the attention of the world, and for good reason. If the Amazon rainforest disappears, the consequences would be catastrophic and have global ramifications. But there cannot be any sort of durable solution to this situation that doesn’t both acknowledge our own culpability in causing it and also listen to the diverse needs and dreams of the people who inhabit this region.
My own dream would be to see the Amazon economy go less down the route of Barcarena and more down the route of Abaetetuba — a regenerative economy that does not deforest and does not extract more than the land can produce. But we are not going to see this happen if we do not change our own lifestyles and patterns of consumption.
And we are not going to see this happen if we declare the Amazon rainforest off-limits to all development and stigmatize desperately poor people who are trying to make a living.
To declare trade the enemy needlessly condemns the inhabitants of the Amazon to poverty and ignores a tradition of trade and exchange that has existed in the Amazon basin since pre-Colombian times. To me, the real challenge is to look at that tradition of trade, such as the minerals and jewels, the salt and pottery that travelled from the Andes to the Atlantic and back, and see what can be learned from it.
The challenge is to listen to the current inhabitants of the region, irrespective of their ethnicity or way of life and without preconceived moral judgments. The challenge is to hold a mirror up to our own way of life and see what needs to be changed. It is always easier to give advice to others than to heed advice ourselves, but this time, the stakes are so high it is at the very least worth trying.