How can we save the Amazon?
News of the Amazon forest fires seems to be spreading like wildfire — and suddenly the internet is ablaze with solidarity hashtags and calls for action.
Celebrities are using their profiles to spread the word and indignation. Pressure is mounting for politicians of the world, and in particular the president of Brazil, to take every action possible to stop the blaze.
As a Greenpeace employee, my job is to build the global movement of people who care about our planet and who are prepared to use their voice to make a difference. Part of my role specifically focuses on engaging high profile and highly-followed celebrities and ‘influencers’ in order to broaden the reach of our campaigns amongst wider audiences — and to catch the attention of the media and political decision-makers. So it is of course with interest that I watch people from Madonna to Bon Jovi and Cara Delevingne sharing news of the Amazon fires online and calling for action using the hashtags #PrayforAmazonas and #PrayforAmazonia.
It’s great that so many people care about the fate of the Amazon rainforest. But from my perspective the doubtless well-meaning message that’s spreading around the world — that the Amazon needs our prayers — doesn’t just miss the point but actually could harm the Amazon cause in the longer term.
Resorting to prayer may be comforting, but completely disempowers both the individual and humanity at large. It disconnects us from the reality of the problem — and also from the real world solutions that do exist, but currently there is insufficient incentive for those with the power to pursue them to do so.
This is not intended as a slight on religion or the power of prayer (psychological or otherwise, depending on your beliefs). Of course I’m referring to the sentiment — it’s doubtful that many of those using the hashtag are literally calling for us to appeal to God or another deity for help. But there’s no getting around the implication that the only way the Amazon can be saved is by some sort of celestial intervention — and that couldn’t be further from the case.
Since coming to power, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has used his presidential powers not just to relax environmental controls but actively encourage development (read: destruction) of the Amazon rainforest, declaring “the Amazon is open for business”. By way of consequence, deforestation has already surged during the first months of his presidency.
So one person who has the power to enact policies that would better protect the Amazon — not just from fires, but from destruction for economic gain in general — is Brazil’s President. Unfortunately, such protection — and action to prevent climate change in general — is far from high on his agenda.
The point about destruction for economic gain holds the key to the problem. Many of the fires that are causing so much worldwide concern were man-made, started by farmers wanting to clear the land to prepare it for crops or pasture. This land may not be the pristine forest we imagine when we think of the Amazon — perhaps those trees were cleared long ago.
But the specifics are not really important when you zoom out to look at the bigger picture, namely: this region is pretty much unparalleled in the richness of the biodiversity it supports, the role it plays in mitigating climate change — both as a carbon store and a carbon converter. The more we destroy it, the more we destroy its ability to perform those functions. Once lost, it cannot be recovered.
The reason for the destruction is largely to support livestock, ie cattle, and crops, in particular soya, the vast majority of which goes on to feed the chicken and pigs we rely on so heavily in the Western world to support the diet we favour. Ultimately, the world is complicit in — and indeed driving — the destruction of this region, whether knowingly or not, from governments right down to the individual consumers driving demand. The price we are paying for the products implicated in this supply chain might not reflect the environmental cost of producing them. But that’s the system we currently live in.
The challenge faced by environmental organisations like Greenpeace is how to translate this complex and deeply entrenched web into tangible changes that can be made. Critically, these changes need to not disproportionately harm the economic prospects of those living in countries, like Brazil, who have historically been less implicated in man-made climate change than the more industrialised West.
After all, agribusiness accounts for a quarter of Brazil’s GDP, according to this article in Forbes, which is deeply critical of how the fires have been framed in the wider media. It’s not as simple as calling for boycotts or individual behaviour change amongst Western consumers. Perhaps what’s needed is a more holistic understanding of the context in which these fires are occurring, for a more pragmatic and workable conservation solution to be found. But at present that seems like a tall order.
In the climate and biodiversity crises we are now facing, the world has an unprecedented challenge: how to override the immediate interests of individual nations or corporations and compromise, cooperate and commit to measures that will impact the longer-term wellbeing of the planet as a whole.
Though given what we’ve seen of our leaders’ ability to do that so far, it may be that prayer is all we can resort to after all.