When will we save the Amazon?
It’s time to think big, stop compromising
The images and videos of the fires decimating the Amazon rainforest hit me like a punch to the gut. I immediately thought back to my junior year of college, when I traveled to the heart of the Ecuadorian Amazon during a semester spent studying ecology.
By the time my class of about 10 students and two professors set off for the Tiputini Biodiversity Station in Yasuní National Park, we had already been to and conducted research projects in the Galápagos Islands, the Andes, the cloud forest in Mindo and the beach at Montañita.
But it was hard for any of those awe-inspiring sites to compare with the Amazon. Even the trek to get there was unique. Traveling from Quito (Ecuador’s capital) to the research station, we took a plane, a boat, a truck (through an oil development site — no photos allowed!), and then another boat.
As we went along our many-vehicle journey, the farther we got from the city and modern civilization, the more the natural world came alive. We started to see monkeys swinging from the tops of the trees. Majestic, colorful macaws flew overhead, squawking. The sounds and smells of the city faded, replaced by those of the forest.
Places as diverse and undeveloped as the area surrounding the Tiputini Biodiversity Station don’t exist anymore in most of the world. When I was there in the fall of 2013, it was still mostly untouched by modern human activity. At the very least, it was the closest you could get to untouched. Even today, indigenous tribes there have had no contact with modern society and choose to stay that way.
The sheer volume of life in the Amazon is astounding, and the numbers truly don’t lie. In the area around the station, there are 10 species of primates; more birds, bats and frogs than almost anywhere else in the world; and more insect species in a single hectare (the equivalent of about 2.5 acres) than there are in all of the United States and Canada combined. Scientists believe that they have yet to discover countless species, especially tiny insects.
Walking along the muddy trails through the forest, around every turn, I saw something new — usually more interesting and more bizarre than the last. Terrifying scorpion spiders. A rainbow boa. Squirrel monkeys. Poison dart frogs. Spiky palm trees. Odd birds called hoatzins. Orchids and other dazzling flowers. If I were to name everything I saw there, the list would (literally) go on and on.
Cataloging everything we saw would have been impossible if it wasn’t for our guides. I was floored when they would hear or see something far in the distance — a faint bird call here, a rustle in the tops of the trees there — and instantaneously tell us what it was.
I’ve known about the Amazon and its biological importance from a young age. In first grade, our class raised money to “save” a few acres of rainforest. I organized a lemonade stand. But I don’t think I really grasped the sheer force of life that exists there until I went and saw it myself. I’m not sure anyone can.
I think it’s safe to say that in recent years, and especially while the Amazon has gone up in flames this summer, more people have become keenly aware of the role the rainforest there plays in both fighting climate change and preserving biodiversity. With that in mind, it’s staggering that we haven’t done more to stop its destruction.
The current fires in the Amazon — and Brazil’s reaction to the devastation — are just one example. But this was already a problem during my time at Tiputini.
In many parts of the world, the pressure to drill for oil is enormous. The same is true even for the most biodiverse place on Earth. New oil infrastructure had just been put in near Tiputini when we arrived at the station, and it was disheartening to hear the roar of the gas flare disrupting the otherwise natural sounds of the forest.
One day, as we made our way downriver to watch a flock of green parrots feed at a salt lick, we came across another boat. “They’re oil scouts,” our professors and guides told us.
Earlier that year, Ecuador’s then-president, Rafael Correa, had abandoned a worldwide initiative aimed at protecting this particular section of Yasuní from oil exploration. Correa had issued an ultimatum: He wouldn’t drill for oil if the rest of the world banded together and gave Ecuador half of the money they could have gotten from drilling.
Tragically, nobody took him up on his offer. The scouts we saw that day were part of the government’s initial foray into oil operations. This caused a chain reaction of adverse events for the environment, the climate, and the indigenous tribes that lived there, who had no say in the matter.
This sort of reaction to the Amazon is a microcosm of a key problem the world is facing in dealing with climate change — putting short-term economic gain over a sustainable long-horizon strategy for future generations. The world’s forests are crucial carbon sinks, and therefore one of the most effective tools we have in mitigating global warming. But because of the quick financial boon that oil drilling, agriculture or other development provides, the Amazon — and forests around the world — are being cut down at alarming rates.
Politics explain part of this dynamic. Whether it’s protecting a country’s GDP or some other fleeting issue, leaders look for the easy, immediate answer to satisfy the masses.
This must change, because if we keep destroying the world’s forests, we are headed for climate catastrophe. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s most recent report essentially says that, noting that without serious changes to how we use our land — along with a complete, rapid transition from fossil fuels to clean energy — keeping carbon emissions under dangerous levels will be virtually impossible.
In a 2013 National Geographic article, Kelly Swing, our professor and the founder of Tiputini Biodiversity Station, said: “If the Yasuní-ITT Initiative fails, we’ll figure out how to save part of [the rainforest]. My main concern is that with each compromise with development, we end up with less for nature. Should we use our capacity to tame nature and commandeer all the resources for ourselves and take it right up to the breaking point? Will we even know where that breaking point is?”
Since then, the Yasuni-ITT Initiative did fail. We can’t afford many more setbacks like that. The next time the world gets the chance to band together and save our planet’s most crucial ecosystems, we have to take it. Given our current administration’s abysmal record on environmental issues, that’s not likely to happen in the immediate future.
In the meantime, while U.S. citizens have limited opportunities to save the Amazon rainforest, we can pressure large agricultural companies to stop cutting down tropical forests to grow soybeans or livestock. Right now, Environment America is calling on ADM and Cargill — two large, U.S.-based agricultural firms — to commit to zero deforestation in their supply chains by 2020.
Shareholder and consumer pressure has worked when it comes to this issue in the past. Last year, the soy trading company Bunge committed to a stronger no-deforestation policy in response to a shareholder proposal filed by Green Century Capital Management, an affiliate of Environment America.
At the end of the day, returning to the words of Kelly Swing, it’s time to stop compromising. Let’s act quickly and boldly to save our forests, and all of Earth’s wildest places, as if our future depends on it. Because it does.