A guide to what’s happening the Amazon & what you can do about it

The low-down on what’s *actually* happening

  • The Amazon has been burning at record rates
  • The media only very recently caught on
    • A study from nonprofit media watchdog Media Matters for America found that cable news channels (MSNBC, CNN & Fox News) provided 15x more coverage of Notre Dame Cathedral fire than of fires in the Amazon rainforest
  • It was so bad that São Paulo was covered in so much smoke from the fires that the city blanketed in darkness in the middle of the day (fires were burning from over ~2.6k km away)
  • You can literally see the smoke from space, according to NASA

The smoke is so thick, at times the Cessna airplane had to climb to stay out of it. At times your eyes burn and you close the air vents to keep the cabin habitable. Sometimes it is so bad, it is hard to see how bad it actually is on the ground below.

"This is not just a forest that is burning," said Rosana Villar of Greenpeace, who helped CNN arrange its flight over the damaged and burning areas. "This is almost a cemetery. Because all you can see is death."

Is this normal?!

  • "There is nothing abnormal about the climate this year or the rainfall in the Amazon region, which is just a little below average," Alberto Setzer from INPE (National Institute for Space Research, a research unit of the Brazilian Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation) told Reuters. "The dry season creates the favorable conditions for the use and spread of fire, but starting a fire is the work of humans, either deliberately or by accident.”

WHY IS THIS HAPPENING?

  • Cattle ranching is responsible for as much as 80% of the ongoing deforestation of the Amazon rainforest.
    • According to Greenpeace, Agribusiness—in which huge areas of forest are burned or cleared to make space for crops and livestock—is the number one driver of deforestation worldwide.
  • “The fire that we’re seeing today is a fire that’s directly related to deforestation,” said Ane Alencar, the scientific director of Brazilian NGO IPAM (Institute of Environmental Research in Amazonia). These are not wildfires, she said, but rather fires set by people seeking to create cattle ranches, intentionally ignited during the dry season each year. “They cut the trees, leave the wood to dry and later put fire to it, so that the ashes can fertilise the soil.”

BUT WHO IS THEY? WHO’S BENEFITING?

WHO IS BURNING THE AMAZON?

CNN gets it half correct. They say, “Blame humans for starting the Amazon fires, environmentalists say.” They are right, these fires were set on purpose.

But it’s not all humans who are to blame: it is the humans in the capitalist class. And the Bolsonaro administration is criminalising another set of humans: the indigenous people whose lands have been encroached on.

But before we get into pointing fingers (and hence discussing solutions)...

What’s so bad about the Amazon burning?

The rainforest contains unique animal and plant species (40k plant species, 3k freshwater fish species, 370 reptile species). It is a biodiversity hotspot, and includes the most biodiverse place on Earth.

It also supports hundreds of thousands of indigenous people, including >400 tribes who live there & depend on the Amazon for food and medicine.

Amazon also pumps 7tn tons of water yearly into the atmosphere & its forests recycle 50-75% of annual rainfall back into the atmosphere.

The Amazon is nearing its ecosystem tipping point, meaning that passing this threshold of forest cover loss will eventually cause it to feed on itself (a complex process of evapotranspiration of trees contributing to the water cycle - the presence of trees regulates rainfall patterns over the Amazon, so if a certain amount of trees are lost it disrupts this and causes drier weather that will lead to even more forest fires), beyond which the Amazon cannot be saved.

What’s so bad about the Amazon burning?

(cont.)

2 VERY IMPORTANT POINTS:

  • The Amazon does NOT produce 20% of the world’s oxygen. (Read: Forbes, “As The Amazon Fires Spread, So Did This Unfounded Statistic”)
  • HOWEVER, even without worrying about the oxygen, the Amazon is STILL important for the environment.

It stores carbon that, once released into the atmosphere through the act of burning, produces dangerous carbon dioxide emissions that warm the atmosphere and contribute to climate change. In fact, the Amazon stores 25% of the world’s carbon, according to a 2015 paper published in Nature.

What are the key issues & why do I need to understand them?

The Amazon crisis is about many things at once, and we will go through them one by one to help you have a more birds-eye-view understanding of what’s going on. Proposing solutions in a vacuum, without understanding what the key issues are, can be helpful to some extent, but for the most part, will be unhelpful in the big picture, and at worst, even detrimental, if it comes at the expense of tackling key issues.

WE’RE TALKING (mainly):

  • INDIGENOUS GROUPS: forest management, human rights
  • POLITICS: government mismanagement and corruption
    & ECONOMY: business interest, globalisation (demand and supply of products that involve the Amazon)

READY?

INDIGENOUS GROUPS

1. INDIGENOUS GROUPS ARE THE ONES WHO DEPEND ON THE AMAZON THE MOST.

“Their very land is under threat. The air is polluted by big fire. They must have rainforest for game. They must have rivers for fish. And they must have forestland to grow [food] in small plots.”

This dependence on the forest is exactly why the fires can be so detrimental to the well-being of indigenous peoples. These communities don’t have supermarkets or pharmacies to go to. They have the Amazon. The forest serves as all that and more. It’s where they hunt, where they fish, where they gather materials to build their homes.

That’s why these tribes have learned to live in harmony with the ecosystem. If they take too much, the land runs out of gifts to give. Unfortunately, when the forest is on fire, the flames can engulf many of these resources too, leaving little behind for the people who need it—whether it’s wildlife to hunt or the small farms they’ve cultivated as part of the forest. Even lands untouched by the fire are impacted because the system is all connected. As the forest burns, more land dries out, worsening drought throughout the area. Plus, the loss of forest wrecks the whole rainforest system. Normally trees release water into the atmosphere, which releases it as rain. Without forest, clouds and rainfall patterns would shift, leading to further disruptions. Even for in a natural system as extensive as the Amazon, recovery after an event like this will be tough.

INDIGENOUS GROUPS

2. “THIS TRAGEDY IS NOT A CRISIS FOR INDIGENOUS PEOPLE, BUT FOR ALL OF US.” THE INDIGENOUS GROUPS ARE ALSO THE GUARDIANS OF OUR FORESTS.

Several studies and reports have shown that deforestation decreases in the lands formally held by indigenous groups. Part of that is cultural; many indigenous groups view plants and animals as people, Raffaella Fryer-Moreira, an anthropologist at University College London, explained to Earther. There’s no distinction between environmental rights and human rights for many of these communities.

“The forest fires we are witnessing today will be understood by many communities not only as an ecocide but as a genocide,” Fryer-Moreira said in an email.

Indigenous communities help protect the land and guard it against miners and loggers looking to destroy it even as the threat from private interests is growing more and more dangerous. More individuals die a year fighting to protect their environment than some soldiers die annually fighting wars, and Brazil has seen an outsized number of environmental defenders die protecting their communities and the forests they rely on.

ACCORDING TO

PROJECT DRAWDOWN:

  • Indigenous and community-owned lands represent 18 percent of all land area, including at least 1.2 billion acres of forest, containing 37.7 billion tons of carbon stock
  • Beyond carbon, indigenous land management conserves biodiversity, maintains a range of ecosystems services, safeguards rich cultures and traditional ways of life, and responds to the needs of the most vulnerable
  • Under indigenous peoples’ land management, deforestation and emissions are significantly reduced, with deforestation and degradation rates roughly ten times lower than the global average

INDIGENOUS GROUPS

3. AND YET, INDIGENOUS GROUPS CONTINUE TO BE ATTACKED. THIS AMAZON CRISIS IS ONLY PART OF THE WIDER WAR ON INDIGENOUS PEOPLES.

“The War on Indigenous Peoples is a War on the Biosphere Itself”, Kenn Orphan

“The president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, who has been lauded by the world’s “democracies” and capitalist rags like the Wall Street Journal, has ramped up the assault on these biodiverse regions and their inhabitants. And he has accelerated genocide against Brazil’s indigenous peoples for the profit of multinational corporations. In recent days attacks have been stepped up by militarised police forces who will use any force necessary to “evict” indigenous peoples from their ancestral lands. These evictions, or ethnic cleansing campaigns, include violence, intimidation, and the burning of villages and farms.

Bolsonaro, backed by a cadre of evangelical fanatics, racists, homophobes, and an entrenched military junta, is now dismantling any remaining protections for the besieged ecosystems and communities of the country. He has emboldened loggers, ranchers and mining interests with his fascist rhetoric, many of whom have threatened indigenous peoples with violence. For instance, in Amapá state, gold miners stabbed an indigenous leader to death in a protected reserve.”

Who’s launching the attack

on these indigenous peoples and the Amazon?

Providing context: who is

Jair Bolsonaro?

QUICK FACTS:

  • Brazil’s president, sworn in January 1 this year.
  • Former army captain and religious nationalist. Right-wing. Openly anti-LGBT & pro-gun. Sexist.
  • Cites Trump as his political role mode.
  • Defends Brazil’s fascist military dictatorship, a period during which political opponents faced torture and even murder. He maintains that its only error was not killing enough people.

“As Brazilian women, the LGBTQ community, workers, and people of color reacted with horror to the election of fascist Jair Bolsonaro to the presidency on Sunday after a campaign dripping in bigotry and militarism, Western corporate interests and the business press could hardly contain their glee over the victory of the hard-right former paratrooper who has promised to further pry open Brazilian markets to foreign investment, slash corporate taxes, and privatize the nation's public services.”

WHO BENEFITED FROM HIS ASCENSION TO POWER?

The financial press expressed delight over Bolsonaro’s rise and victory. Some examples...

Bloomberg (10/30/18) breathlessly reported that he would be “extraordinarily pro-business.” The CBC (10/26/18) explored the new world of possibilities for profits for Canadian corporations in agriculture, extractive sectors and finance, as Bolsonaro promises to slash environmental regulations and virtually all market restrictions. “It could be a good time to be a mining investor in Brazil,” it reported. It did note in an offhand manner that, as an externality, critics say it could lead to the destruction of the Amazon rainforest.

But the Wall Street Journal (10/29/18) went the furthest in its praise for the new president. Its editorial board came out to endorse him as a “credible” “reformer,” describing him as an “antidote” to the greed of the Workers’ Party. It also made the claim that the election was “transparent, competitive and fair,” a remarkable claim, considering Bolsonaro is widely accused of illegally employing foreign companies to create a massive fake news industry via WhatsApp.

WHAT HAS BOLSONARO DONE (WRT/ AMAZON)?

1. DEFORESTATION HAS SPIKED.

  • THE PROOF: Deforestation in Brazil’s portion of the Amazon has jumped around 67% since he took office. The number of forest fires in Brazil increased by 82% from Jan-Aug 2019 compared to the same period last year. (INPE)
  • WHERE BOLSONARO STANDS: He expresses disdain for conserving the forest, and his support for industrial growth has reportedly encouraged ranchers and other developers to move more brazenly into undeveloped forest land (much of which is indigenous territory).
  • Further to that, he denies the proof. When head of INPE Ricardo Galvao presented these deforestation statistics, Bolsonaro basically fired him. He “responded angrily to the numbers, describing them [...] as a lie, and personally attacking Galvao, who he said might be “in service to some NGO.””

WHAT HAS BOLSONARO DONE (WRT/ AMAZON)?

2. HE IS EMBOLDENING THOSE WHO WANT TO EXPLOIT THE FOREST FOR COMMERCIAL GAIN.

  • During his time in power, Bolsonaro has moved to weaken government agencies that are responsible for protecting the rainforest, as well as regulations covering indigenous lands and nature reserves. (With help from - you guessed it!!!! - agribusinesses & mining industries.)
  • Bolsonaro—who has appointed a prominent climate change denier to head Brazil's Ministry of the Environment—sees these kinds of regulations as in impediment to economic growth in the Amazon region.
  • Leaked documents have shown that his government intend to use hate speech to isolate minorities living in the Amazon region, and reveals plans to implement predatory projects that could have a devastating environmental impact. (Read: openDemocracy, “Leaked documents show Brazil’s Bolsonaro has grave plans for Amazon rainforest”)

“The War on Indigenous Peoples is a War on the Biosphere Itself”, Kenn Orphan

The assault on indigenous peoples is a war on the biosphere itself. The ruling class in Brazil, as in every other colonized region of the planet, see their existence as an obstacle and nuisance to their wealth accumulation. That they will sit behind gilded gates atop a mountain of rotting corpses and fossilized species is of no concern to them. Greed is their drug and their god. They will exploit everything, from the Arctic to the Amazon, with no limits. And angry skies, heatwaves, floods, droughts and a rapidly changing climate system will not convince them of their madness. They will use demoralization, distraction and, when that fails, violence to suppress dissent and continue their status quo destruction. But their remorseless pillage will not proceed without a fight. Indigenous people, especially indigenous women, are rising up against it. Their courage should inspire us because this should be understood as a war that we will all be swept up into whether we like it or not. The question is, will we choose the right side.

We return to how these issues intersect. It’s important here to see how corporate interest, poor governance and lack of respect for human rights come together. It’s about how there is no basic respect for the environment (and the guardians of our environment). (Not just about, say, soy, or paper, or deforestation alone…)

SOLUTIONS

#1: GOING VEGAN?

WHY ARE PEOPLE SAYING THIS IS THE SOLUTION?

The argument by many people is that because so much of the forest is cleared for animal agriculture, the answer is to remove animal agriculture from the picture entirely. Thus, they’re advocating for everyone to go vegan, so we won’t create the demand in the first place.

WILL IT WORK?

1) A significant portion of the global beef supply comes from the Amazon. (For Singapore, according to the SFA, 46% of chicken, 34% of pork and 54% of beef imports come from Brazil!)

2) It is indeed true that animal agriculture is a big problem.

SIDE NOTE: There is a counter-argument that goes: soy production is also bad for the environment and will also continue to cause wide-scale deforestation. However, this ignores the fact that more than half of soy produced worldwide becomes feed for cattle, as opposed to say, feeding humans. Further to that, because of trophic levels and the flow & loss of energy, it is MUCH less efficient to grow soy -> feed cattle -> feed humans, than grow soy -> feed humans. Hence, if we were to all go vegan, overall, we would not operate at such a high demand (for soy) as people think.

BUT IT’S NOT THAT SIMPLE!

1. THINK BIGGER: IT GOES BEYOND MEAT CONSUMPTION.

@ajabarber: “Most of your food is farmed on indigenous land that was seized by force and colonization. And it is NOT just the meat. Your colonialist mindset allows you to enjoy quinoa while those who harvest it cannot. What are you doing about that besides screaming that meat eaters are killing the Amazon? Your organic food market isn’t going to help all people to stop eating meat until you address structural inequality and racism. Dismantling #racism isn’t optional here.”

@earthbyhelena: “This goes beyond food and fires in the Amazon. When rich ass companies come in and “buy" land, they take away livelihoods. Often, these companies then offer jobs for the local indigenous peoples, taking them into a life of effective enslavement (because they have nowhere else to go and nothing to hunt) and exposure to pollution and abuse. There are countless incidences of this across industries and across the globe (perhaps most notably in the Alberta tar sands region of Canada). This stems from a lack of respect for other human beings. At its very core, much of capitalism puts profit over people and significantly over planet.
So yes, eating less meat might help stop clearing the Amazon for cattle ranches. But if Bolsonaro can't use that land for meat, he’ll use it for something else. Quinoa for salads, or rubber for our tyres. He doesn’t care about the land or the people on it, and he certainly doesn't care about what happens on the land, as long as it’s making him money & increasing his power. While I am vegan and don't eat meat for many reasons, using veganism as a one-stop solution to solving the crisis in the Amazon is not ok.
So while boycotting animal ag feels like an easy solution (especially if you’re already vegan),
the real solution is to overthrow the racist powers that be, who are continuing to exploit others and the land they live on. Many have been fighting this fight for their entire lives.”

SO: Go vegan, but also a) overthrow these racist powers (fund organisations that work to overthrow them, pressure governments to take a stand against these politicians/systems) b) support indigenous groups and demand for them to be respected and respectably compensated & supported c) consume responsibly (whatever product it is)

2. THINK BIGGER: GOING VEGAN ISN’T EASY FOR EVERYONE.

Here, it is important to point out that if you can go vegan, you definitely should. (Also, I’m not saying that going vegan should be easy - as in, it is an inconvenient choice but also the inconvenient truth that going vegan IS just better for the planet.)

Even better if you are in a capacity to make veganism more accessible for the people around you. Many people can’t afford a vegan lifestyle, either because they literally can’t afford it (in terms of price, but also living in a place that does not have good, nutritious vegan options) or because they can’t afford the time to think about going vegan and making that lifestyle change.

SO: Go vegan, but also think about how you can make veganism more accessible to the masses around you (think community/policy-level changes).

#2: SYSTEM SHIFTS

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IN OTHER WORDS:

1. Brazil, along with developing countries in general, need to develop still. We, recognising that most (if not all) developed countries today also had to make unsustainable sacrifices to get here - albeit maybe not as terrible as Bolsonaro now - have to help figure out ways to develop more sustainably.

2. Much of the deforestation is also driven by needs from the rest of the world. As a collective humanity we need to think about ways to grow and expand in ways that aren’t capitalistic. Or even rethink growth.

SO: 1) if you can contribute to figuring these Big Things out, go for it. Otherwise, 2) support organisations that are putting pressure on governments and/or corporations to do better 3) VOTE for governments who are thinking about this

Organisations to support:

*These are all reputable organisations. Read more about their initiatives on their website, and if you would like, check out their rating from Charity Navigator, a trusted charity evaluator. Protip: if you want to, check their financial statements to see how much money goes into operations and how much money actually goes to the cause.

  • Sign petitions, such as this one from Greenpeace and this one from change.org to show solidarity with the Amazon crisis and the indigenous peoples.
  • Be a conscious consumer in all aspects of your life (there is still merit in actions such as consuming less and only when you need it, and consuming responsibly when you do)!
  • Stay informed, up-to-date, and continue to raise awareness.

Keep fighting the good fight x

Bonus actionables

  • Read more about fires around the world here (x)
  • Read more about how going meat-free helps the fires here (x)

Extra slides done by Rui Qi, Cedric & Coco

FURTHER READINGS

SOURCES

+ great friends @bertiewoosterrr, @cedric.choo & @lepakinsg

Amazon Crisis Guide (@lilearthgirl) - Google Slides