Small steps to take in light of the Amazon fires

Unless you’ve been avoiding the Internet this past week, you’ve already heard: the Amazon rainforest is burning.

Covering an area roughly 4 times the size of Alaska, the Amazon rainforest houses 10% of the world’s biodiversity, 15% of its freshwater, and stores about 90 billion metric tons of carbon (equal about a decade’s worth of global greenhouse gas emissions).

While fires are reported every year in the Amazon, satellite data showed an 84% increase from the same period in 2018, according to Brazil’s National Institute of Space Research agency. Natural fires are rare in the Amazon, because the wet weather prevents fire from starting and spreading. So more likely than not, these fires were started deliberately by farmers and ranchers to prep for the growing and grazing season.

What’s worse, is that the fires are not just an environmental problem, but also a political one. When news first spread about the fires, Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro blamed the burning of the Amazon on political motives, stating without evidence, that NGOs are starting fires to make his government look bad.

Even though much of what’s ablaze was land already cleared for agricultural use, deforestation is increasing in general, as Bolsonaro slashed funding for agencies fighting illegal logging, ranching and mining. Dubbed “Captain Chainsaw”, Bolsonaro campaigned on opening up Brazil’s vast protected land for commercial interests and creating economic growth.

Since taking office in January, he’s already delivered that promise – Brazil’s part of the Amazon lost more than 1,330 square miles of forest cover in the first 6 months of 2019, up 39% over the same period last year. These are forest that took millennia to develop, forest that will likely never be restored to its original landscape – home to diverse tropical plants, wildlife, and countless indigenous tribes.

Image credit: Diego Guzmán via Unsplash

What’s one to do in the face of such profound tragedy?

First let me say: if you are also feeling a sense of despair, doom and powerlessness, you are not alone. This past week, I thought a lot about how to deal with the enormity of our anger, grief, and anxiety, and channel them into actions. Here is a list of small action items I came up with:

1. Donate

The easiest thing you can do right now is to support organizations that are fighting to protect the Amazon, particularly those working directly with frontline communities. Indigenous people have been stewards of the land long before modern day environmentalism (not just in the Amazon; research shows that indigenous communities control 1/4 of the world’s land, keeping 2/3 of it “essentially natural”), and right now, indigenous Amazonians are protesting in the streets of Brazil. Let us stand with them using our voice on social media, and our dollars. Two organizations to consider:

  • Amazon Watch: partners with indigenous and environmental organizations in Ecuador, Peru, Colombia and Brazil in campaigns to stop deforestation, advance indigenous rights, and increase corporate accountability.
  • Rainforest Action Network: RAN’s Protect-an-Acre program distributes small grants to frontline communities and indigenous organizations that are traditionally under-funded.

2. shop smarter.

Buy products that are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council and the Rainforest Alliance. These certifications cover a wide range of products, from furniture to coffee, office paper to bath tissues. If you are renovating your home, FSC has a builder’s guide to help you find FSC-certified wood suppliers. 

3. Reduce waste & overconsumption – in general – not just beef

Image credit:  Sharad Bhat via Unsplash

Lots of news headlines are telling us to eat less beef, and it’s true – during the dry season, ranchers have routinely cleared tropical lands using fire to create pastures. BUT, the dynamics of deforestation are complicated, and cattle ranching is far from the only industry that contributes to land clearing (both legal and illegal). There is logging (fueled by global demand for timber), mining (copper, tin, nickel, bauxite, etc), cropping (mostly soy, which is used to produce soy oil and animal feed), plantations (for coffee, palm oil)…

The point is: deforestation will continue as long as there exists the economic incentives to exploit the land, and reducing beef consumption alone won’t save the Amazon. Regulatory and conservation efforts lie almost entirely in the hands of the Brazilian government, and all consumers can do is to be more mindful of our purchases and nudge corporations towards more sustainable production methods. 

4. Learn more and educate others about forest fires

The fire in the Amazon rainforest has caught the world’s attention, but the truth is that forest fires happen every year in all corners of the world. Last month, 21,000 square miles of forest went up in flames in Siberia, and recent news reports show wildfires ravaging the Canary Islands, Alaska, Greenland, Greece, and Siberia. Heck, even with the huge uptick this year, the number of fires in the Amazon still isn’t at its all time high (the number of fires were much greater in 2002-2005, and 2007). So, let’s talk about fires and their environmental impacts more often, with and without the news headlines – which brings me to my next point:

5. Support ecosystem restoration wherever you are

Root system of prairie plants, which prevents soil erosion. Illustration credit: Heidi Natura of the Conservation Research Institute.

Because of its scale and maturity, the Amazon rainforest serves as a vast carbon sink, thus a crucial part of any efforts to resist climate change. Recent research has found that deforestation in the Amazon could be approaching a tipping point, at which large swathes of the rainforest could transform into much drier savannas and impossible for mankind to restore. But since most of us can’t directly contribute to restoring the Amazon, what can we do?

Support conservation and restoration efforts where you are. This could mean:

  • Donate or volunteer for organizations that are focused on tree planting, such as the Arbor Day Foundation (my local Boston organization is Speak for the Trees)
  • Trees aren’t the only carbon sink! For example, native prairie plants can have roots 15 feet deep, which is why prairies are sometimes called upside-down forests. Many farmers and landowners in the Midwest are now engaged in efforts to restore cropland and yards to its native landscape. Here is an introductory article on how to be a backyard carbon hero!
  • If you don’t plant trees or grow food, you still eat food right? You can support carbon sequestration by purchasing food from farms and suppliers that use better farming practices (such as no till, cover cropping, crop rotation and holistically managed grazing). Your farmers market is an excellent place to start some of these conversations and learn about the practices your local farmers use.

6. Vote

Good governance matters. Before Bolsonaro, a more progressive Brazilian government was able to cut Amazon deforestation rates by 80 percent between 2003-2011.

While there are some factual inaccuracies (see more below) in this tweet, I appreciate Macron recognizing the urgency of this crisis.

But even if you don’t live in Brazil, your vote matters too. Where was our president when French president Emmanuel Macron called on world leaders to act on the Amazon rainforest fire? The Amazon has been burning for 3 weeks, but the Brazilian military was mobilized to battle the fires only after pressure from European leaders. If you live in a democracy, exercise your rights to elect leaders who embrace and prioritize climate policies.

For those who want to go deeper:

  • Check out this Fast Company article that explains the carbon sequestration potential of regenerative grazing practices.
  • Project Drawdown‘s Jonathan Foley lays out why better land management is so important in mitigating climate change.
  • Vox explores whether our donation dollars to the Amazon are really meaningful.
  • Does the rest of the world have a “right” to tell Brazil what to do with their territory? The NYTimes has a fascinating piece digging into the geopolitics.
  • Why is the world paying so much attention to this year’s fire in the Amazon? Answer: the dramatic photos that went viral online. Did you know that many of them are not from the current fires? (refer to my point above, the photo Macron tweeted was actually an old photo)
  • While the Amazon is incredibly important in countless ways, many articles (such as this, this, and this) have debunked the myth that “Amazon produces 20% of the world’s oxygen.”
  • Mongabay has a comprehensive page full of charts and photos detailing deforestation in the Amazon.
  • For the data nerds, this visualization shows the imports and exports stats of Brazil. Notice the relative share of exports for things like iron ore, vs soybean, vs crude oil, vs coffee, and how many of these industries rely on deforestation.
  • Lastly, for the agriculture nerds, this page explains some important nuance in the agribusiness of soybeans. It is not simple as grow soybeans –> ship to China as pig feed.