September offered desperately needed relief for the Amazon, according to new data from Brazil’s State Secretariat for the Environment (SEMA). The world’s largest rainforest still saw over 3,000 fires last month, but that number represents a 55 percent drop in fires from August and a 39 percent drop from the same period in 2018.
These numbers are a relief to environmentalists after Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro’s shocking speech at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), where he rejected the idea the Amazon represents “part of a global heritage” and denied his country’s ecological crisis.
While the worst of this year’s fires may be over, Bolsonaro’s rhetoric and the destructive behavior it encourages demand an urgent reformulation of how environmentalists advocate for environmental protection.
Fortunately, creative initiatives in Brazil and other major tropical forest zones – including Senegal on the other side of the Atlantic – offer a way forward.
Despite Bolsonaro’s claims, the Amazon basin, home to around one million indigenous people, over three million species of plants and animals, and an estimated 10 percent of the world's known biodiversity, is an indispensable ecological resource whose role in mitigating global carbon emissions matters for the entire planet.
How, then, can the international community protect these invaluable forests, when Brazil’s own leader resists outside involvement? Answering that question requires understanding that the fires across the Amazon are largely manmade, by farmers and loggers clearing land for crops and grazing.
Weakening legal protections for the Amazon and its indigenous populations was key to Bolsonaro’s presidential campaign; Morales has expanded the amount of forestland farmers can clear by “controlled” burning.
The combination of weak environmental policies and fertile land has left conservationists at loggerheads with both politicians and the business community. Overcoming this impasse requires a rethinking of the prevailing approach to conservation, which holds that tropical forests are “pristine” and must remain untouched.
This has created a false dichotomy between protecting ecosystems and human prosperity, driving conservation strategies that restrict human interaction with nature and create “conservation refugees” from the Amazon to East Africa.
It has manifested itself in the development of separate indicators for biodiversity and human well-being, forcing governments to choose between GDP rankings and world development indicators on the one hand, and the IUCN Red List index on the other.
Unsurprisingly, policymakers usually prioritize the former, ensuring conservation strategies fall short of expectations. This comes despite research suggesting areas like the Amazon were once densely populated by large communities who have moulded the ecology of the region’s vast 'wilderness' over millenia.
If humans once lived and worked side by side with the Amazon, can we do it again?
Agroforesty in Brazil
This is the thinking behind 'agroforestry' programmes in the Amazon. Agroforestry mimicks nature, using a 'polyculture' of trees to regenerate land and restore biodiversity whilst also producing crops. Ultimately, it creates a healthy ecosystem and spares farmers the choice between nature and livelihoods.
A notable example is Olhos D'Água (‘Tears in the Eyes’), an agroforestry farm on 350 hectares of Amazonian land originally cleared for intensive logging. Olhos D'Água, almost indistinguishable from a natural forest, hides a complex system of trees and crop species, producing crops that like the highest quality cocoa beans in the world – without having a destructive impact on the rainforest around it.
This and other agroforestry initiatives have helped the practice gain recognition in academic and policy circles as a viable way to reconcile conservation and development, but other countries facing similar challenges have already demonstrated how proactive policies and public awareness can reverse deforestation.
The mangrove forests of West Africa, particularly those in Senegal, offer an excellent parallel to the situation in the Amazon.
Like rainforests, mangrove forests are indispensable. They protect coral reefs and shorelines, dramatically reducing flooding by reducing the height of waves, and absorb enormous amounts of carbon. A 2018 study estimated mangrove soil trapped 6.4 billion metric tons of carbon worldwide in 2000.
Unfortunately, mangroves are also declining: scientists estimate at least 35 percent of global mangrove habitat was lost between 1980 and 2000. From 2000-2015, as much as 122 million tons of carbon may have been released into the atmosphere by mangrove deforestation.
These losses contribute to desertification, making countries like Senegal even more vulnerable to climate change.
Fortunately, Senegal’s government has opted for a proactive approach. President Macky Sall’s administration has embraced efforts to galvanise private actors, such as Danone and Crédit Agricole, to invest in replanting mangroves to offset their carbon emissions and earn carbon credits.
One such replanting programme in the Saloum Delta, reputedly the largest such initiative in the world, has used funding from 10 multinational sponsors to plant 79 million trees and restore 7,920 hectares of mangrove forest.
Civic groups have also played a critical role. Haidar el Ali, Macky Sall’s minister of environment from 2012-2014, is a key member of the Senegalese environmental NGO Oceanium and the public face of grassroots efforts to replant Senegal’s mangroves. Between 2006-2012, Oceanium worked with villagers and devised a planting system to restore 35,000 acres of mangrove forest in its homebase of Casamance.
How do mangrove reforestation programmes like Oceanium offer a roadmap for tropical forest zones worldwide?
Unlike Bolsonaro, the Senegalese government is working with civil society groups to restore a natural resource critical to both the country’s environment and economy. Local communities benefit first and foremost, as residents earn a living from guarding, restoring and producing crops which depend on healthy mangrove systems. This creates a vested interest in protecting mangroves for generations to come.
Brazil and other governments should learn from these successful conservation strategies, which improves the life quality of local residents in conservation zones beside securing the priceless natural habitats they call home. The choice has never been between conservation and development – the two must go hand in hand.
Natasha Foote is an environmental journalist and writer, specialising in conservation and agriculture. She holds a BSc in Biological Sciences and an MA in Environment, Development and Policy.
Image: Neil Palmer / CIAT for Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).