Limits to the growth of human impacts have been discussed for 50 years, but now we are hitting ecological, planetary boundaries as never before.
I read news stories about what is happening in the Amazon most days. This interest of mine goes a long way back, to 1979, when newspaper and TV reports about rainforest destruction prompted me to start a campaign called ‘World Forest Action’.
Updates are instant now, but in those days, news from the Amazon took weeks to reach the outside world. Images of forest fires, logging, cattle ranching, farming and mining have become part of our daily information intake, brought home to us with the speed of light. We see satellite images of shrinking, burning forest, and yet there is little sign of meaningful change.
Yet, the Bolsonaro government is reviving and accelerating the policies of the military government from decades ago. It regards forests not as precious reservoir of biodiversity, and a vital source of oxygen, but of cash. When challenged, a familiar litany is reeled off: ‘In Europe and America you have cut down forests and turned them into farmland for centuries, so why shouldn’t we do the same? This is the march of civilisation, isn’t it’?
It is true that the story of civilisation is also the story of deforestation, going back to the days of ancient Greece and Rome. Forests were converted into farmland, and trees were used for building houses and making furniture, and for smelting precious minerals that could be found underneath the forest floor. Taming forest wilderness was a source of wealth and progress.
Some 40 years ago, it was becoming apparent that tropical forests are very special places: they are like a precious library of living species, and together with the indigenous forest communities - the local ‘librarians’ - they needed to be cherished and protected.
But in Brazil at that time, the military dictatorship had other ideas. It was hellbent on turning the Amazon into a cash cow for a struggling national economy. Similar developments were underway in Indonesia and Malaysia: tropical rainforests are places where beef, soybeans, palm oil, gold, bauxite and mineral oil could be cheaply produced for an expanding world market, never mind the environmental consequences.
In the late 1980s I got an opportunity to produce three documentaries in the Amazon for Channel 4’s ‘Fragile Earth’ documentary slot that drew attention to these issues. Thirty years later, a plethora of campaigns by NGOs in Europe and America have had some success in slowing deforestation.
Some indigenous reservations and national parks were delineated, some timber was being certified and traded under stringent rules, and meanwhile some indigenous communities are no longer remote and inaccessible, but are in regular contact with us via the internet.
Today many Brazilians are asking: Why should this march of civilisation end now? Who are you to tell us what to do?
Forest campaigners respond with two main arguments. Firstly, tropical forests have a crucial global role in absorbing carbon, and in helping to regulate and stabilise the world’s weather patterns.
Secondly, the unparalleled species diversity of rainforests ecosystems is a world heritage that needs to be protected.
But whilst many of us may see rainforests as a heritage of all of humanity, the fact is that tropical rainforests are located within national territories. Again: don’t their governments and their people have every right to develop them as they please?
From the 1980s onwards attempts were made to fund ‘avoided deforestation’ by helping national governments in the tropics with financial support and debt write-offs.
Jimmy Goldsmith, brother of Ecologist founder Teddy Goldsmith, had one such scheme, but it never got of the ground. All in all, western governments or banks or private foundations have never put up large enough sums of money to fund tropical countries from stopping further deforestation.
Exploiting the potential riches inherent in rainforest territories is just too tempting, particularly as governments are usually strapped for cash, and prompted by powerful financial interests to turn rainforests into financial assets.
So now, in summer 2020, are we at the start of another fire season in the Amazon where ever larger areas of rainforest could go up in flames once again?
In 1989 colleagues and I made a documentary about this topic for Channel 4 called ‘Halting the Fires’. Filming from a helicopter, we witnessed an area the size of Bristol being incinerated and covered in thick, yellow smoke. It was a truly haunting experience. The fires were being set by cattle ranchers primarily to sow grass seeds in the ashes of the forest to expand their herds and increase meat exports to Europe and the Middle East.
In the film we tried our best to argue for alternatives to the deforestation in the form of ‘extractive reserves’, where rubber tappers and Brazil nut collectors could reap financial returns from keeping the forest alive. But it was to no avail.
The main proponent of extractive reserves, Chico Mendes, who also fought for the human rights of Brazilian peasants and indigenous peoples, had just been murdered by cattle ranchers and their henchmen.
Fast forward to 2020: today over 20 percent of the Amazon forest in Brazil has been razed to the ground. In Malaysia and Indonesia, where the primary reason for deforestation is the creation of palm oil plantations, the percentage of deforestation is even higher.
Everywhere the indigenous forest people and small farmers have lost out, and so has the forest fauna and flora.
Before the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, climate arguments were barely brought up when talking about the need to stop tropical deforestation.
Today, of course, things are very different: as CO2 concentrations reach unprecedented levels, concern about the shrinkage of the earth’s forest cover, and its capacity to absorb greenhouse gases, is making media headlines.
We have substantially reduced the surface area of the planet by stripping off its living, breathing, multi-storey green mantle by converting forest into pasture and farmland. How much longer can this continue?
And there is another concern: tropical deforestation could lead to the loss of what Brazilian ecologist Antonio Nobre has called ‘the river in the sky’. As the Amazon forest is cut open and fragmented ever more, it is likely to lose its capacity to generate rainfall, turning rainforest into dry savannah.
In Brazil some farmers are now raising their voices about this topic, concerned about how continuing deforestation could cause a catastrophic loss of rainfall (and income) in areas adjoining the Amazon and beyond.
As red lights of concern are flashing ever more brightly, it is critically important to highlight where the demand for resources from (former) rainforest territories originates.
Historically, of course, European demand for timber, such as mahogany and teak, and plantations crops like sugar, coffee and cacao, contributed to deforestation in Africa and south America. But tropical deforestation today is on a different scale.
When I was filming in the Amazon in 1989 we visited a town called Paragominas in the state of Para, south of Belem. Its story vividly illustrated what was going on at the time.
The town had started as a small settlement on the Transamazonian Highway which had been funded by the military government. By the late 1980s there were some 500 sawmills and Paragominas was called ‘the sawmill capital of the world’.
From a helicopter we could see how dirt tracks that originated in Paragominas stretched ever deeper into the rainforest, and how timber lorries brought back thousands of logs every day to feed the hungry sawmills. Some 40 different species of trees were being processed into window frames, plywood and garden furniture for the European, Japanese and American market.
Some of the cleared forest had been left as overgrown wilderness, and other areas had been turned into cattle ranches. On both sides of the dirt tracks smallholders tried to scratch a meagre living.
In the late 80s, logging and cattle ranching was the primary reason for deforestation, but today soybeans are the dominant factor. The European origin of this development has been barely discussed.
It all started with the BSE – mad cow disease – crisis in the 1990s: at that time thousands of cattle in the UK started to suffer a new, devastating disease and it soon became apparent that this was caused by feeding vegetarian animals, such as cows and pigs, meat-and-bone meal containing the remains of diseased farm animals.
This practice was eventually outlawed in 1996, and soybeans became the substitute for the BSE-related, contaminated livestock feed, accelerating deforestation in Brazil. From the mid-1990s Europe became a major importer of soybeans from the Amazon basin. But today China has overtaken Europe and is responsible for some 84 million tonnes per year, three quarters of the region’s soy exports.
The underlying reason is that Chinese meat consumption went up nearly tenfold in the last 40 years, to some 70 kg per capita, similar to European levels. With China’s economy growing at some ten percent or so over many years, and with ever greater demand for meat, and pork in particular, from newly urbanised, increasingly affluent consumers, China’s 1.4 billion people have a huge impact on distant territories such as the Amazon.
Another factor is that China has paved over ever larger areas of farmland, reducing its capacity to feed itself. In addition to soy supplies, China’s unprecedented urbanisation also requires vast timber imports.
The story of deforestation, then, is also the story of the global spread of modern ‘civilisation’. Limits to the growth of human impacts have been discussed for 50 years, but now we are hitting ecological, planetary boundaries as never before.
We are faced with the evidence that the earth cannot cope with 6.8 billion or more people developing European- and American-style consumption patterns. In the face of a planetary emergency, young people are asking what sort of world they will inherit.
A dramatic consciousness shift translated into tangible policies – nationally and globally – is sorely needed. If the earth can’t cope with western lifestyles, should Europeans and Americans be the first to be more frugal and reduce their demands?
Environmental campaigns are getting ever more sophisticated and targeted. There is ever-growing public pressure on financial institutions and transnational food companies to disincentivise deforestation.
If there is a continuing need for soybeans, why not source them only from land that has already been degraded? Brazil has plenty of such land available, and trials to better use this land go all the way back to the 1980s.
Indigenous communities are threatened as never before – by deforestation and now also by the Covid-19 pandemic – and yet they are making their voices heard as never before, working on the international arena with European and American NGOs.
Trade deals between the EU and Brazil are now being scrutinised, and companies are now being forced to justify product sourcing from rainforest regions. A new international alliance is in the process of being forged.
In Europe, moving away from meat consumption may yet translate into reduced pressure on tropical rainforest regions. But a critical issue is whether China will follow suit.
Faced with major environmental problems at home, China’s president Xi Jinping has proclaimed the country’s intention to build an ecological civilisation, but would this also include the willingness to reduce China’s global footprints? More than any other country, China holds the future of the world’s remaining rainforests in its hands, but can it be encouraged to face up to this unprecedented responsibility?
Prof. Herbert Girardet is a prolific author and consultant, a Resurgence & Ecologist trustee, a member of the executive committee of the Club of Rome, and a co-founder of the World Future Council.