To save our forests, give them back to the people they were stolen from

Indigenous people can save the forests. But they need their legal autonomy restored in order to do it.
Indigenous people can save the forests. But they need their legal autonomy restored in order to do it.
Image: Amnesty International Handout
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In case anyone has forgotten after the media frenzy of the past few weeks: The Amazon rainforest is still on fire.

I had originally hoped to be writing this article about some of the optimistic takeaways from a recent article in Science magazine which laid out the potential benefits of planting large areas of the Earth with trees, and how it could help in the fight to curb climate change.

However, if we do not protect existing trees and forests from this kind of mass destruction mess, then that light of hope of replanting and reforesting grows very, very dim.

By time the Amazon rainforest fires came onto the public radar relatively recently, the thousands of fires in the area had already been burning for weeks and weeks.

It was only when the fires hit numbers not seen in decades, with almost twice as many burning as this same time last year, that the blazes started to garner global media attention. The world watched, tweeted, and waited anxiously to see what would happen. Then, unsurprisingly, as the fires raged on with no indication of dying out, social media attention has started to wane. But the fires have not. Thousands still rage on.

Trading fire

Fires aren’t uncommon in forest ecosystems. In fact, blazes are a natural part of nutrient recycling and ecosystem succession. The reasons for this crisis are not at all natural, however. As researchers have pointed out, there are no abnormal weather conditions, rainfall, or other conditions that would explain this.

The reasons behind these fires are profoundly political. As Bill Mckibben noted on NBC Think, “It’s not often you can pinpoint one person as the culprit for something on this scale, but the midday darkness is the direct result of the election of Jair Bolsonaro.”

While I agree that Bolsonaro gives us a good place to direct our anger as the individual most directly responsible, it is important to understand the larger forces behind these fires so that we can target them and change them—hopefully before humans can no longer live on the planet.

Evidence shows that many of the fires burning were set by farmers and ranchers in support of president Bolsonaro and his government’s action to open the Amazon back up to resource extraction, farming, and ranching.

This is not a new story. In fact, it’s a very old one—Cain and Abel, a farmer and a shepherd, fought over land and its use. The modern-day difference in this story is that at its heart is big business and international trade.

The solution is indigenous

Yes, we need to find a way to put out the current fires and to change the economies that incentivize burning such a precious natural resource. And we need to encourage practices that help maintain and grow healthy forests. One way to do that, which has also been a large point of contention for the Bolsonaro administration, is to put forest management back in the hands of indigenous communities.

This is not just true of forest land in the Amazon. When national parks were formally introduced in the United States in 1916, it was under a misguided idea that these lands needed to be kept pristine and undisturbed by human activity. This ignored the hundreds of years of management by Native Americans, in which forest ecosystems evolved side by side with informal management from native communities including wood gathering, grazing, and small scale agriculture, as well as low-intensity burns set in order to regularly clear brush and prevent larger, more intense fires.

Prohibiting indigenous communities from managing today’s park lands has actually increased the likelihood and intensity of forest fires over time.

The Amazon is feeling the same impact. Charles M. Peters, curator of botany at the New York Botanical Garden, has worked with indigenous communities in the Amazon for 35 years. As he said, “There are tracts of forest all over the world that have been intensively managed for generations by local people, and that’s precisely why they are still forests.”

Food fights

Over the last few decades Brazil has become the world’s largest producer of soy and one of the largest beef producers. With the trade war between China and the US, Brazil has become a large source for these commodities, boosting prices and demand for both. This convergence of Bolsonaro’s attack on the Amazon and the US-China trade war driving up prices for agribusiness products from Brazil are really a perfect storm, helping to drive people to burn and grab land.

These forces don’t just have a hand in the destruction of the Amazon. Another of Brazil’s diverse biomes is under threat from similar agribusiness interests: The Cerrado, the nation’s large savanna-like grasslands, have seen expanded soy production in recent years, ironically because of protections barring farming in the Amazon. The plowing up of these grasslands threatens Brazil’s ability to meet emissions reductions set out in the Paris climate agreement because they are also another large storehouse of carbon.

But while many people watching images, headlines and footage from the raging fires know this is important, they my not know just how big this threat is.

To put it in simple terms: If the amount of carbon stored in the Amazon rainforests was released, it could be, “game over for our battle against climate change,” as one Amazon expert put it.

Climate scientists have estimated that humans can emit around 565 gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere by midcentury and still have a good chance of staying under the Paris accord goal of limiting climate change to under 2 degrees Celsius, our so-called carbon budget. The Amazon stores about one-fifth this amount, and these fires could lead to a drying and destructive dieback that threatens this entire carbon storage, essentially using up 20% of our carbon budget in one fell swoop. This is of course not to mention the unbelievable devastation this would cause to the vast diversity of wildlife in the Amazon. Not to mention the many indigenous people who call the area home.

Do it for the trees

So do we just have to sit back and watch our Instagram and Twitter feeds while the future of our planet goes up in smoke? While this is a complicated and nuanced issue, there are some actions that we can, and must, take to help ensure that this isn’t game over.

The crisis was on the top of the agenda at the recent G7 summit. Countries like France and Ireland called for canceling a planned trade deal between the EU and South American nations over the threats to the Amazon, and the conference generated $20 million in funds. So, putting pressure on elected officials to make this an issue of international importance is one way we can help fight the fires.

Another strategy is putting pressure on large companies that buy Brazil’s soy, beef, and other agribusiness products, which has had some success. After pressure from groups like Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Foundation, more than 60 large companies including McDonalds, Unilever, and Wal-Mart signed an agreement to not do business with suppliers that contribute to deforestation in the Cerrado grassland area. This shows that supporting on-the-ground groups like these, and others like the Rainforest Action Network, can also make a difference.

Although I strongly advocate for group action on such issues, there is of course one personal action that people can take: Eat less meat, specifically beef. The international beef industry already makes up a large percentage of greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, and making this industry less profitable to farmers through large consumption could help curb the impacts on ecosystems destroyed for cattle farming.

As I said, I wanted to write this article about the power of trees as a tool in our fight against climate change, but this recent crisis took precedent. Bud I’d like to leave you with one piece of wisdom to be gleaned from this crisis: Trees and forest ecosystems are not simply something nice to have, an amenity, or something that gets in the way of doing business. They are essential to our lives and many other life forms, and we have to start treating them as such.