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The Wrong Amazon is Burning

News & Features | September 30, 2019

“The wrong Amazon is burning.” In recent weeks, this phrase has been widely circulated on social media, with regards to the recent fires in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest. The fires, which broke record numbers this year, were not natural. Deforestation of the Amazon has been a continuous practice throughout the years, slowly but surely damaging the land, endangering a multitude of species, and leaving indigenous groups without homes. Hundreds of thousands of people have rallied together on social media to bring attention to the matter and call out the parties they perceive as responsible for the atrocious act. The truth, however, is that this is not the work of a single individual, but rather the result of collaboration between an apathetic government, greedy corporations, and a capitalist system.

Colin Orians, a biology professor at Tufts, stated that when it comes to the destruction of the Amazon, “corporations can have a huge role by how they source materials. If they’re sourcing goods from Brazil [that contribute to] further destruction [of the rainforest], they’re complicit in the destruction.”

Brazil is one of the world’s largest exporters of beef, timber, and more recently, palm oil. Palm oil—which is found in everyday products such as soap and instant noodles—is becoming an increasingly exported commodity. According to the Guardian, “the amount of land given over to oil palms doubled in Brazil between 2004 and 2010,” and it’s expected to continue to rise in the following years. Much of this land lies in the Amazon region, and many worry that the production of palm oil could lead to even higher levels of deforestation. Rainforests in Malaysia and Indonesia that produce palm oil have already experienced the devastating effects of deforestation⁠. But trade works both ways, and importers of commodities from the Amazon help create just as much harm. 

Amongst the biggest importers of Brazilian commodities is the United States. A 2019 report conducted by Amazon Watch implicated American companies such as Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, Bunge, and BlackRock as complicit in the Amazon’s deforestation. Other American companies, such as Domino’s and Mondelēz, have refused to disclose any information regarding the origin of their products. Corporations often defend themselves by saying that they’re not technically to blame because they’re not the ones physically lighting the fires in the rainforest. But choosing to buy and sell products that come from the deforestation of the Amazon inevitably enables and promotes such actions. Swaths of the public have responded that pushing corporations to limit their actions in such a way is asking for too much. However, Orians stated that “we need to have a global focus on enforcement of environmental protection,” which includes ensuring that companies are obtaining their products “in as sustainable a way as possible.” 

Major corporations are not working alone. All of this would be impossible without the cooperation of the Brazilian government. Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s far-right president, has made it easier for farmers to continue deforestation practices. He claims that the economic development of his country is impossible without the resources the Amazon provides, and thus, has ended several policies that were in place to protect not only the rainforest, but also the indigenous groups that inhabit it. The New York Times reported that “there is evidence that farmers feel more emboldened to burn land following the election of Mr. Bolsonaro” and that mechanisms intended to prevent the illegal destruction of the Amazon “such as fines or seizure of equipment… fell by 20 percent during the first six months of this year.”

These illegally set fires threaten the livelihoods of 306,000 indigenous people living in the Amazon Rainforest. The past month alone saw 3,500 fires burning in 148 indigenous territories. While the Brazilian Constitution legally protects indigenous rights, the government is doing little to enforce these protections. Orians explained, “If you have a protection in the books but you don’t enforce it, it’s like not having a protection. Part of the reason we’re having so many fires is that even though they have laws in the books against it, the government is turning a blind eye.” 

Ann Rappaport, a lecturer in the Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning at Tufts, explained that in cases of environmental injustice, “there is a discrepancy between who controls activities and who experiences their consequences.” This disconnect is present in Brazil. Bolsonaro ran on the campaign promise that he would no longer set boundaries on indigenous territories, along with suggesting that their lands should be opened up for mining. “Indians don’t have a lobby, they don’t speak our language, but they have managed to get 14 percent of our national territory,” he said.

A recent United Nations report found that demarcation of indigenous lands helps fight climate change. Since the land is integral to their way of life, indigenous communities prioritize preserving it. Sônia Guajajara, a prominent indigenous leader in Brazil, explained to the Atlantic, “As long as the state doesn’t demarcate, we are under threat of invasions and explorations, so demarcation is our minimum legal protection to avoid these things.” Without demarcation, encroachments onto the land of indigenous people can lead to confrontations and even physical violence. Illegal loggers and miners have also used fire as a tool to take over indigenous territory. When indigenous people report fires to authorities, they are often accused of setting it themselves. Guajajara says, “For us to lose the forest and the animals in these fires … they are basically burning our rights and our way of life.”

The destruction of the Amazon Rainforest threatens not only indigenous communities, but also the entire planet. Referred to as the “lungs of the Earth,” the Amazon is the most biodiverse ecosystem in the world and absorbs two billion tons of carbon dioxide per year. Hanna Carr, a senior and member of Tufts Climate Action, explained that heavily vegetated land acts as a carbon sink, meaning that it absorbs and stores large amounts of carbon dioxide. Burning this land immediately releases the carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and reduces its ability to take in carbon dioxide. So, while global carbon emissions rise, the Earth’s capacity to absorb it is shrinking.

Many countries view the fires in the Amazon as a global issue, since their effects extend to the entire planet. In response to the widespread criticism, Bolsonaro blamed the fires on environmental and non-governmental organizations, but provided no evidence. In mid-July, he told journalists, “The Amazon is ours. We preserve more [rainforest] than anyone. No country in the world has the moral right to talk about the Amazon. You destroyed your own ecosystems.” Bolsonaro asserted that the Amazon is under Brazil’s sovereignty and pointed out the hypocrisy of other countries for degrading their own land for profit while condemning Brazil for doing the same. Simultaneously, approval of the government within Brazil has dropped from 39.5 percent to 19 percent.

Brazil can seem like worlds away, so it’s easy to dismiss the destruction of the Amazon rainforest as a problem for someone else. But the loss of this natural landmark will affect everyone. Orians emphasized the unique biodiversity of the rainforest and the danger these species are in. He encouraged people to “put pressure on the corporations to enact policiesand we could do that by becoming shareholders and trying to work through the system.” 

Celia Bottger, a senior and member of Tufts Climate Action, suggested getting involved in local organizations that promote climate action and justice and seeing environmental conservation as an issue that requires “systemic change.” Rappaport stated that “strong laws defining sustainability in ways that companies can operationalize them are absolutely essential.”

Due to short-sighted political and economic decisions, the Amazon rainforest is on fire. The destruction has put thousands of species in danger, left indigenous groups without their homes, and could change Brazil forever. It’s not too late to do anything yet, but soon it might be. Companies and the Brazilian government don’t care about the repercussions of destroying the rainforest, which is why the public should. As Orians put it, “People don’t destroy great museums, why do you want to destroy an incredibly diverse and majestic rainforest?”