A simple thing you can do to help extinguish the Amazon fires

Insight / 3 Nov 2020

This year’s ‘burning season’ has been the worst in a decade. But as international pressure grows on President Bolsonaro, there’s something we can all do.

This story that the Amazon is going up in flames is a lie and we must combat it with true numbers.” So claimed Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro back in August, but numbers just released by his own space agency tell a dramatically different story. This year’s fires have been the worst seen in the Amazon in a decade. And yesterday we learned there were 17,326 fires in October, more than double the number seen in the same month last year.

This is a dramatic reversal of hard-won progress under previous administrations – the inevitable consequence of reduced enforcement, a sustained assault on indigenous rights, the uncontrolled spread of coronavirus, and soaring levels of deforestation. This is taking the Amazon dangerously close to a tipping point at which it could turn from being a carbon sink to a carbon source.

Yet compared to last year’s fires, which sparked sustained international outrage, this year’s have attracted relatively little attention.

That could be about to change if Joe Biden wins the US presidency. During the campaign, Biden has repeatedly called on the international community to contribute $20bn to help protect the Amazon. This sets him on a collision course with Bolsonaro, who calls Biden’s proposal “disastrous and unnecessary” and a “threat toward [Brazil’s] territorial and economic integrity.”

Yes Brazil is sovereign, and its wealth – natural or otherwise – is of course its own. But Bolsonaro’s full frontal attack on the Amazon is a deadly one, with consequences as serious for Brazil itself as for the rest of the world.

Deforestation and species loss is undermining the natural foundations on which Brazil’s vast economy – and the wellbeing of tens of millions of its people – relies. The Amazon circulates 20 billion tonnes of water every day, powering rainfall that falls across the region. This waters not only the very industries that the forest is being cleared for, but also the La Plata basin far to the south, which generates the lion’s share of the whole region’s GDP. Unprecedented droughts in recent years have brought the mighty Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro states into conflict over water, showing what happens when the rain dries up. 

All this is mainly being driven by agricultural expansion to clear land for cattle and soy to meet growing global demand. These, alongside other commodities like palm oil from Southeast Asia, drive two thirds of deforestation worldwide, and end up in over half the products in our supermarkets. A football field of tropical forest goes up in smoke every six seconds. The fundamental rights of indigenous people, including to their lands, are being trampled on, and environmental defenders murdered at shocking rates. As consumers, we are all implicated. 

But we can also have influence, as big business at last wakes up to these risks. At the height of last year’s Amazon fires, 251 investors – managing over $17 trillion in assets – called on companies to end their links to deforestation. A leading group of these investors have now gone a step further by directly engaging the Brazilian government. Their bottom line is clear: Brazil is indeed sovereign, but they cannot continue to invest in a country that is letting deforestation and human rights violations go unchecked. 

And while in the US the Democrats have plans to step up pressure on companies linked to deforestation, policymakers in Europe are already driving forward due diligence legislation of their own. This is backed by new data technologies, like Trase Finance, that shine ever-more light on the specific companies and financiers involved in this vast trade. 

Is it too little, too late? Many of the world’s largest investors like Blackrock and Vanguard are still doing next to nothing, and coronavirus has forced the world to focus on a different crisis – even as scientists show that the destruction of forests and nature makes future pandemics far more likely.

Ultimately, Brazilians will decide on the political future of Bolsonaro, and perhaps of the Amazon itself, when he stands for re-election two years from now. In the meantime, global markets and consumers could apply decisive pressure. Greater accountability brought by scientists and technologists, campaigners and legislators will make it ever harder for companies and investors to turn a blind eye. 

So, how to help get them over the line? Pick up an old piece of technology: the phone. Ask your bank and your pension fund what action they are taking to ensure that your money is not contributing to the hundreds of billions that finance deforestation each year. If they can’t answer, then consider moving to a bank that can. None of us can afford to stand still on this issue any longer.

Image: “I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin'” by BBC World Service is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

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