Who Does the Amazon Belong To?

By Alexa Castellano

When thousands of fires ravaged the Amazon Rainforest last month it sparked outrage across the world. Satellite images of the rainforest burning, of large clouds of smoke visible from space, shocked citizens around the world, uniting in worry about what this could mean for our planet and humanity’s wellbeing. The Amazon is the most biodiverse terrestrial ecosystem on the planet, with nearly 30% of the world’s species, and provides 20% of the world’s oxygen. Health experts warn that if the Amazon continues to burn, it will release a vast amount of carbon dioxide pollution into the atmosphere, with concentrations of up to 20 times the EPA standard. Additionally, scientists estimate that the Amazon is at a tipping point, where it can no longer function as a carbon sink for the Earth, a scenario known as forest dieback. The way in which the Amazon is treated impacts the entire global population, raising the question: who does the Amazon belong to, and who has the capability to protect it?

The Amazon River Basin is home to the largest rainforest on earth. At 6.9 million square kilometers, the basin covers 40 percent of the South American continent and is roughly the size of the forty-eight contiguous United States. The Amazon stretches into parts of nine South American countries, including Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru, Suriname, and Venezuela. Much of the Amazon is within Brazil’s borders and the majority of deforestation in the rainforest has taken place there. However, the role that its neighbors play in the surge of fires cannot be dismissed. Despite recently signing a protection pact, which included a provision establishing a disaster response and satellite monitoring network, the countries that harbor the Amazon have all played a part in the detriment and deforestation that has occurred in recent weeks. 

Bolivia has seen fires rage across the forest near its borders with Brazil and Paraguay, as cattle ranchers clear grazing land in order to meet beef demands from China. This increase in fires can be attributed to policies by Bolivia’s President Evo Morales, who in July changed regulations to allow farmers to clear more land than before through controlled burns – quadrupling the allowance from five to 20 hectares. Peru, which historically had the lowest levels of deforestation in this region, has seen an increase in the past few years, as prices climb for palm oil, the livestock industry grows and illegal gold mining expands, all necessitating deforestation. Colombia, which has seen three years of decreased violence with armed rebel groups, has now opened their once-forbidding jungles to industry in order to push economic development. This trend reflects a serious reality – that advances in political stability and economic integration are driving deforestation, especially as safeguards remain weak. 

Brazil has been the site of by far the worst destruction of the Amazon, where corruption and economic incentives inhibit regulations and environmental protection. Deforestation has increased rapidly since Jair Bolsonaro, the country’s new far-right president, came into power. While campaigning for the presidency last year, Bolsonaro declared that Brazil’s vast protected lands were an obstacle to economic growth and promised to open them up to commercial exploitation. Since then, his government has scaled back efforts to fight illegal logging, ranching and mining, including reducing enforcement measures such as fines, warnings and the seizure or destruction of illegal equipment in protected areas, including indigenous lands. In fact, IBAMA, or the main federal agency tasked with enforcing environmental laws, reduced enforcement actions by 20 percent during the first six months of Bolsonaro’s presidency. “[Bolsonaro] downgraded agencies that enforce these laws by cutting budgets. Senior staff have been fired or sidelined.” His choice for his environment minister, Ricardo Salles, exemplifies the radical and even violent anti-environmentalism fueling these fires. Last year, Salles, while serving as a state environmental official in Sao Paulo, was found guilty of administrative improprieties for having altered a map of protected areas to benefit mining companies. Recently, Salles was recorded stating that the best way to “protect” the Amazon is to make it profitable, by opening it up to the same kind of economic exploitation that is at the root of this present crisis.

Bolsonaro’s rhetoric and lax enforcement measures have emboldened illegal ranchers, loggers and miners, who feel encouraged to carry out the President’s wishes. In the first half of 2019, Brazil’s part of the Amazon lost more than 1,330 square miles of forest cover, a 39% rise in forest loss over the same period as last year. July, in particular, featured a huge spike in forest loss, with an area larger than the city of Los Angeles lost in a single month. Bolsonaro has dismissed this data on deforestation, calling his own government’s figures lies, and responded to this so-called disingenuity by replacing Brazil’s Space Research Institute’s chief with a military official

“I don’t accept this idea that the Amazon is world heritage, this is nonsense,” General Augusto Heleno Pereira said in an interview in Brasilia. “The Amazon is Brazilian, the heritage of Brazil and should be dealt with by Brazil for the benefit of Brazil.” This concept can be further exemplified by Bolsonaro’s rejection of a roughly $20 million aid package from G7 countries intended to help fight a surge of fires across the Amazon. On many occasions, Bolsonaro has suggested that there is an international conspiracy to commandeer the Amazon, and he feels that those who offer assistance are threatening the sovereignty of his nation.

During a gathering with international journalists, the president called the global preoccupation with the Amazon a form of “environmental psychosis” and argued that its use should not concern outsiders

The Amazon is ours, not yours,” he told a journalist.

As the Amazon continues to burn, these fires will have far-reaching effects on global health, and an especially devastating impact on those who call the Amazon home. This includes 900,000 people part of than 305 indigenous groups. Their 422 demarcated territories make up 23 percent of the Brazilian Amazon, and they are under siege. Two-thirds of the fires started since January have been on private lands, and in August, 3,500 fires were burning in 148 indigenous territories, many of which were started to terrorize indigenous persons into leaving their land, opening it for further exploitation. Although the Brazilian constitution offers protection to both the environment and indigenous peoples, government agencies are failing to safeguard either. The agencies charged with safeguarding the indigenous community have faced severe budget cuts and are now barely functioning. Now, the population who does the most to protect and preserve these lands lives in constant fear. Instead of feigning sympathy, Bolsonaro encouraged them to exploit the Amazon as well, and develop the land they have long worked to protect.  

Ultimately, It is clear that the Brazilian government’s desire to develop and expand their economy is feeding the fires that continue to burn down the Amazon. Although the Amazon is essential for the wellbeing of the world, Bolsonaro sees it as an unexplored market, and a source for economic growth. Cattle ranching is responsible for 80 percent of deforestation, and with Brazil now as the world’s largest beef exporter generating $6.7 billion for the country’s economy there is a strong economic motive to continue deforestation. Brazil is also the second-largest producer of soybeans in the world with about 80 percent of the soy grown in the Amazon used for livestock feed. With China’s recent tariffs on US soybeans, they have turned to Brazil to make up for this gap. This, along with the economic benefits resulting from illegal mining and logging, are stimulating Brazil’s economy in the short-run, all at the expense of the environment and the delicate ecosystems that depend on the Amazon across the continent and the world. As long as demand for Brazilian goods persist and the Brazilian government’s position remains the same, it is likely that the Amazon, and consequently the world will continue to suffer.

So, who does the Amazon belong to? It is hard to say. The Amazon spans 9 countries, is home to 305 indigenous groups, and it impacts the entire world’s wellbeing. However, Bolsonaro’s actions have made it clear that he has no desire to control damage to the Amazon, and in that case, we must ask the more important question: who has the capability to protect it?

We can all play a role in defending the Amazon Rainforest. In response to the fires, Fast Company put out a list of ways that the global population can protect the Rainforest, including: 

  • Protect an acre of rainforest through the Rainforest Action Network.
  • Help buy land in the rainforest through the Rainforest Trust.
  • Support the rainforest’s indigenous populations with Amazon Watch.
  • Reduce your paper and wood consumption or buy rainforest safe products through the Rainforest Alliance.
  • Support arts, science, and other projects that raise awareness about the Amazon through the Amazon Aid Foundation.
  • Help protect animals living in the jungle with WWF.
  • Reduce your beef consumption. Rainforest beef is typically found in fast-food hamburgers or processed beef products.
  • Make your voice heard by signing a petition.
  • If you’re in a position to help protect the rainforest on a macroscale, Foreign Policy argues that one of the most powerful tools for protecting the region is to work with businesses rather than against them. This is particularly effective in the beef industry, because as Foreign Policy notes, domestic meat producers in Brazil work with international companies that “are committed to zero-carbon standards, in principle” and are more susceptible to public outcry than Bolsonaro. They suggest that trade, distribution, and financing deals that are dependent on protecting the rainforest and sustainability can be a boon to the planet and to Brazilians who depend on the rainforest for their livelihoods.

The way in which we conduct business can have a dire impact on our world. Considering this spur in deforestation has direct economic ties, economic and political pressures from other countries, and appropriate reactions and responses from international companies will be most influential in procuring protections for the Amazon. However, the most important measures to protect the Amazon will ultimately come from Bolsonaro’s administration, and their neighbors who oversee the other 40 percent of the rainforest. 

For the every-day person, there are no simple solutions to effect large scale change. However, by simply reducing your meat consumption, or donating to organizations who are working every day to protect the rainforests that the Brazilian government is working to exploit, your actions can have vital importance in saving the Amazon from reaching that final tipping point. The Global Sourcing Council is now working with Forest Trends to further advocate for socially responsible business practices to shape our society and environment for the better. In this case, the actions that businesses take in response to these fires could ultimately save the world. 

Alexa Castellano  has been the Digital Marketing Coordinator for the Global Sourcing Council since the spring of 2018. She is a senior at the George Washington University, studying International Affairs with a minor in Public Health. She is passionate about environmental conservation, and is running a 10k in the fall to fundraise for the World Wildlife Foundation. She is currently also the Communications Intern for the Inter-agency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE).