PART THREE

Understanding the urgency: what can be done to save the Amazon ecosystem?

By Günter Försterra & Vreni Häussermann

In the first two parts we explained the importance of the Amazon rainforest for biodiversity on earth, but also for the climate in the region and on the globe and we explained what threats this large ecosystem is facing. It should be clear by now that the Amazon needs to be saved and that all threats need to be stopped as soon as possible. Now we want to address possible ways to do so.

Political Action and International Agreements

To say it right away: Most of the fate of the Amazon is in the hands of politicians and much of the future of this ecosystem depends on the political decisions that are made in the countries that have a portion of the Amazon and on international agreements and treaties about how the Amazon will be treated in the future.  Of course, most of you who read these blogs do not live in Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Venezuela, Ecuador, Guyana, Suriname, or French Guinea. But these countries act within an international community and political decisions that are made in other countries can have a big impact on what happens in the Amazon. Since much of the destruction that takes place in the Amazon region is for producing products that are exported, the EU e.g. launched a “deforestation law” in early 2023, which is supposed to stop import of products that were produced on land by damaging or removing rainforest after 2020 (1). The US and the UK showed interest in following similar laws. It will take some time before such laws develop their full potential and they probably will not be able to eliminate 100% of rainforest destruction. But since we might be at the edge of a tipping point for the Amazon, we need to stop destruction completely and fast. So, there are still possibilities of how our individual way of life, what we buy and what we support can make a difference.

Consumer Choices Matter

Most of the tropical timber that is logged in the Amazon leaves the countries, a lot of it illegally (2). During its journey much of the illegally cut and exported wood gets legal papers (3) and then can be sold in home centers or to processing companies which make furniture, window frames, saunas or even waste products like concrete formwork, charcoal, or chopsticks out of hundreds of years old trees (4). In the current situation with the Amazon reaching a tipping point, every cut tree, legally or illegally, is missed in the Amazon. Even if logged areas are replanted, it takes decades to centuries before the young trees can replace the ecological function and have captured the carbon of an old tree. But their contribution is needed now! Although long transport should make it expensive, tropical timber is often cheaper than wood from sustainable managed extratropical forests. The price often pays sustainability. In the tropics it is very difficult to harvest timber in a sustainable and ecologically friendly way. In fact, for most tree species, it is so difficult that sustainably harvested timber from primary tropical forests cannot satisfy the actual demand at all (5). Although there already exist commercial plantations of some tropical tree species, many of these plantations are on former primary forest land. So, the best would be not to buy tropical timber or products made of tropical timber at all.  If you still want to buy tropical wood look for a reliable certificate. There are many certificates on the market, many of which are from the lumber industry itself. Look for independent certificates like the FSC label (6). The FSC label is still controversially discussed, and several NGOs criticize the criteria and controls behind it, but at least it represents one of the best and wider spread efforts to get towards sustainable forest management. But again, the best would be not to buy tropical wood at all, if you cannot be sure that it has been logged in a sustainable way.  Many extratropical forests are much easier to manage in a sustainable way and deliver timber and wood products that are not necessarily inferior to tropical hardwood. The sometimes higher price for this timber is often explained by sustainable management.

Addressing Agricultural Expansion

But as we explained in the first two parts, most of the rainforest does not disappear because of logging, but is removed by fire clearing for agricultural products (7,8,9). Most of the fire-cleared land in the Amazon is used for planting soybeans, sugar cane and for creating grass land for cattle. The soybeans that are produced on giant farms using enormous amounts of pesticides like Glyphosate, are almost exclusively grown as livestock feed and most of it is exported. The vast majority goes to China, but much of it also to Europe and North America (10). Although in Brazil a “soy moratorium” was implanted that prohibits commercialization of soy produced on illegally deforested areas in the Amazon, soy production in Brazil increased dramatically, due to shift of production from the Amazon basin to fire cleared areas in the Cerrado, the most diverse Forest Savanna on earth (11).

Addressing Agricultural Expansion

But as we explained in the first two parts, most of the rainforest does not disappear because of logging, but is removed by fire clearing for agricultural products (7,8,9). Most of the fire-cleared land in the Amazon is used for planting soybeans, sugar cane and for creating grass land for cattle. The soybeans that are produced on giant farms using enormous amounts of pesticides like Glyphosate, are almost exclusively grown as livestock feed and most of it is exported. The vast majority goes to China, but much of it also to Europe and North America (10). Although in Brazil a “soy moratorium” was implanted that prohibits commercialization of soy produced on illegally deforested areas in the Amazon, soy production in Brazil increased dramatically, due to shift of production from the Amazon basin to fire cleared areas in the Cerrado, the most diverse Forest Savanna on earth (11).

Rainforest is transformed into meat

Cattle farming is very inefficient on the poor and degraded former rainforest soils with only 40 kg of beef production per year and hectare, while average on grassland is between 100-250kg. Nevertheless, Brazil is the world’s largest producer of beef (12). Over the decades a total of 480.000 km2 former rainforest land has been converted into pasture for cattle, which represents between 60-80% of the deforested area. Today 215 million cattle graze on 160.000 km2 (13). From the beef that is produced on this land a large portion, around 2 million tons each year, are exported, with exports on the rise. The main importer of Brazilian beef is China and Hongkong (<60%), the USA (around 10%), Egypt, Chile, Israel and the EU (aprox. 2.5%) (10). 

There are efforts on increasing the efficiency of cattle farms and this way reduce or eliminate the need for further rainforest land and some of these approaches are promising (14,15), but the methods and projects still need to proof their impact and it is doubtful if these efforts alone can reduce the problem sufficiently in the time remaining to safe the rainforest.

So, one of the most efficient ways to do something for the preservation of the Amazon is to reduce your meat consumption, especially beef (16). Beef that comes directly from Brazil is the worst, but beef produced elsewhere with soybeans from former rainforest land is not much better. So, reduce your meat consumption, replace it with meat substitutes, and if you consume meat buy it from local organic farmers who do not feed imported crops. Even if plant-based meat substitute is based on soy protein, the environmental impact and in particular the land consumption for delivering the same amount of protein to the consumer is a tiny fraction of what is needed for the equivalent of beef. If you want to know how much less have a look here (17).

Supporting Indigenous Advocacy

Together with environmental groups, indigenous tribes and organizations have become important advocates for the rainforest. Lawsuits against the agricultural industry, mining companies and all kinds of illegal activities in the rainforest have stopped or slowed down deforestation in many parts (18,19,20). The protests of indigenous tribes have put pressure on governments to improve and enforce environmental laws and indigenous groups have become important guardians who watch over the compliance of agreements. By doing so activists often risk and lose their lives. Lawsuits are expensive and are primarily financed through NGOs who depend on donations. Donating to environmental groups who support indigenous people or environmental activists in rainforest areas can have an important impact on the enforcement of laws and on the legislation itself. Here are some websites that list NGOs who support rainforest conservation.

There are even tiny but easy things you can do like e.g. using Ecosia as your search engine, which donates their profit to tree planting, climate protection, forest fire fighting and other forest protection related activities.

And last but not least: Every effort to combat global warming contributes to the preservation of the Amazon and its diverse ecosystems.

Take action today to help protect the Amazon rainforest and its biodiversity!

🌍 Fight Climate Change, Save the Amazon

References

  1. European Parliament News (2023, April 19): Parliament adopts new law to fight global deforestation
  2. Ennes for Mongabay (2021, September 15): Illegal logging reaches Amazon’s untouched core, ‘terrifying’ research shows
  3. Borges and S. Branford for Mongabay (2020, March 11): Brazil drastically reduces controls over suspicious Amazon timber exports
  4. Government of Hongkong (1992): Tropical Hardwood Timber
  5. Piponiot et al. (2019): Can timber provision from Amazonian production forests be sustainable?
  6. Advanced Timber Knowledge (downloadad February 2024): EUTR vs FSC® vs PEFC:  Which is best?
  7. FAO (2021, November 6): COP26: Agricultural expansion drives almost 90 percent of global deforestation. FAO Remote Sensing Survey reveals new findings
  8. World Economic Forum (2021, February 25): This is how much different commodities contribute to deforestation.
  9. Hänggli et al (2023): A systematic comparison of deforestation drivers and policy effectiveness across the Amazon biome
  10. Shuttleworth for AHD News (2022, June 28): Brazilian beef production increases as exports continue to flourish | AHDB
  11. Sax and M. Angelo for Mongabay (2020, May 5): Soy made the Cerrado a breadbasket; climate change may end that
  12. E. Skidmore et al. (2021): Cattle ranchers and deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon: Production, location, and policies.
  13. Amnesty International (2019, November 26): Brazil: Facts and figures behind illegal cattle farms fuelling Amazon rainforest destruction.
  14. Grosfield for Global Landscape Forum (2017, March 20): Improving sustainable cattle production in the Brazilian Amazon.
  15. PECSA: Sustainable Cattle Ranching in the Amazon (downloaded Feb. 2024)
  16. Schiermeier for Nature News (2019, August 8): Eat less meat: UN climate-change report calls for change to human diet.
  17. Good Food Institute (downloaded Feb. 2024)
  18. Wikipedia (downloaded Feb. 2024): Waorani of Pastaza vs. Ecuadorian_State.
  19. Goldstein for People (2020, May 15): Amazonian Tribe Wins $3 Million Lawsuit Against Timber Companies Who Illegally Deforested Land.
  20. Cervantes for Reuters (2020, Jan. 22): Peruvian indigenous group wins suit to block oil exploration in Amazonian region.
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