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The many dangers this Amazon Rainforest Day – Greenpeace Aotearoa

Amazon Day (5 September) was established in Brazil in 1850 to mark the creation of the Province of Amazonas; later to give rise to the present-day State of Amazonas.

The world’s largest tropical forest is essential for climate balance. Indigenous peoples this week are mobilising against a legal threat from the powerful agriculture sector. And while the rate of deforestation is decreasing, the Amazon ecosystem is dangerously close to a tipping point.

River and rainforest. Amazon, Brazil
River and rainforest. Amazon, Brazil
© Greenpeace / John Novis

It is 2023 and the world is witnessing in horror historic record high temperatures. The planet is on fire in nature’s response to our inaction against climate change. But in the Amazon, the fires that burn forests into ashes have a slightly different cause – greed.

The infinite exploitation of finite natural resources is the root of the problem. This model generates profit for a small group of people while dragging society into dangerous circumstances. It seems that we’ve played with fire so much that we ourselves are very close to getting burned.

On this Amazon Rainforest Day, I would like to be able to celebrate the exuberance of this biome’s rivers, trees, and people. But we need to pause, reflect upon where we have arrived and consider how far we are willing to go for the preservation of the forests and so many other natural environments around the world. 

Amazon, the green giant

The Amazon Basin covers an area of 6.7 million km², spread across nine South American countries: Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, French Guiana, Peru, Suriname, and Venezuela. Most of it is in Brazil, which holds 60% of this massive forest and the majority of the population living in the region, about 28 million people out of a total of 38 million in the Pan-Amazon.

The Amazon is as vast as it is diverse. Within its ecosystems such as forests, mangroves, fields, and mountains, 15% of Earth’s biodiversity thrives. In addition to storing more than 155,500 gigatons of CO2eq (carbon dioxide equivalent) in its soil and trees, the forest also releases 20 trillion liters of water into the atmosphere daily, functioning as a global air conditioner.

But despite the magnitude of these numbers, the forest is dangerously under threat. Science warns of a point of no return for much of the Amazon, the so-called tipping point, after which, species and a variety of benefits and environmental services provided by the Amazon will be lost. Initial estimates on the matter calculated that this point could be reached when 40% of the  forest has been lost to deforestation. However, more recent studies that considered the “negative synergy” between deforestation, climate change, and widespread use of fire have recalibrated this estimate, and today it is believed that if 20 to 25% of the forest is lost, it is game over for us.

Initial tipping point trends may have already begun. A study published in 2021, led by researcher Luciana Gatti from the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research (Inpe), indicates that this is already happening in forests in the southeastern Amazon, between Pará and Mato Grosso, which have ceased to be carbon sinks and have become major emitters of one of the main greenhouse gases. 

Aerial view of a large burned area
CANDEIRAS DO JAMARI, RORAIMA, BRAZIL: Aerial view of a large burned area in the city of Candeiras do Jamari in the state of Rondonia. (Photo: Victor Moriyama / Greenpeace)

Savage capitalism

To date, the Amazon has already lost 17% of its native vegetation, with this percentage reaching 21% in Brazil, according to data from the Mapbiomas organization. Another recent survey by the Laboratory for Environmental Satellite Applications (LASA) shows that in the last 10 years alone, scars from fires and burns in the Brazilian Amazon have covered an area larger than France (62 million hectares).

Where does so much destruction come from? It stems from the notion that the Amazon is a vast uninhabited land that should be destroyed to make way for the production of meat, soy, palm oil, oil, gold, or any other product that yields immediate profit for investors, regardless of how many lives are lost in the process. A classic case of reckless greed.

We are not talking about small-scale deforesters or lone criminals. This is a complex and well-funded scheme by the global financial system, which fuels land grabbing, violence, and forest destruction for the production of commodities.

An aerial shot shows a winding river through green forest.
Tapajós river basin, next to Sawré Muybu indigenous land, is home to the Munduruku people, Pará state, Brazil. The Brazilian government plans to build 43 dams in the region. The largest planned dam, São Luiz do Tapajós, will impact the life of indigenous peoples and riverside communities. Dams like these threaten the fragile biome of the Amazon, where rivers are fundamental to regeneration and distribution of plant species and the survival of local flora. Renewable energy, such as solar and wind, holds the key to Brazil’s energy future.

Positive balance

In the Amazon, fires are lit as part of the deforestation process. As a wet tropical forest, the Amazon doesn’t burn on its own. It needs to be weakened first, with larger trees removed, until it becomes dry and fragile enough to burn, usually during the hottest months in the region, from July to October. For an area to be completely deforested, it will likely undergo multiple cycles of degradation and fire, which can take months or even years. It’s a long and expensive process, made possible because money keeps flowing into the hands of deforesters.

However, with all we know today, it’s unacceptable for governments to continue investing in this destructive economic model that benefits so few. Meanwhile, companies pretend not to see the damage caused by their operations, and banks keep pouring money into these sectors. There’s also no more time for promises without actionable plans to back them up.

The meat industry has been making and breaking zero deforestation promises for almost 15 years. Companies like JBS, for example, a global giant in meat production, remain constantly involved in cases of purchasing cattle from deforested areas in the Amazon, yet they are preparing to launch an Initial Public Offering (IPO) on the New York Stock Exchange. Because maximizing profits no matter the consequences is the sole priority.

In Brazil, after four years of destruction under the government of Jair Bolsonaro, the arrival of Lula to the presidency brought hopes for better times and a safer climate. But despite noticeable advances in environmental enforcement, the government has no intention of giving up oil drilling in the mouth of the Amazon River. 

This kind of distortion of reality happens in the Amazon, but it also happens in the Cerrado savanna grasslands, the Congo Basin Forest, the Chaco forests, and even in the Arctic! How much longer will the infinite growth and positive balance sheet of large corporations be more important than ensuring the lives of basically everyone in the world?

Will it be the Pyrocene?

In 2015, fire history expert Stephen Pyne introduced us to the concept of the Pyrocene. From his perspective, the Earth would be entering a new Geological Era, influenced by humanity’s power to alter the environment through fire: if fire allowed us to evolve, the same fire, when burning fossil fuels and forests, could be our downfall. 

We have already passed the point where the Amazon needed to be saved. Now, it’s us who need to be saved, and it’s necessary to implement all available solutions: halt deforestation, restore forests and natural ecosystems, transform the market to not endanger our future, strengthen activism, restructure a new food system, achieve climate justice, end the fossil fuel era! We have to leave this system behind in order to build something new, something that makes sense for the reality we face now and in the future.

Activists on a dinghy on a brown river water hold a sign saying Zero Deforestation now, with Greenpeace logo. A Greenpeace ship is in the background.
Greenpeace activists show a banner reading ‘Zero Deforestation Now’, with the Arctic Sunrise in the background to mark the beginning of the “Save the planet now” ship tour. The tour is part of the organisation’s global effort to alert the Brazilian people to the environmental problems caused by global warming and to pressure the government into taking urgent action to curb climate change.

Greenpeace’s work for the Amazon

Currently, Greenpeace Brazil is working on four fronts in the Amazon: advocating for an end to mining in Indigenous Lands, combating deforestation and fires, opposing oil drilling at the mouth of the Amazon, and promoting the creation of protected areas in the Amazon.

In the fight against mining in Indigenous Lands, earlier this year we conducted a major campaign in partnership with Greenpeace East Asia, demanding the removal of illegal miners and heavy machinery that were illegally mining gold in indigenous territories. We succeeded in getting Hyundai to commit to stopping the sale of its heavy machinery in the states of Amazonas, Roraima, and Pará, where the Kayapó, Munduruku, and Yanomami Indigenous Territories are located. 

Additionally, Hyundai pledged to cease maintenance and parts supply in the region until their efforts to strengthen their sales process and compliance system effectively prevent their excavators from being used in illegal gold mining.

Someone with flower wreath on their head looks over a placard that says 'pela democracia, não ao Marco Temporal'
Indigenous Peoples from all over the country are mobilising in Brasília as the Marco Temporal bill by the Federal Supreme Court (STF) resumes. The Marco Temporal bill is a legal argument that would severely limit Indigenous peoples’ land rights and is considered the most important of the century, because it will define the future of the demarcations of Indigenous Lands (TIs) in Brazil.

Now, Indigenous peoples face a new major threat. The Brazilian Supreme Federal Court is considering a legal theory that could affect all Indigenous lands in the country, known as the Marco Temporal (Temporal Framework). We are currently in Brasília with Indigenous peoples, supporting their mobilization and participating as ‘amicus curiae’ in the trial.

In the campaign against deforestation, it’s the season of criminal wildfires here. At the moment, we have a petition directed towards the governors of the Amazonian states, urging them to implement rules that make land grabbing more difficult and ensure proper punishment for those responsible for illegal fires. This year, environmental policy has made significant progress at the federal level, and deforestation is decreasing, but it remains at a very high level. Without action from state governments, we won’t achieve Zero Deforestation.

In the effort to establish protected areas, we continue to support the communities of Rio Manicoré in Amazonas, in implementing a category of protected areas where sustainable collective use is emphasized. This is the kind of development model we want to see more of in the region. Last year, we conducted a major scientific expedition there, and the results were amazing: 324 bird species were recorded, along with over 400 types of plants, 74 species of reptiles and amphibians, 140 fish species, and 84 mammal species, not to mention many species still unknown to science. This year, we will release a guide to the region’s species.

Lastly, this year the plan to explore oil in the Amazon’s mouth has resurfaced. This idea had been abandoned by BP and Total in 2020 after an intense campaign, but it’s now being taken up again by the national oil company, Petrobras. As a result, we are reviving our campaign for the protection of the Amazon’s Coral Reefs.

On this Amazon Day, we wish the forest a future of peace and utmost respect.

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