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It’s rather sad and kind of ironic: we can plant trees, cross the Atlantic by sailboat, march the streets, rebel against extinction, pray for the flaming Amazon we observe in horror, and grieve, but still be contributing to environmentally harmful and corrupt businesses which are supported by governments.
For the past few weeks, like so many “innocent” Instagrammers, I watched the burning Amazon on my phone screen. I take care of the social media of an ecology center on Ibiza, and some caring followers were wondering why we hadn’t shared anything yet about the fires on our news feed.
I thanked these followers and replied that we would share news from reliable sources, not just repost a dramatic picture of a burning Amazon with the hollow hashtag: #PrayfortheAmazon. I ended with an invitation to share these sources with us.
That evening, I started surfing the web for articles about Brazil and the flaming Amazon, after I had seen even more heartbreaking pictures on Instagram. Even with a big ocean between us, a man-made disaster is still happening. But of course this can’t have happened just in the past weeks.
I scrolled through the misery while I was lying in my comfortable bed, knowing full well that it’s the worst thing to do in a bedroom. Just before I wanted to leave Instagram-world, I stumbled upon an Instagram story from a Dutch novelist and research journalist, who always seems to share the relevant things. She was the Brazil correspondent for a Dutch online magazine during the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, and wrote insightful articles about the political and economical situation of Brazil, which has been in a downfall for decades.
The chain of destruction and violation of human rights of the indigenous people, who have the Amazon as their ancestral habitat, didn’t start yesterday.
That night, I couldn’t forget the sight of seeing healthy trees in flames, the thought of thousands of animals that couldn’t escape, and the people who inhabit these forests and whose land has been robbed. I wondered if there was anything in our power that could fight this.
Yes, there is.
The next morning, I came across the website of Amazon Watch, a NGO whose work is to protect the rain forest and our climate by supporting indigenous people.
Through this revealing report, “Complicity in Destruction II: How Northern consumers and financiers enable Bolsonaro’s assault on the Brazilian Amazon,” I found the answers I was looking for.
The in-depth report mentions two agricultural activities—cattle ranching and soy production—as the leading drivers of deforestation in Brazil. Ranching alone leads to approximately 80 percent of Amazon deforestation, with 80 percent of Amazon forests cleared since 2014 being occupied by cattle.
What I learnt from reading this report is that the agroindustrial sector is utterly influential to Brazilian politics, with documented links to illegal deforestation, corruption, and other criminal activities. Every day, 80,000 bovines are slaughtered by the world’s largest animal protein company and a leading beef processor of Brazil, called JBS.
JBS Brazil has the daily slaughtering capacity of 34,200 bovines spread across the country, including the Amazon. The company is one of Brazil’s biggest exporters of beef and beef products to destinations in the United States and Europe.
Through the export of beef to international trade partners and its supply by consumers, we allow explosive, illegal deforestation in other parts of the world to happen.
Brazil has a powerful agribusiness sector, also known as the “ruralistas,” whose interests are closely aligned to Bolsonaro’s short-sighted, harmful politics. Its tentacles reach deep into the government of Bolsonaro, who prioritizes economical profit over the conservation of the “World’s Lungs,” as the Amazon and sacred habitat for indigenous people and endangered animals is being referred to.
I write this because we, as Northern consumers of these animal products, aren’t only the reason that an unfathomable amount of animals are being killed each day—we also are complicit in the destruction of the Amazon and the home to its indigenous people. The pictures of a burning Amazon we see across the internet are a result of political and economical choices which we sustain, even on other continents.
This may sound way too far from our comfortable beds, but really it isn’t as far as it might seem. But how on Earth do I, as a European woman, contribute to the devastation of the Amazonian forests and animals? And how do you, as an American citizen, keep these flames raging?
Amazon Watch’s report explains the political and economical choices that enable the destruction of the Amazon forests, but which choices could also be the driving force to bring recovery—if we allow this to happen.
Brazil’s three largest trade partners are China, the EU, and the United States. The report demonstrates that Brazil’s economy is increasingly dependent on foreign markets via investment or purchase of export commodities. Brazil’s main exports are forest-risk commodities, such as soybeans, animal products including poultry and beef, raw sugar, and paper goods.
I discovered through further reading that the Netherlands ($3.2 billion), the small European country where I was born, is the most important trading partner of Brazilian agricultural products, right after China ($19 billion).
Brazil exports more agricultural commodities to the EU than any other supplier. For example, 41 percent of the EU’s beef imports came from Brazil in 2018. This gives Brazil’s biggest trade partners—China, the EU, and the United States, significant influence over agribusiness in Brazil. In other words: its governments and consumers play a key role in the future of the Amazon.
A future that doesn’t sound all rainbows and sunshine is one with a possible trade war between the United States and China, which will increase the Chinese demand for Brazilian soy and stoke the flames even more. Or the EU, which is negotiating a trade deal with South America and Brazil as one of the trade partners—known as the Mercosur deal—which enables the further devastation on the Amazon as large Brazilian agribusiness companies will export meat and soy to the EU and benefit from new business opportunities as trade barriers will be removed.
“The EU therefore has a key role in ensuring that its trade policies safeguard the Amazon and the rights of its inhabitants,” Amazon Watch says in their report, which clearly connects the dots between the deadly attack on the Amazon and global trade.
Foreign big banks and large investment companies also play a critical role in the Brazilian Amazon, providing billions of dollars to soy and cattle companies. The report mentions the names of all financial institutions involved.
In a global world economy, all of us are key players. Nothing and nobody is far from our warm beds anymore—even if, like me, that bed is on a small island in the Mediterranean. This gives us the often impossible task of finding out where our food is coming from.
While supply chains mostly aren’t transparent for the consumer, how can we possibly know we have bought beef derived from Brazilian cattle or soy and how to prevent purchasing these products?
The report recommends new policies and EU regulations for countries, and implementations of Zero Deforestation policies by importing companies. Another recommendation for importing companies is to make internal due diligence findings public and transparent.
These actions sound completely understandable and rational—in a former life I drafted all sorts of policies as a legal consultant, yet, the powerful solution which lies in our own hands might have an emotional content. If you let it sink in, it is just as rational as making new laws.
If we want to stop the Amazon from burning down, we need to introduce plant-based living as a healthy alternative and we have to support local businesses. In this way, we exercise our influence over the leaders who are causing environmental destruction, given the fact that most cultivated Brazilian soy is for feeding the millions of cattle elsewhere in the world—cows, sheep, and chickens that not only produce meat, but also dairy. As we know, meat and dairy are both polluting industries.
To some, this may sound drastic. Nevertheless, the growing facts demonstrate that we need to make an urgent shift in our food-consumption in order to save our environment from dying.
Let’s consider why we’re still purchasing animal products and ordering beef at our favorite restaurant.
To all noble environmentalists out there, especially those who are still silent on this: start advocating for plant-based living as a crucial way to restore our environment. We can’t do it without making this shift.