n 2016, the Brazilian model Gisele Bündchen flew over
the Amazon forest with the head of Greenpeace Brazil as part of a
National Geographic series called “Years of Living Dangerously.”
At first, they fly over an endless green forest. “The beauty seems to go on forever,” Bündchen says in her voice-over, “but then [Greenpeace’s Paulo] Adario tells me to brace myself.”
She is horrified by what comes next. Down below her are
fragments of forest next to cattle ranches. “All these large geometric
shapes carved into the landscape are because of cattle?”
“Everything starts with logging roads,” Adario explains. “The road stays and cattle rancher comes and cuts the remaining trees.”
“And the cattle is not even natural to the Amazon!” says Bündchen. “It is not even supposed to be here!”
“No, definitely not,” confirms Adario.
“Imagine the destruction of this beautiful forest to produce
cattle,” he says. “When you eat a burger you realize your burger is
coming from rainforest destruction.”
Bündchen starts to cry. “It’s shocking isn’t it?” says Adario.
But is it, really? If it is, does that mean Bündchen cries even harder when she flies over France and Germany?
After all, those two countries deforested their landscapes
centuries ago and all that’s left are cattle ranches and farms with far
fewer protected areas and far smaller fragments of forest than the ones
Bündchen looked down upon in the Amazon.
Germans produce four times more carbon emissions per capita,
including by burning biomass, than do Brazilians, and yet they don’t
hesitate to lecture Brazilians about the need to stop deforesting and
stop the fires
“I would like to give a message to the beloved [German
Chancellor] Angela Merkel,” said Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.
“Take your dough and reforest Germany, OK? It’s much more needed there
One answer environmentalists have long given for why
Brazilians should not do as Europeans and North Americans have done is
that humankind can’t survive without the Amazon. It’s the lungs of the
world, after all. It’s what creates oxygen.
But that’s “bullshit,” according
to Amazon forest expert Dan Nepstad, who was lead author for the most
recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The
Amazon uses as much oxygen as it produces.
What we really need to worry about, scientists say, is all
of the carbon stored by the Amazon. If it’s released by fires in the
form of carbon dioxide, they say, we won’t keep global temperatures from
rising two degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels.
But telling Brazilians that they must not cut down the
Amazon because of its role storing carbon only strengthens the sense in
which Europe’s supposed concern with the Amazon and climate change are
really a form of neo-colonialism.
Now that Europe has developed through deforestation and
fossil fuel use it is telling Brazil not to develop through
deforestation and fossil fuel use.
Bolsonaro is the backlash against such hypocrisy. The
increase in deforestation in 2019 is to some extent Bolsonaro fulfilling
a campaign promise to farmers who were “fatigued with violence, the
recession, and this environmental agenda,” Nepstad said.
“They were all saying, ‘You know, it’s this forest agenda
that will get this guy [Bolsonaro] elected. We’re all going to vote for
him.’ And farmers voted for him in droves.”
“I see what’s happening now, and the election of Bolsonaro,
as a reflection of major mistakes in [environmentalist] strategy,”
Just a few years ago, the environmental effort to save the Amazon seemed to be going well. Deforestation had declined a whopping 70% from 2004 to 2012, as compared to the period from 1996 to 2005.
But the recession and reduced law enforcement resulted in deforestation starting to rise again in 2013.
I asked Nepstad how much of the current backlash was due to
the Brazilian government’s enforcement of environmental laws and how
much due to NGOs like Greenpeace.
“I think most of it was the NGO dogmatism,” he said. “We
were in a really interesting space in 2012, ’13, ’14, because the
farmers felt satisfied with the article of the Forest Code dedicated to
compensating farmers, but it never happened.”
“It started with a Greenpeace campaign,” said Nepstad.
“People dressed up like chickens and walked through a number of
McDonald’s restaurants in Europe. It was a big international media
Greenpeace, a $350 million per year non-governmental
organization heavily financed by Europeans, demanded that Brazilian
farmers comply with a far stricter regulation than had been imposed by
the Brazilian government.
“What the farmers needed was basically amnesty on all of the illegal deforestation up through 2008,” said Nepstad. “And winning that, they felt like, ‘Okay, we could comply with this law.’ I side with the farmers on this.
Greenpeace sought stricter restrictions for the savannah forest, known as the Cerrado, where much of the soy is grown.
“Farmers got nervous that was going to be another
moratorium. The Cerrado is 60% of the nation’s soy crop. The Amazon is
10%. And so this was a much more serious matter.”
“The mastermind of the soy moratorium,” Nepstad added, “was Paulo Adario of Greenpeace Brazil” — the man who made Bündchen cry.
What happened was a tragedy, in Nepstad’s view, because the
soy farmers were increasingly willing to cooperate with environmental
restrictions before Greenpeace started making more extreme demands.
“There’s this exaggerated confidence, this hubris, that
regulation upon regulation, without really thinking of the farmer’s
perspective,” he said.
“Imagine being a landowner in California and told you can
only use half of your land and then told only 20%,” said Nepstad. “They
said, ‘Zero illegaldeforestation, we’re on board with that. Zero deforestation? No. Only with compensation.’”
Much of the motivation to stop farming and ranching is
ideological, Nepstad said. “It’s really anti-development, you know,
anti-capitalism. There’s a lot of hatred of agribusiness.”
Or at least hatred of agribusiness in Brazil. The same standard doesn’t seem to apply to agribusiness in France and Germany.
As such, Greenpeace’s seemingly ideological agenda fits
neatly into the agenda by European farmers to exclude low-cost Brazilian
food from the EU.
“Brazilian farmers want to extend [the free trade agreement]
EU-Mercosur but Macron is inclined to shut it down because the French
farm sector doesn’t want more Brazilian food products coming into the
country,” Nepstad explained.
The ecological consequences in the Amazon have been worse than they needed to be.
By requiring that ranchers and farmers leave 50% to 80% of
the forest standing, environmentalists pushed ranches and farms deeper
into the forest. “I think the Forest Code has fostered fragmentation,”
And fragmentation is a major threat to
endangered species loss. Big cats and other large mammal species need
continuous not fragmented habitat to survive and thrive.
Conservationists should have allowed farmers to intensify
production in some areas, particularly the Cerrado, to reduce pressure
and fragmentation of other areas, particularly the rainforest.
It’s not too late, Nepstad argued, and says “bringing down
the on-farm requirement where there’s a high aptitude” — high efficiency
and productivity — a “very good solution.”
In the US, more productive farms in the midwest out-competed
less productive farms in New England. As a result, there has been
significant reforestation in New England.
Intensifying in the more productive and less biodiverse
Cerrado might spare rain forest in the Amazon. “There’s a huge area of
unproductive land that’s growing 50 kilos of beef per hectare a year and
scraggly cows,” Nepstad explained, “that should all go back to the
In exchange, other lands should be opened up. “Let’s get the
agrarian reform reserves, which are huge and close to cities, to grow
vegetables and fruits and staples for the Amazon cities instead of them
importing tomatoes and carrots from São Paulo.”
Nepstad left me feeling more hopeful about the on-the-ground
prospects for a win-win when it comes to economic development and
conservation in the Amazon.
But I also felt troubled that such powerful forces as the
EU, Greenpeace, and the world’s most famous celebrities, aided by the
news media, show few signs of letting up with their dehumanization of
Overcoming that perception starts with remembering that the
Amazon was never Eden. Against the picture of it as devoid of farming,
scientists today believe that more than two million small farmers lived
in the Amazon basin before Europeans arrived in the 15th Century, and
that they had a far larger impact altering ecosystems than anyone has heretofore believed.
Scientists now believe, “early
Amazon farmers used the land intensively and expanded the types of
crops grown” and “increased the amount of food they grew by improving
the nutrient content of the soil through burning.”
It’s true that neither the cattle nor the humans are “even
natural to the Amazon!” as Bündchen said. But then, neither are they
“natural” anywhere other than Africa. But that doesn’t mean they don’t
belong there. They do. And we must start seeing them.
*Michael Shellenberger is a Time Magazine “Hero of the Environment,” and president of Environmental Progress. Follow him on Twitter @ShellenbergerMD.
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