State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Protecting the Amazon Requires Changing Policy and Eating Less Beef

smoke from amazon rainforest firest
Smoke rises from fires in the Amazon rainforest, as seen from the International Space Station. Photo: Luca Parmitano

By Cayte Bosler

The Amazon forests of Brazil, Peru, and Bolivia are burning to death. The Amazon, which covers 2.1 million square miles, is often referred to as the “lungs of the planet” because it’s thought to produce 20 percent of the oxygen in our planet’s atmosphere, and take in 17 percent of the carbon dioxide stored by the world’s trees.

Now the world is watching as a soccer field-sized patch of rainforest turns to ash every minute. The scene is apocalyptic: thousands of square miles of forest destroyed, countless corpses of creatures who could not flee.

“The smoke is so thick that we can barely look at the horizon,” says Victor Moriyama, a Brazilian documentary photographer who is producing real-time images by plane. “I remember the scenes from the movie Platoon, in which the smoke enveloped the jungle and gave us the sensation of war. I feel as if on the brink of an abyss.”

For years, scientists, conservationists, and indigenous communities have been telling us about their struggles to protect the most biodiverse nature on the planet, advocating in favor of keeping ecosystems intact instead of converting them for beef and soy production, mining, and logging. However, global demand for products that strain the resources from the Amazon have made it a mostly losing battle. The driving forces are international, and the colossal loss of life affects the entire planet. As such, the fires in the Amazon require a global response.

Cows vs. Trees

The Amazon did not evolve with natural fires. The fires are set by farmers to clear land for cattle to sell as meat, and to grow soy to feed pigs, chickens, and cows.

“From above it is possible to see the livestock expansion happening at a rapid pace, responsible for the numerous fires that plague various parts of the Amazon,” says Moriyama. “Historically, Brazil has not built an effective culture to stimulate sustainable forest development. The consequence of this is that many workers end up going to illegal deforestation activities such as tree felling, mining and land grabbing.”

In past decades, Bolivian and Brazilian forests have mainly been deforested by the expansion of agricultural frontier development, driven by the growing global demands for beef. Although the use of fire to clear land is technically illegal, penalties are rarely enforced.

Brazil is the world’s largest exporter and producer of beef. Beef exports make up 2.33 percent of its economy. The country exports one-fifth of the meat it produces; the rest, about 80 percent, is for local consumption by 200 million Brazilians.

There are 232 million heads of cattle in Brazil, more than anywhere else in the world — about one per Brazilian resident. One pound of beef requires 298 square feet of cropland and 211 gallons (800 liters) of water, on average. An average cow produces close to 400 pounds of meat. Adding it all up, that means a single cow will require 84,000 jugs of water piled on two football fields of cropland to become the hamburger you order at a drive-thru.

As the demand for beef grows by 10 percent a year in Brazil, so does the demand for land, which is why ranchers want access to more land for grazing.

chart showing amazon rainforest loss versus growth in cattle industry
The number of cows raised in Brazil continues to grow, as does deforestation in the Amazon.

An Immediate Solution

Beef is one of the products with the highest carbon and resource footprint on the planet. One-third of all freshwater on Earth and of all cropland worldwide is used for livestock. Raising livestock in rangelands also severely reduces biodiversity, which in turn threatens entire ecosystems we rely on for our survival. Reducing our consumption of beef is thus a food security issue, not only an environmental one. As we approach 8 billion in the world population, we simply cannot continue to eat so much beef.

“One immediate solution to the threat to the Amazon is to reduce the demand for Brazilian beef,” says Alexander More, a climate change historian at Harvard University and the University of Maine. The top consumers of Brazilian beef are China (+43.8% demand in 2018) the most populous country in the world, Hong Kong and the EU (Germany +338.4% demand in 2018) among others, mostly all first world countries.

“The governments of these countries should start importing beef from other sources, in order to stop the demand for land, and therefore fires used to clear that land in the Amazon,” says More. “Certain countries are driving meat exports from all nations surrounding the Amazon, attempting to feed a beef frenzy that did not exist only a few years ago. This is driven by culture, economic development, a feeling of entitlement, but certainly not need.”

“If we can capitalize on the attention the Amazon has brought to the impact of livestock and industrialized agriculture on the lungs of the planet, then we can change the world,” says More. “Many of the countries that consume Brazilian beef do not participate in the social media and information sphere dominant in the US and Europe, so these cultural and lifestyle changes need to happen on the ground, through policy, or major education and communications campaigns. A good example of an effective campaign is WildAid’s campaign against shark fin soup with Yao Ming, which contributed to reducing demand by 70 percent [in China], even as other countries increased it.”

A severe, government-mandated reduction in Brazilian beef imports, as some European leaders have already suggested, would go a long way toward curtailing further destruction of the Amazon. Local beef consumption in Brazil also needs to be curbed, and as of 2015, there were indications that this trend was already starting.

Policy also plays an important role. Moriyama sees the Amazon fires as a consequence of Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro’s promises to strengthen agribusiness at the expense of conserving the rainforest; Bolsonaro’s government continues to lobby new countries to open their markets to Brazilian beef.

In Bolivia, too, the government is not helping matters, explains Alfredo Romero-Muñoz, Bolivian wildlife biologist and environmental policy expert. “The fires in Bolivia come a month after [President Evo] Morales signed Supreme Decree 3973 to expand the agricultural frontier to produce beef to export to China. Bolivia was already among the top five countries for deforestation last year. In just a few weeks this year, we have tripled last year’s amount.”

Nearing a Tipping Point?

By gutting the earth’s wilds and consuming its products, we turn a blind eye that could one day lead to our own demise. Our health as humans is derived from and dependent upon plants, animals, and the land.

“Biodiversity is declining rapidly in these regions,” says Romero-Muñoz, who authored a study in Nature Ecology & Evolution about the year ahead being pivotal for Bolivian conservation policy. “Apart from losing biodiversity, we’ll lose the services they bring. Bolivia is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to climate breakdown and already has big problems with water scarcity. There are projections almost all lowland forests outside protected areas in Bolivia — 38 million hectares — may be destroyed by 2050 in the worst-case scenario. With the current policies, we are heading in that direction. This is a catastrophe.”

We may have already destroyed 15 percent of the original territory of the Amazon, says Moriyama. Some scientists have predicted that “if deforestation continues past 20 percent, the recovery of the forest will be irreversible. We are at a critical point where there is no turning back.”

“The destruction of these forests allowed and even encouraged by governments is not just a problem of Bolivia or Brazil, it’s a problem of the whole world,” says Mariana Da Silva, Bolivian conservation scientist. “The Amazon biome is our natural heritage, we depend on it for water and oxygen, it is fundamental to mitigate the climate crisis we are causing, it is also the home of countless human and non-human life that have the right to be there and deserve better than to be burnt alive. This is a crime against nature and each one of us, no matter where in the world we are. We can’t just watch a crime as it happens, we must organize and act to stop it now.”

It is worth mentioning here that scientists and environmental activists speaking out against their governments’ complicity in the destruction are doing so at their peril.

“We are the country where activists are most murdered,” says Moriyama of Brazil.

“In Bolivia, I know several colleagues do not want to speak for fear of retaliation from the government,” says Romero-Muñoz, who is from Bolivia and now based in Berlin.

Even with the risks, many are taking to the streets of Bolivia to demand international help to repel laws allowing the agricultural expansion. In July, President Morales signed the legislation (D.S. 3973) that allowed the agricultural frontier expansion through fires to gain political support mostly from the agroindustrial elites; the consequences of this are now dramatically on display. This pressure for policy reform comes as Morales campaigns to be reelected in October 2019. The fires are still burning in Bolivia, and after almost a month, Morales has finally said he will accept international help. “I’ve instructed the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Foreign Relations to see how they can be of help to put out these fires,” said Morales.

It’s tempting to wish for a solution as spectacular in effect as the raging flames. The United States dispatched a supertanker plane to disperse water, albeit 16 days into the blaze, with over one million hectares already ravaged. Even when the flames subside, we can’t bring back what’s already lost. The best prevention for future crises is stalwart protection of what wilds remain.

A will to change lifestyle habits like meat consumption is necessary but pointless without a commitment to changing the political and economic structures that currently prioritize unsustainable economic growth over life itself, the bodies of trees, animals, and indigenous people. There is a pattern of violence against nature that’s broad, that’s deep-set, ruthless and mostly remains unspoken. It’s becoming harder to ignore the violence being wrought on the planet, especially when the spectacle is so horrific it can be seen from space. To protect the remaining wild, we must act like our lives and the lives of everyone we love depend on it. Because they do.

Cayte Bosler is a student in Columbia’s Sustainability Management masters program. She is a member of the Explorer’s Club and spent part of summer 2019 in the Bolivian Amazon doing wildlife research.

Special thanks to Alexander More for his contribution to data analysis.

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Claudia Dreifus
4 years ago

Good work, Cayte. Plus, it couldn’t be more timely. Your prof is proud.