In 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 than here.”
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,” Nepstad said.
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 moment.”
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 illegal deforestation, 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,” Nepstad said.
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 forest.”
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 the Amazon.
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 Green Book Award Winner. He is also a frequent contributor to The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Scientific American, and other publications. His TED talks have been viewed over three million times.