As I am writing these lines, vast areas of forest are burning around the world – including devastating fires in our planet’s green heart, the Amazon rainforest. Last month, it has suffered the most fire hotspots in thirteen years. It pains me. This destruction is terrible on so many levels, but just thinking about the countless animals losing their lives in the fires breaks my heart. To me this is inacceptable, and it does not have to be like this. Truth is, we as humans are entirely to blame for it. How did we end up there? And what is the way out?
Having lived in Brazil and been to the Amazon twice, I can assure you: it is a place like no other. Hardly anywhere in the world do we find more species of birds, plants and mammals – and many more are still unknown. For centuries, Indigenous and traditional communities have been living here, at peace with nature. Allowed to stand and recover, the Amazon will remain their home, as well as a key climate stabilizer, global medicine cabinet, and barrier between humans and wildlife that reduces the risk of spreading viruses like COVID-19.
Attack on the Amazon and the Guardians of the forest
Yet the Brazilian government and President Bolsonaro are rapidly removing essential protections for forests and Indigenous People, while openly encouraging the commercial exploitation of the Amazon and vetoing health support for Indigenous People. The rainforest is already heading towards a tipping point, scientists say. Fires on top of total deforestation between 20 and 25 percent could irreversibly end the Amazon’s ability to sustain itself as a rainforest in our lifetime.
Recognized Indigenous territories are usually effective barriers to unrelenting exploitation and the vast majority of the planets biodiversity is indeed protected by Indigenous People. Yet Indigenous and local communities hold formal land rights to only a fraction of the territory that they actually occupy globally. And even where land rights are formally recognized, these are frequently violated by illegal or state-sanctioned extractive projects and land grabbing. For example, 72 percent of all mining in the Amazon from January to April occurred illegally on protected or Indigenous land. Indigenous communities frequently pay a high price defending their lands – and with it their existence – including surveillance and harassment, criminalization, murder and even genocide. If this wasn’t enough already, illegal loggers and miners are bringing COVID-19 to their lands and villages and put them into further danger. Indigenous People are facing a mortality rate from COVID-19 150 percent higher than the rate of Brazilians on average.
This destruction for short-sighted economic interests benefits only a few, but deepens a much bigger health, social and economic crisis for generations to come. Indigenous People, at the forefront of the battle against a powerful logging, mining and agriculture industry, are paying the true cost. The same way the Amazon is seen as a “business case”, Indigenous People are dehumanized and as a result, some deem their lives to be less important than the profits for a few.
What happens in the Amazon doesn’t stay in the Amazon
Our home is – literally as well as figuratively – on fire. Forest fires are symptomatic of a sick economic system that splits us from nature and each other, but we can’t survive on opposite sides. This system that drives dehumanization and the liquidation of natural resources breeds first poverty, inequality, and social breakdown, then popular anger, which right-wing demagogues exploit. Brazil is one example.
Regardless, some countries in the European Union – primarily Germany – want to close a trade deal with the so called Mercosur countries Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay. If coming into force, the agreement will add even more fuel to the fire. Expanding the export of cheap meat and other agricultural products from Mercosur countries will further threaten the Amazon and other ecosystems in South America. Commodity production is the key driver of deforestation, including and especially in the Amazon. The deal will push Mercosur economies even further into an extractive-dependent economy reliant on commodities, focused on exporting extracted natural resources and agricultural products. As if this isn’t enough, closing a deal with Bolsonaro sends the message that he can act with impunity.
Don’t get me wrong, international cooperation and fair trade is absolutely needed. What we don’t need are deals with climate criminals and even more investment in the industries and products that fuel the climate, biodiversity, and social crisis. And this is exactly what the agreement does – it continues to promote the problem and the associated economic structures, and their effects. It promotes job creation and the expansion strategies of German companies in the Mercosur countries, but unfortunately in industries that are not sustainable.
Reconnect with nature
In addition to changing rules of economy and trade, we must undergo a profound cultural transformation and transforming how we view and treat the Earth – and each other. What does that mean exactly? It’s pretty simple: we cannot continue to think about nature as something outside of ourselves, separate from us. We must come to realize nature as something that we are a part of, not separate from. What has been socially constructed as ‘the environment’ is in fact what gives us life. Doing harm to nature means doing harm to ourselves. There are plenty of ways to practice reconnecting with nature. Spend time in nature, breathe and yes, hug a tree. It feels really good. And of course, learn from people who have not yet lost the connection to nature: Indigenous People. I also like to recall a phrase from my yoga teacher training: “The other is you.” For me, this sums it up beautifully, no matter if the other is your best friend, the person sitting opposite on the train or the wooly monkey high up in the trees in the Amazon.