There are few biomes left in the world that humans don’t explicitly use as a resource – and the Amazon isn’t one of them.
From the crops and livestock that feed us to the oil that fuels us, and from minerals that move and connect us to the cotton that clothes us and gold that enriches us, the Amazon’s ecological and biological wealth drives nearly all production sectors.
In the second day of a three-day digital conference on the Amazon Biome, GLF Amazonia: The Tipping Point, participating experts focused on Amazonian supply and value chains and the lives of the people they directly entail. The lens through which discussions occurred was not one of how to halt or reverse economic activity in the Amazon, but rather how to reconfigure land use, management and ownership to ensure that it can continue sustainably, both economically and environmentally.
The previous day of the event addressed what’s known as Amazon dieback, a process that will ultimately see the world’s largest tropical rainforest cease to produce enough rain to sustain itself and in time become a grassland-like ecosystem – a process that’s already taking hold in south and eastern reaches of the biome.
Of the three main drivers of this process – deforestation, climate change and fires – deforestation is most directly interwoven with production cycles and thus received the weight of attention in the second day’s conversations as researchers, private sector actors, project implementers, community members and Indigenous leaders and others engaged to untangle its complexities.
“I don’t like the term ‘forest-risk commodities,’” said Hugo-Maria Schally, head of the European Commission’s Multilateral Environmental Cooperation unit. “Commodities are not good or bad – their production or land use might be the problem. As such, it’s not the objective to reduce anything because of the commodity. In principle, it is rather to change the acts of consumption and production.”
Starting with the small
While much has been written about the impact of large-scale agribusiness and commodity crops on the Amazon, there’s far less literature on small-scale farming and industry, often because it is assumed that small equates to sustainable.
For many reasons discussed, this is not always the case. “There is no black or white about small-scale produced commodities,” said Valentina Robiglio, a senior scientist for World Agroforestry (ICRAF) in Peru. “Smaller landholdings also play a role in the loss of primary forest.”
A politically charged discussion in which Robiglio spoke illustrated how the realities of smallholders producing commodities in Global South countries are often linked to the demand-side of the equation – and the surrounding policy frameworks – happening in the Global North. For example, cacao and coffee are two crops often used in agroforestry projects implemented by Northern actors in the South as they have stable demand and can help achieve forest restoration; yet they can also be indirect drivers of deforestation, Robiglio noted, as once farmers see them as routes to profit, they’ll take the necessary actions to plant them.
Cacao and coffee are also two of the main commodities included in the “EU legal framework to halt and reverse EU-driven global deforestation,” a major legislative act driven by a policy response to a Northern constituency that wants to minimize its environmental footprint.
Decisionmakers in the South see the outcomes of such a policy differently. To successfully limit deforestation, the framework would likely include stringent requirements for acceptable imports, which could severely damage the livelihoods of millions of smallholders who lack the knowledge or capacity to meet these standards.
“We do not accept this term of importing deforestation,” said Eduardo Zegarra, head of the Cabinet of Advisors to Peru’s Ministry of Agrarian Development and Irrigation, who then called for an alliance between his country, Brazil and Colombia to push back against the framework. “It is totally unacceptable, I am going to say so, and I am going to say so now.”
“Although we’re in the early stages of all these deforestation regulations and initiatives in Peru, I’ll say in also in Latin America in general, producers of agricultural commodities are aware that these new conditions can be turned into barriers – non-tariff trade barriers,” said Yovita Ivanova, a senior manager at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT).
However, the conflict of such a policy could be mitigated by complementing deforestation-free requirements with funds and support for helping smallholders to meet them – from understanding the requirements to learning the ecology behind complex intercropped landscapes to de-risk their switch away from monocultural practices.
In parallel to committing to producing low-carbon and deforestation-free meat, Marfrig Global Foods, Brazil’s second-largest food company, launched programs to educate its producers on soil health, circular agriculture and the integration of livestock with crops.
To Zegarra’s point, these efforts were first and foremost founded in including farmers in the company’s new standards. “First of all, we have to make sure the producer is productive and profitable,” said Paulo Pianez, Marfig’s Sustainability and Communication director. “We do not believe that a producer is going to apply actions if they don’t lead him to have better profits. This is a precondition for sustainability to happen.”
Ivanova took this one step further: “We cannot assume that being more competitive and productive is the automatic solution for the producer to not deforest,” she said, noting that access to food and nutritional security, education and healthcare also come into play when ensuring smallholders create their livelihoods in a sustainable manner.
“The current Brazilian state, the Bolsonaro government, made an option for a capital model in agriculture that paralyzed agrarian reform and recognition of Indigenous and Quilombola lands,” said Ayala Ferreira, Brazil’s national coordinator of the Landless Workers Movement. “It’s made Brazil’s environmental and agrarian agenda more flexible, breaking international protocols in which Brazil was a signatory.”
Tied directly to the productive use of the Amazon, the Indigenous fight for rights and survival is increasingly being escalated to national and international levels. Indigenous territories cover 35 percent of the biome and are among the best protected, yet the valuable resources these lands hold see them increasingly under threat from land grabbers, agribusiness, infrastructure development and other means of exploitation, in addition to the effects of climate change and human-induced environmental degradation.
The COVID-19 pandemic escalated threats to Indigenous groups, making their insufficient access to healthcare and means to defend their lands more pronounced. Indigenous leader Aventino Tiriyó described how his tribe still suffered from cases of COVID-19, despite being so far entrenched in the forest in the north of Brazil’s Pará State that they’re only accessible by plane. “Our rights are threatened in a different way, and they’re directly threatened by healthcare,” he said.
“We have never lived through a moment so difficult, for people who are fighting for their land… violations of human rights, of democracy, were heightened during the pandemic,” said Ferrira. “These are 45 million people [Latin America’s Indigenous population] don’t see prospect for life.”
In the wake of the largest Indigenous mobilization in Brazil’s history, advocating for official rights to their ancestral lands, Indigenous representatives and researchers who participated in the GLF Amazonia event toggled between the well-known struggles of the Amazon’s Indigenous peoples and the lesser-known solutions that are helping them defend their lands and lives in the face of increasing dangers.
The main tool highlighted throughout discussions was technology, and access to it. For example, the Brazilian government sent almost 5,000 units of chloroquine into Tiriyó’s tribe with instructions to use it as medicine; luckily they had the access to information to realize this danger and choose otherwise.
Technological devices, and specifically those with access to the Internet such as cell phones and computers, can help Indigenous peoples in a number of ways, including documenting transgressions and injustices, accessing scientific knowledge, documenting traditional knowledge, accessing finance and demarcating their own lands.
Oswando Nenquimo, an activist from the Waorani tribe in Ecuador and co-founder of the Indigenous Ceibo Alliance, recalled how his people used technology to map their lands, from the area down to the culturally historic sites therein, so that when in 2019 an oil company came onto their lands without prior consultation to form a concession, the local leaders were able to take their maps to the Ecuadorian state courts. They won their case by showing how the concession would specifically impact thousands of lives and livelihoods. “The map was not only a piece of paper but a ‘real weapon,’” he said, in addition to being a living document to pass down ancestral knowledge of their traditional lands.
Larger mapping initiatives also play a crucial role in the survival of Indigenous communities and lands. SERVIR, an initiative from NASA that works to provide developing countries with satellite imagery to inform land-use decisions, focuses on reaching local communities with integrated data streams on events such as weather forecasts, fire and smoke, as well as threats such as illegal logging. This satellite data provides an “unprecedented depth” of insight into the changing planet, said Gavin Schmidt, NASA’s senior advisor on climate change, and ensuring land-users as well as decisionmakers have access to it can greatly inform adaptation and mitigation measures in the Amazon.
Patricia Sugui, sustainability manager at food production company CJ Selecta, which exclusively purchases sustainably produced soy products from the Amazon, said that satellite data is also helping enforce public policies, such as Brazil’s Amazon Soy Moratorium. This has significantly reduced deforestation linked to soy, which has often affected Indigenous lands over the past decade.
Facing outward, technology can also help transfer messages to authorities and help convey Indigenous knowledge and concerns into action points spread through the media and NGOs to influence state agencies and businesses, said Lorenzo Pellegrini, associate professor of Economics of Environment and Development at Erasmus University Rotterdam.
Similarly, through linking all actors on a supply chain, from local-level producers to public policymakers to the private sector, “we can contribute to the protection of biodiversity, shifting sustainable production, conserving natural resources, and rewarding the farmers,” said Sugui.
“We need to develop a large portfolio of carbon concessions, of new conservation areas, of new Indigenous territories, of new agroforestry reforestation product-integrated forests,” said Walter Vergara, senior fellow at World Resources Institute, at the conclusion of the day. “And finally we need a political system that goes down to the local levels that sings the same song: we need to protect this, because we all depend on it.”