Because the deliberately set fires torching the Amazon right now are not the result of presidential policies, rapacious agribusinesses, or carnivorous consumers alone, there’s no single tactic that will sufficiently extinguish them. Like many of our most urgent and overwhelming environmental and social challenges, the 80,000 blazes threatening to burn to a crisp vast swaths of one of the world’s most critical places are the result of a complex web of interlocking political and financial influences and interests. Taken together, these powerful forces are currently conspiring to prioritize short-term economic gain over the long-term protection of one of the world’s most valuable resources, critical not just to our own but many other species’ survival.
What makes the Amazon Basin, which crosses national boundaries, such a vitally important natural asset—not just to Brazilians but to everyone, everywhere—is the unique role that it plays in curbing climate change. That’s also what makes finding a systematic, sustainable solution to what many regard as an intractable problem imperative for all 7.7 billion on the planet, and particularly for the people who live in the Amazon.
While the fires have dramatically grown and engulfed this vulnerable region with increasing fury ever since the populist, anti-environmental Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro took office in January 2019, fires have been burning the great forested basin for decades, off and on. But recently, with the support of Brazil’s powerful agricultural lobby, Bolsonaro, like Trump, has been deploying an aggressively pro-business, anti-regulation agenda to ostensibly pave the way for accelerated economic growth. Unlike business leaders who maintain that economic progress can be compatible with conservation, Bolsonaro and Trump thuggishly insist otherwise.
What are the levers that will wield the most influence and drive long-term systematic change? A knotty combination of foreign and local governments, business interests, investors, and nonprofit organizations.
Farmers in the Amazon have long used fire as the most efficient method of illegally clearing forest, to make way for crops and cattle grazing. While experienced farmers maintain they know how to control the fires, they also claim that the current wave of destruction has been set off by inexperienced land settlers, ranchers, and speculators who sell their deforested land for up to six times the price of fines imposed by the government—that is even when weak deforestation policies are enforced.
Just like President Trump, populist President Bolsonaro’s rise to victory on a pro-development platform has only fanned the flames and fury. It’s no small irony that while the right-wing nationalist Brazilian president is being roundly attacked for his tacit encouragement of the forest’s destruction in neighboring Bolivia, where the president Evo Morales is proudly indigenous and left-leaning, fires are also raging out of control.
Now that activists have called for boycotts of Brazilian leather and 15 fashion labels have complied, Brazil’s agricultural sector has started to lean on Bolsonaro to ease tensions with the international community. And while he has said that farmers and loggers would not be allowed to set fires to clear land, in the absence of land reform to clarify ownership and rights, funding and enforcement, patrolling the forest is practically impossible.
Starting in the 1970s, the Brazilian government appropriated vast tracts of the Amazon, providing a steady stream of incentives for settlers to develop the forest by allowing squatters who can establish economic activity on a parcel for five years to buy the title at a discount. Two years ago, that law was expanded to allow for the privatization of large swaths of government land. Now, it’s often not clear who owns what, making it hard for local governments to hold individuals responsible for deforestation.
Since the U.S. and China have been engaged in a trade war and Beijing has frozen purchases of U.S. soybeans, the Brazilian farm sector has been booming. While much of China’s demand is for soy, which is not grown in the Amazon but in neighboring savannah grasslands known as the cerrado, those lands—also environmentally critical and vulnerable—have seen a sizable uptick in deforestation.
The Amazon, on the other hand, is predominantly deforested to raise cattle—beef that is exported to European countries in particular. While European governments have roundly condemned Bolsonaro’s actions, it hasn’t stopped consumers in Britain, France, Germany and elsewhere from chowing down on steak and burgers.
The demand for beef will only accelerate under the terms of the Mercosur, a free trade deal between the European Union and Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay. While the terms of the deal have been under negotiation for the past 20 years, France and Ireland are now refusing to ratify it unless Bolsonaro takes steps to curb the rampant fires and deforestation.
In Brazil, which is the world’s leading producer of beef, the largest herd of cattle belongs to JBS, the world’s largest meatpacking company, about which Amazon Watch, a California-based NGO, earlier this year issued the second edition of a report called “Complicity in Destruction,” which calls out the traders and financiers most responsible for the widespread deforestation. Among them: BlackRock, Santander, and JP Morgan Chase. Meanwhile, supermarket giants like Costco, Walmart, and Ahold Delhaize, which owns Stop & Shop, Giant, and Food Lion, are complicit through their contracts with JBS, for example.
While many businesses have made progress in eliminating deforestation from their supply chains, as the Rainforest Alliance’s Nigel Sizer explains, it’s very hard to trace. Which is why business accountability needs to work hand in hand with government regulation.
Through their significant investment in agribusinesses, pension funds wield enormous influence on the sector. While KLP, an $80 billion Norwegian pension fund, is pressuring agribusiness companies including Archer Daniels Midland, Bunge, and Cargill, for example, as well as their largest investors and banks to proactively pressure companies to end activities accelerating the destruction of the Amazon.
Julie Nash, director of the Food and Forests program at the Boston-based nonprofit group Ceres—which works with institutional investors to drive economic solutions—says that the images of the fires in the Amazon have prompted calls by investors to hold companies accountable because they are recognizing the link between deforestation and climate change and the risk it poses to business. The group recently released a statement signed by more than 200 large investors, which collectively represent $16.2 trillion in assets under management, calling for urgent action and corporate accountability.
Among the major funds missing from the signatories is BlackRock, the largest asset manager in the world. While the firm’s CEO, Larry Fink, has been widely credited for calling on businesses to resist short-termism and contribute to society, according to Amazon Watch, BlackRock is among the top three shareholders in 25 of the largest publicly traded deforestation-risk companies.
A solution? Not even close. But we can spark a conversation and issue a call for a strategic, systematic, and integrated approach to conserving one of the world’s greatest natural resources, on which we all depend.
Jeffrey Hollender is CEO of the American Sustainable Business Council, the leading business policy group representing responsible businesses. He was cofounder and CEO of Seventh Generation.
Carol Goodstein is a communications consultant for socially responsible companies and organizations. She is the former director of communications and marketing for the Rainforest Alliance.
Hollender and Goodstein are currently writing a book on sustainability 2.0.