The Ribeirinhos, a group of approximately seven million floodplain residents with mixed indigenous and European ancestry, are one such particularly vulnerable group. Their economic activities are entirely structured around the river’s seasonal cycles and both droughts and floods can lead to food shortages. When the annual floodwaters recede, Ribeirinhos take advantage of the moisture and nutrients left behind to plant crops in the floodplain. At the same time of year, fish get trapped in lakes and ponds, which normally provide enough food for nearby communities. However, episodes of drought confine the fish to smaller, more crowded bodies of water, causing some of them to die from the lack of oxygen. Droughts also make Amazonian fish more vulnerable to overfishing and poaching at the hands of commercial operations, which compromises the long-term availability of food for subsistence fishers. When the dry season ends and the river again floods its banks, fish become much harder to catch and all but the most financially secure Ribeirinhos experience severe seasonal food insecurity. In years with more extreme flood cycles, this season of hunger lasts even longer. Recent years have already seen several historic droughts and floods, which appear to be the first signs of a general destabilization of the ecosystem. And barring a dramatic turnaround in deforestation and carbon emissions, the situation is likely to get worse.
Reaching a tipping point in the Amazon could also be disastrous for public health in a more general way. The region is already considered a global hotspot for emerging infectious diseases, and one recent study suggests that deforestation may be the primary culprit. Biodiverse ecosystems like the Amazon are always more likely to harbor pathogens, and disturbing those systems can provide opportunities for new diseases to emerge. The current destruction of the Amazon and the concomitant movement of persons between cities and the forest, all against a general background of marginal social conditions and a lack of health and sanitation infrastructure, create an ideal situation for outbreaks to turn into epidemics. Cases of malaria have been on the rise again in Brazil as deforestation rates have accelerated in recent years, and an epidemic of yellow fever, another disease associated with deforestation, killed 745 people between the end of 2016 and the beginning of 2018.
The ongoing social and environmental destruction of Amazonia is not just a local or South American problem. The whole world depends on this region for its role in regulating climate. The rainforest keeps greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere by storing carbon in organic forms, accounting for about 10 percent of the planet’s biological carbon storage. Conservation and reforestation could buy the world a lot of time as we try to cut carbon emissions. Current predictions by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggest that 2030 is the year by which we will have either averted or committed to 2.7 degrees of warming, a level they describe as catastrophic. Some studies show that tropical rainforest conservation and reforestation could extend that deadline to 2040.
Nor is the loss of carbon storage the only way changes in the Amazon might affect regional climates in other parts of the world. Some climate models show that the changes to atmospheric circulation that would result from massive deforestation in the Amazon would alter North Atlantic and European storm tracks, cause cooler temperatures in southern Europe, and lead to a winter-warming trend in parts of Asia. The consequences of crossing the tipping point in Amazonia would be truly global.
The rest of the world shares not only in the consequences of the region’s destruction, but also in responsibility for it. Deforestation is driven by the global economy, and particularly by consumption in the world’s wealthier countries. Brazil produces about 30 percent of the world’s soy, much of which is exported to Europe and China. The large-scale cultivation of soy is responsible for both deforestation and carbon emissions. And while many large export firms have made pledges to source their soy sustainably, on land outside the Amazon region, their expanding operations often displace other land users, pushing them to the receding edge of the rainforest. Beef exports to Europe and the United States are also a problem: the Brazilian supply chain is so opaque that one can rarely tell whether a particular cut of meat came from a cow that grazed deforested land.
More generally, commodities that depend on tropical deforestation have become so integrated into global supply chains that it is all but impossible for consumers to know what damage they are doing by buying a particular product. Large companies have been rated for their impact on tropical deforestation (ironically, Amazon rates very poorly), and there are certifications for more obviously forest-related products like paper and timber (look for labels from the Forest Stewardship Council and the Rainforest Alliance), but the ecological implications of one’s choices as a consumer are often obscure. Brazilian soy is used as animal feed in other parts of the world, which means pork raised in China can indirectly cause as much deforestation as timber from Brazil, and wood pulp, though normally used to make paper, also shows up in food products, textiles, and cellophane. Illegally mined gold is used in our electronics, and oil from indigenous lands in Ecuador ends up in our gas tanks.
Fortunately, there are some signs that the international community is waking up to its responsibility for the devastation in the Amazon. The 2019 fire season was highly effective in mobilizing public opinion and raising awareness. This June a group of investment firms, which together manage around $3.75 trillion, expressed concerns over deforestation and human-rights abuses in a letter to Brazilian ambassadors. Seven European firms, with more than $2 trillion in managed assets, explicitly threatened to divest. And yet, despite these signs of hope, divestment is far from a panacea. The Economist estimates that publicly traded companies are responsible for only around 14 percent of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions. Nor is it clear that pulling money out of Brazilian government bonds at a time when social and environmental services are already being gutted is a good idea. We have to find better ways to respond.
While most Ribeirinhos spend months out of the year skipping meals for want of a refrigerator, and while indigenous people across the Amazon are losing their lives to protect their lands, most of us in the United States are complacently unaware of the ways our lives are connected with theirs. As we grow in awareness of our complicity with the forces that are destroying the rainforests, we will discover that nothing short of a moral and economic revolution is likely to be an adequate solution. It won’t be enough to express concern, adjust our habits of consumption individually, or change the way we invest. A problem of this scale and urgency will require collective action and global cooperation. That is why the Amazon Synod called for alternative economic models, and why Pope Francis condemned (ongoing) colonial relationships. It is not news either to Rome or to residents of Amazonia that much of the destruction has resulted from economic activities and policy decisions in the Global North, but, if the synod’s reception in the United States is any indication, it is still news to many of us.