Teetering on the Edge

By Bryan P. Galligan, SJ, 4 October 2020
A wooden statue of a pregnant woman is pictured in the Church of St. Mary in Traspontina as part of exhibits on the Amazon region during the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon in Rome, Oct. 18, 2019. Image: Paul Haring/CNS


The Amazon Synod’s final document and Pope Francis’s post-synodal exhortation Querida Amazonia both describe a social and environmental crisis of historic proportions, a crisis Francis portrays as “provoking a cry that rises up to heaven.” This crisis now threatens the Amazon region with ecocide and ethnic cleansing, and—because of the role the Amazon rainforest plays in regulating global climate patterns—it also threatens the planet as a whole. Yet the synod’s urgent message was largely drowned out in the United States by ideological controversies about the ordination of (married) viri probati, the value of inculturation, and racist accusations of idolatry. A year later, the “dramatic state of destruction” to which the synod’s final document refers has only gotten worse, and Catholics in the Global North still seem none the wiser.

Many of the Amazon region’s poorest residents live in rural communities and informal settlements. Development of the region has led to economic growth in recent years, but there is little evidence that living conditions are improving. Food security remains a persistent problem; workers in extractive industries are exposed to diseases like malaria and rabies; and there is a severe lack of health and sanitation infrastructure.

The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated many of these preexisting problems, and indigenous communities have been hit the hardest. Celia Xakriaba, a Brazilian indigenous leader and activist, has described the public-health risk indigenous communities are facing as one of extermination. Her warning is borne out by a recent report that shows that members of indigenous communities are being infected with the virus at around twice the rate of other Brazilians, and that they are also more likely to die once they have been infected. The report points to governmental neglect, the lack of health-care facilities, and the growing invasion of indigenous lands by illegal extractive industries as reasons for this disproportionate outcome. The Arara people, for example, who have the highest known rate of COVID-19 infection of any tribe in the Brazilian Amazon, are also among those most affected by illegal logging and mining.

The rest of the world shares not only in the consequences of the Amazon’s destruction, but also in responsibility for it.

Violence against indigenous peoples and the government employees assigned to protect them has also increased. According to Human Rights Watch, the deforestation of the Amazon is largely driven by organized criminal syndicates that defend their interests with threats, intimidation, and violence. Their crimes often go uninvestigated and unpunished. Against this background of violence and impunity, human-rights groups have been warning that some indigenous groups are at risk of “imminent massacres.” The government has yet to pay these warnings any heed.

Climate change and deforestation, both of which are driven primarily by economic forces in other parts of the world, are making what is already a bad situation in Amazonia much worse. While the rate of deforestation decreased from a peak in 2004 until the early 2010s, recent years have seen a steady, and at times dramatic, increase in the trend. In August 2019 alone, deforestation was over three times higher than it had been in the same month of 2018. This was accompanied by a 30 percent increase in the number of fires, an event that made headlines and galvanized public opinion around the world. By last June, environmental and civil-society groups were predicting that this year’s fire season could be even worse, and, as of this writing, it is still possible that those predictions could come true.

Much of the blame for this has fallen on Bolsonaro, who has encouraged illegal deforestation and undermined the rule of law. He has also gutted many of the public agencies responsible for environmental protection and pursued policies that limit their actions. But the blame is not Bolsonaro’s alone and deforestation is by no means limited to Brazilian territory.

In Ecuador, oil concessions continue to expand inside the country’s protected areas and President Lenín Moreno has repeatedly broken his 2017 promise to respect indigenous communities’ rights to determine how their lands are used. Two pipelines associated with those concessions burst in May, polluting the waterways that some 27,000 indigenous people rely on for food and water. Deforestation is on the rise in Bolivia as well, largely as a result of forest fires.

While deforestation can sometimes be reversed and its effects mitigated, the situation in the Amazon appears to be reaching a point of no return. In a letter published at the end of last year, two leading scientists, Thomas Lovejoy and Carlos Nobre, warned that “the precious Amazon is teetering on the edge of functional destruction and, with it, so are we.” In their closing paragraph, they write, “today, we stand exactly in a moment of destiny: the tipping point is here, it is now.”

The tipping point to which Lovejoy and Nobre refer has been an active topic of discussion in the scientific community since the early 2000s but has yet to be addressed or even acknowledged by policy-makers. The mechanism for this tipping point is simple but dramatic. When rain falls in the Amazon, it is absorbed by the soil, taken up by the trees, and eventually released back into the atmosphere to fall somewhere else in the forest an average of five to six times before leaving the system. It is through this recycling process that the Amazon conserves water and keeps its ecosystems alive. As deforestation advances, this cycle is predicted to lose momentum and, finally, to stop, resulting in dramatic reductions in rainfall, a dieback of the forest, and the conversion of large areas to a dry savanna ecosystem. Such a transformation would have disastrous implications for climate change. It would also generate a humanitarian crisis.

As the forest disappears and ceases to regulate the amount of water flowing downstream, a few things are likely to happen. Food production will suffer in a general way as much of the region’s agriculture relies on the Amazon for rainfall and pollination. Water security and sanitation will also be compromised; cholera normally spreads in the dry season when clean rainwater becomes unavailable and more frequent and extreme droughts will exacerbate this trend. Indigenous groups and others who rely directly on local ecosystems will be the most vulnerable. They are likely to lose both their homes and their ways of life.

Indigenous groups and others who rely directly on local ecosystems will be the most vulnerable. They are likely to lose both their homes and their ways of life.

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.

Bryan P. Galligan, SJ, is a Jesuit scholastic and MA candidate in social philosophy at Loyola University Chicago.

With thanks to the Commonweal and Bryan P Galligan, SJ.

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