Follow the Money to the Amazon

September 5, 2019

The scale of the crisis is unfathomable: the skies of Sao Paulo darkened with smoke from the Amazon aflame thousands of miles away. A terrifying climate double whammy is upon us: As the forest burns, the trees release stored carbon in the form of greenhouse-gas-inducing carbon dioxide; and as these forests vanish, we lose the carbon-storing potential of the trees. It may seem there’s nothing we in the United States can do, but the drivers of this destruction, including agribusiness and their financiers, are more closely connected to us than we may realize—heightening our responsibility to act.

In response to the global fury at these fires, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has played up his nationalist rhetoric: What right does the rest of the world have to tell us what to do with our forests? But this is not about foreigners telling Brazilians what to do with their natural resources. This is about people around the world standing up for the Amazon’s globally vital ecosystems in solidarity with indigenous people who call those forests home.

The most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change made clear that the global food system is a significant contributor to the climate crisis, to the tune of nearly one-third of all emissions.

Most of that is from what climate experts call “land use change,” when, for instance, formerly biodiverse Indonesian peatland is converted into plantations for oil palm destined for the bellies of cars in the form of biodiesel fuel or the bellies of people in the form of processed foods. Or when carbon-rich rain forest is cleared to make way for cattle or soy destined for industrial meat operations around the world. Land-use change is on hyperdrive as the Amazon burns.

There are as many as 80,000 fires blazing in Brazil, more than half of them in the Amazon. The Brazilian minister of the environment may be tweeting that the fires are driven by “dry weather, wind, and heat,” but experts disagree. “The blazes are surging in a pattern typical of forest clearing, along the edges of the agricultural frontier,” Science magazine reported. This deforestation has been encouraged, in turn, by Bolsonaro, who has repeatedly said the Amazon should be open for business—for mining, logging, and agricultural purposes.

But this isn’t just about one rogue head of state. To get to the underlying forces of much of the world’s deforestation, from the lush Amazonian rain forest or the carbon-rich peatlands of Indonesia, you need to follow the money: Who is profiting from the development that led to these fires?

Earlier this year, the U.S-based nonprofit Amazon Watch, which has worked closely with indigenous groups in South America for 20 years, published an analysis showing that “foreign investors have enormous influence over what happens in the Brazilian Amazon … Big banks and large investment companies play a critical role, providing billions of dollars in lending, underwriting, and equity investment.”

These investors have helped stoke the growth of the beef and soy industry in Brazil, irresponsibly and inexorably, regardless of their intention, putting the Amazon in the crosshairs of agribusiness. In recent years, Brazil has emerged as the world’s largest exporter of beef and soy.

Brazil accounts for roughly 20 percent of the global beef-export market. Together, Brazil and its nearest rival, the United States, account for 83 percent of the global soy export; its biggest markets are found in the EU and China. (As trade wars intensify between the United States and China, observers worry that demand for these Brazilian products will only grow.) Cattle ranching accounts for 80 percent of rain-forest destruction in Brazil, according to the Yale School of Forestry. As the soy-export market grows, so does demand for land to grow the commodity—another key driver of deforestation.

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