Amazon Rainforest Fires: Why a ‘People-First’ Approach to Climate Action is Better Than Telling Folks to Go Vegan

Amazon Rainforest Fires: Why a ‘People-First’ Approach to Climate Action is Better Than Telling Folks to Go Vegan

For the past few weeks, the Amazon rainforest of Brazil –known in every nook and cranny of the globe as a major supplier of oxygen in our communal environment– has been on fire. Generally, fires in this rainforest at this time of the year are not unusual but the degree of alarm over the destruction brought about by these fires have never been this high.

Back in August 2018, the Amazon experienced about 40,000 different fires in various sections of the forest and while we all agreed back then this rate was unusually high; the current situation in the Amazon is brought about by over 75,000 fires in various sections of the rainforest. 75,000 and still counting. 

Related Post: The Amazon Rainforest is Burning at an Alarming Rate. Here’s How You Can Help…

The world media and the press has done a remarkable job of covering the fires and keeping us all up to date with the situation in Brazil and much of the discussion all around us is in relation to the reason for this catastrophe. It has been ascertained that the current fires raging in the Amazon had not been caused by climate change this time, well, not directly anyway. To have you fully appreciate the major cause of these fires, we would have to take you back with us to the campaign promises of Jair Bolsonaro sometime last year.

Last year, after a fiercely contested election, the current Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, was elected into power by the minority groups in Brazil. He ran his campaigns on the “pro-business” platform and part of his key promises in the event of his election was to open up the Amazon rainforest for increased farming and development. Well, it seems like he is fulfilling his promises because the current fires in the Amazon rainforest have been traced to the fact that local farmers, encouraged by President Bolsonaro are setting fires to expand their farms. Their cattle farms. 

Read more: What the Brazilian Election of President Jair Bolsonaro Means for the Global Environment and Human Rights

Fires ravaging South America. Image taken on Aug 31, 2019 by NASA’s Fire Information for Resource Management Systems (FIRMS).

Now animal farming alone is responsible for about 91% of the deforestation that occurs in the Amazon rainforest and in the wake of all these, peoples and organizations across the globe have massively called for a boycott of the meat industry. I truly empathise with the latter position, but I think that such calls are ineffective and as a matter of fact, grossly unfair to the average person, Brazilian in this case. The bigger question we should all be asking ought to be why now? The Amazon has stood the test of time; administrations have come and gone. So, why in all these times is it practically burning down now? The answer lies in the popular election of the infamous President Bolsonaro.

Because here is the truth nobody wants to talk about: the Brazilian economy is currently unravelling. Its citizens are experiencing a severe economic crisis with over 11 million people unemployed and the standard of living taking a steady nose-dive for many. Now President Bolsonaro, vile as his views may be, offered an immediate and tangible solution to his people during his pre-election days: more land to farm on along with the possibility of expanding the people’s primary source of sustenance– cattle farming. We have seen this play out in various places the world over; American cities that have been most hit by factory closures and job losses voted in droves for climate skeptic Donald Trump who promised to bring jobs back. In Australia, voters in rural areas (who depend more on the land for survival) and in fact, across the nation, voted in Scott Morrison and the Liberal Party regardless of their weak climate policies. And so on.

Each day, we witness calls and protests for the whole world to go vegan. You might also notice that these calls are usually championed by people in developed Western countries that have long benefited from activities that have harmed the environment deeply. As Brazilian Congressman David Miranda writes in an essay for The Guardian, “It is insufficient, and arguably offensive, for already developed and rich western powers which have done so much damage to the planet to simply dictate to Brazil that it must not exploit its resources the way the West has done with such great environmental damage.” He has a point, but I have to state that in this article, my point goes a bit farther.

Illegally logging site on Pirititi indigenous Amazon lands on May 8, 2018. Photo: Felipe Werneck/Ibama/Brazilian Environmental and Renewable Natural Resources Institute via Flickr.

My stance is that in the midst of all of this, we forget the little guy. And it sucks because at the end of the day; at the end of that line, the guy on the ground is really just a farmer who wants to make a living so as to secure a better life for his loved ones. We may not like President Bolsonaro or his policies, but then, he was not necessarily elected into power because he was being nice. He was elected by Brazilians, by farmers, very simply because he offered them a viable solution to their basic needs of survival.  And from the look of things; he made a promise that he means to keep.

Protests and calls for people to eat less meat or go vegan is simply not enough because (as I pointed out in this article) the transition to a green economy leaves developing countries at a disadvantage. Therefore, the long-term and most sustainable solution is to put the welfare of those people first. For instance, certain companies might be making progress in replacing meat for consumers, but nobody seems to be working on providing an alternative industry for the millions of people who depend on the meat industry for their livelihood. In response to this, the farmers of the world, the coal miners, the fossil fuel employees, the electorate will keep protesting by electing leaders who promise stability to their way of life.

To break this cycle, the eco-community must find a viable economic argument that goes beyond a clarion call for the welfare of the environment. It is not enough to scream “don’t do this”, it is long past time that we added “do this and you will be better off”. We have to find a course of action that puts food on the table and somehow doesn’t involve people having to give up their means of livelihood without a substitute. I call this the People-First Approach to Climate Action. A solution for the farmers also translates to a solution for the people most affected by these fires; the Native tribes of the Amazon whose homes are being destroyed.

August 23, 2019: Protest in Lima, Peru, a protest takes place in the Miraflores district in front of Brazilian embassy against the environmental policies of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro after the Amazon Rainforest fires. Credit: Shutterstock.

A leaf can be borrowed here from Germany, one of Europe’s most sustainable countries. In the last few years, Germany has successfully closed down all its coal mines. This feat was achieved without a single worker losing their job. Working together, coal companies, civil societies and the government, created a system where the workers were transitioned into other jobs or retired with immense benefits. Coal mines were turned into parks and recreation sites. With such a strategy, it is no surprise that there was no hullabaloo surrounding the move away from coal in Germany. Imagine what it would have been if the coal plants were shut down and workers feared for their jobs. They would have been disposed to listen to pro-business campaigns, vote such a person into office and wait for the rest of us to later commence our protests.

Related Post: How the G7 Can Save the Amazon Rainforest

The Brazilians are utilising their natural resources for their economic upliftment. I might not agree with it, but I can understand it. Australia exports fossil fuels, Saudi Arabia swims in oil and Brazil accounts for 20% of the world’s beef production.

I think it is fitting to close with the words of Brazilian congressman David Miranda, who represents the state of Rio de Janeiro with the Party of Socialism and Liberty (PSOL):

In lieu of unilateral decrees that smack of arrogant colonialism, rich industrialized countries who need the Amazon to survive should fund social programs for poor Brazilians who compose a large majority of our supremely unequal country, in exchange for preservation of this vital environmental asset. Identifying the culprit Bolsonaro and Salles is necessary but not sufficient to avert the environmental disaster. The Amazon belongs to Brazil, but the need to save the planet belongs to all of humanity, and all of us must bear this burden collectively.”

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Feature image of a Brazilian cowboy riding a horse control cows in Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil in 2013. Credit: Shutterstock.

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