Who Should Save the Amazon?

Image by Ivars Utināns via Unsplash

By Kathryn White

Increased deforestation in the Amazon is directly correlated to the rate of climate change. During 2020, deforestation of the Amazon rose by 9.5% from 2019, resulting in a loss of forest about the size of Connecticut. And, sadly, 17% of the Amazonian rainforest has been destroyed over the past 50 years. Scientists believe that there will be a point of no return when the forest becomes savanna, where canopies no longer form, at the point of 20-25% deforestation. The Amazon has seen the most forest loss since 2012 than any other tropical forest globally. The image below shows an increase of deforestation in recent years, indicating a steady decline in progress after a period of some slowdown in rate.

The Amazon is one million years old and home to 390 billion trees. About 60% of the Amazon is within Brazil. Indigenous people’s land makes up 23% of the Brazilian Amazon and is a bulwark against deforestation as tribes are bound to the fate of the forest. Fifty years ago, people began to colonize the Amazon and take land from Indigenous peoples. Colonizers have built logging yards, cattle enclosures, and soy farms that have taken the place of forest. Forests are cut down because a profit can be made from selling timber, cattle, crops (such as soy), pulp to make paper, extraction of minerals and energy, to build roads, and to create homes for farmers. According to National Geographic, forestry and agriculture accounts for 24% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

The Amazon is the world’s largest rainforest and has the capacity to absorb vast amounts of carbon dioxide, which can make a big dent in combating climate change. If the Amazon is destroyed, it could become impossible to control global warming. Deforestation is not just an environmental issue; it is also a matter of global public health. Deforestation is among the driving forces behind the rise in global infectious disease outbreaks because of the encroachment on wildlife that can transfer harmful diseases to humans, referred to as “spillover events.” Experts have said that the more we push into biodiverse habitats, the more frequent spillover events will occur.

The recent increase in deforestation corresponds with the tenure of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who has encouraged increased logging, mining, and colonization of protected Indigenous reserves, intending to profit from the Amazon. The Group of 7 (G7) accounts for 60% of global net wealth, including the United States, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United Kingdom. The G7 has made efforts to both incentivize and force Bolsonaro to act. President Biden declared during a campaign debate that he would seek to raise $20 billion to save the Amazon.

While it may seem that “rich countries” are the protagonists in this equation, we cannot lose sight of the root cause of the deforestation problem. A circular problem not free of hypocrisy, “rich” countries create demand for products that incentivize deforestation, and then want to pay to fix it. The image below describes this cycle. Recently, the New York Times said it best: “the wealthiest nations’ affluence has been enabled by activities that are warming the world.”


The Problem Cycle

To solve the dire challenge at hand, consider if the US were to invest its money on the supply side and issue Biden’s proposed $20 Billion to the Federal Government of Brazil to enforce the slowing of deforestation. These dollars would be attached to specific conditions, such as requirements to restrict illegal deforestation and logging and issuing land ownership grants to Indigenous peoples in the Amazon. Better still, the Biden Administration could allocate a portion of these funds toward curbing the demand for products yielded from illegal foresting. This would require coordination across the G7 to create meaningful environmental provisions in trade agreements.

A balanced solution could entail allocating the funding from the United States toward both Brazil directly as well as to policy collaboration among the G7 and China. The majority of funding should focus on policymaking to curtail demand for illegal goods from Brazil while offering trade avenues to support Brazil’s economic growth and prosperity. Focusing funding allocation on the demand side is recommended because the problem is likely to continue as long as the incentive and demand exists.

Given the scale and complexity of this problem, the Amazon will only be saved with ‘all hands on deck,’ including multi-stakeholder cooperation by heads of state (developed, developing, and underdeveloped), the private sector, non-governmental organizations, and Indigenous peoples.

I once paddled at sunrise on the Rio Negro. Outside of the tension between economic gains and climate preservation, there are intangible reasons that the Amazon is critical to this planet. We must pause to appreciate the Amazon’s color, depth, and complexity. We must preserve its wonder as a one of a kind gem of our planet. We must maintain a planet which we as a species are proud to inhabit with many gifts for us to treasure.

Kathryn is an MPA student (2022) at Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy and Accenture Fellow at the World Economic Forum. She studied International Relations and Spanish for her undergraduate degree at USC. Since then, Kathryn has worked as a technology consultant for Accenture and has had the privilege to work on several innovation and capacity building projects in Brazil and other parts of Latin America. Kathryn currently engages with a community of experts around issues related to digital currencies and their impact on the world, including its value for cross-border aid disbursement, economic impacts, and considerations for technical design and responsible rollout. In her free time, Kathryn loves to travel. This piece was inspired by a solo trip that she took to the Amazon in 2013. 

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Berkeley Public Policy Journal, the Goldman School of Public Policy, or UC Berkeley.