Business Maverick


Bring on Amazon to save the Amazon

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. (Photo: EPA-EFE / MICHAEL NELSON)

The crisis of the Amazon offers a chance for business, government and ordinary citizens to come together and do something serious to save a unique, critically important natural resource. Daily Maverick offers an idea.

One of the most extraordinary — perhaps the single worst — environmental tragedies of our time is happening right now, as you read these words. Much of the land in a vast arc across South America is burning out of control as hundreds, perhaps thousands, of individual fires are devastating forest land circling the densest tropical jungle core of the Amazon River basin. The areas now burning are largely lands that undergo an annual wetter and drier cycle, and right now, they are in the middle of the drier portion of their cycle. As a result, they have been ripe for conflagration. And now they burn.

Vast numbers of fires have broken out. Some blazes may be from natural causes such as lightning strikes, but many more apparently have come from human action — man-made burns. But these have not been the slash and burn agricultural practices that stretch far back into pre-history as traditional subsistence farmers rotate their fields through a wide landscape over several years.

Instead, many modern Brazilian farmers have been eager to clear so-called “unproductive” forested land in order to expand soya bean acreage and grazing land for cattle. Brazil is already one of the world leaders in both beef and soya bean production and exports, and their soya growers are poised to snare an increased market share, especially since China, a major soya consumer, has stopped imports from the US as part of the ongoing US-China trade battle. Meanwhile, Brazil’s beef exports are growing rapidly as well, in response to the global human population expanding its craving for a good steak, a pot roast or a fast-food burger as international family incomes grow as well.

The problem is that all these fires are removing the thicker, denser, traditional vegetation cover and replacing it with monoculture pasture land and soya fields that will absorb less carbon dioxide than the prior vegetation and also contain far less floral and faunal biodiversity. Herein lies a key element of the problem, evolving from this wholesale habitat replacement.

The Amazon basin, just like the enormous Congo River basin and the vast tropical forests of Indonesia’s major islands, is often described as the Earth’s lungs. This is because that vast profusion of vegetation absorbs enormous amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere for the plants’ metabolic processes and thus — through the biological miracle of photosynthesis — releases oxygen instead.

This is something we’re sure you remember from high school biology classes, at least in outline. Crucially, too little free oxygen in the planet’s atmosphere, alternatively, too much carbon dioxide, or, worse, both, and we are goners, history, Anthropocene dinosaurs — not to get all apocalyptic about it or anything like that. But, ’strue as God, or as American baseball great Yogi Berra used to say, “You could look it up”.

Anyway, at the recent G7 meeting in Biarritz, France, despite the widely noticed, surly absence of Donald Trump, the rest of the G7 conferees, plus some other invited world leaders, actually managed to discuss the Amazonian crisis and reach a consensus of a $20-million commitment towards combating the burning forests. Of course, this pledge looked a bit niggardly in comparison to actor Leonardo DiCaprio’s own multi-million-dollar commitment, all by himself. But, it was a start. Still, things got stranger and less uplifting in the fight against this ongoing crisis as the days wore on.

Almost immediately after the pledge, French President Emmanuel Macron and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro got themselves into a nasty, public slanging match. Macron implied Brazil was incapable of handling the money or the crisis, Bolsonaro made some particularly nasty comments about Macron’s wife, and then we were off to the races. The fires, meanwhile, continued to burn.

Had these two national presidents been simians, the image of this would have been a reasonably close fit to two of those howler monkeys staking out their territory with, well, competing ear-piercing howls. By the presumed end of the screaming match, the Brazilian leader agreed to receive the money, but only if they, the Brazilian government, had total control over who would spend the cash, and on what. Those, of course, were precisely the conditions Macron and company will remain reluctant to accept in their current form.

And the Amazonian forests, of course, continued to burn, even as the Brazilians have now sent tens of thousands of soldiers to help combat those flames and a small, but growing roster of other nations are now offering aid, such as those specially outfitted, firefighting aircraft. But these Brazilian fires are not the only ones on the planet right now. Russia’s Siberian landscape now has vast stretches of tundra (including the peat and melted organic material in the thawed permafrost) burning out of control, and there is a whole mountainside of trees and brush in flames on Spain’s Gran Canaria island. The rural parts of US western states may well be next, just as last year.

Obviously, this kind of environmental catastrophe is not a single country’s task to address. Even the Amazon fires are not limited just to Brazil — the broader Amazon basin includes stretches from Venezuela to Bolivia, circling around Brazil’s borders. Now hold that pregnant thought for just a moment or two.

More than a decade ago, this writer did some consulting work for an international humanitarian relief agency, operating in Madagascar. That great island had been lashed by a record number of cyclonic storms (the Indian Ocean version of hurricanes and typhoons) in a single year. My task was to craft newsworthy stories that could help focus global attention on the extent of this environmental disaster — and thus encourage contributions to ongoing relief measures. Besides that, I also tried to figure out what kind of a larger, more sustained fundraising effort might be feasible to build for the future.

At the same time I was hunting down good stories to write about, I read in the US press that one of New York City’s zoos was creating a major new exhibition of a Madagascar biome in all its complexity, in one very large terrarium. It was going to include some of the island’s unique trees as well as those giant hissing cockroaches, birds and even several species of Madagascar’s unique mammals, the lemurs. Simultaneously, one of the very popular animated feature films, Madagascar, was in cinemas globally.

I had one of those lightbulb moments. How about getting a solicitation for aid for the actual island linked to both the animated film and the highly publicised Madagascar environmental display at the zoo, just as it was opening for the public?

Perhaps such an innovative marketing campaign (drawing in the internet and mass entertainment) was a bit too adventurous for its time, or perhaps this kind of crowdfunding with tie-in marketing had not yet become something so usual that even humanitarian relief agencies would make use of them. Sadly, the golden moment passed. Madagascar, the island, continues to be struck by these devastating storms, along with its ongoing deforestation, erosion, overpopulation and a growing number of critically threatened animal and plant species. And, of course, there is no end in sight to any of these threats to the island’s unique circumstances.

Now, of course, we are confronted by another critical threat to the global environment. This time it is the fires burning out of control in so many places and their consequent release of big gouts of greenhouse gases and the destruction of the carbon sinks represented by all of that burnt foliage.

Some readers may happen to have an acquaintance with a company named Amazon. Funny thing, that is the same name as the place with all those fires.

The company has hundreds of millions of loyal customers around the world, and a yearly turnover of some outrageously large amounts of money. My first thought was to gear up some international badgering of Jeff Bezos’s company — and Bezos himself — to cough up some real money to help save the Amazonian forests and nearby savannah. Especially since they continue to be attacked as poor global citizens who avoid paying their fair share of taxes in jurisdictions around the world. But maybe there is a better way.

Maybe there is a way of leveraging broad-ranging help, building international cohesion on a problem that transcends borders, generating broad international participation and support, and, just possibly, getting beyond that petty howling by national leaders over foreign help for the Amazon.

What about working with Amazon, the company, so that it administers a universal programme to raise money for the Amazon basin by a simple mouse click, just before a customer agrees to a final purchase. Give every customer a choice of giving $.50 or $1.00, or even $5.00, if they have an interest in helping. The money — and there will almost certainly be a lot of it — would have to be administered effectively, transparently, and honestly, and this would require a lean, mean, fighting machine of an international authority, prepared to hand out and then monitor every grant, every project, and every proposal.

Critically, this body would have to be independent of governments, as it has been funded by people directly. It would have to adjudicate the competing demands of farmers, of the indigenous peoples in the forests, environmentalists, and scientists, just for starters. Whoever leads this body will need to be very strong, very tough, and very savvy and smart. And one heck of a manager, but it would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do something really important for the future.

Meanwhile, just imagine the good publicity for Amazon that would flow from helping address a massive international environmental problem, even beyond the actual impact of the work itself. Realistically, in comparison to a name-branded campaign like this one, could any company buy that much global favourable publicity and corporate goodwill via any act of corporate good citizenship?

Finally, of course, could a campaign like this thrive without an image that sums up the effort, the goal and the participation of the ordinary individual? As it happens, I actually saw one the other day on television. One of the all-news channels, in its regular feature of the best photos of the day, had the image of a man fording a river on foot, carrying an exhausted jaguar in his arms. The animal had been fleeing fire and actually put its trust in a human being, even though that is the creature that usually is the big cat’s only real enemy in nature.

You could not see the man’s face, but the uncompromising fierceness of the cat’s face offered an echo of that young Afghan woman of another fabulous image from years ago. Consider the storyline: Man may be destroying the jaguar’s world, but one ordinary man is risking his own life to save a jaguar. That is the image for this campaign, no doubt about it.

And so, Jeff Bezos, are you reading this? Or, has one of your minions called this idea to your attention yet? Hope so. So, give us a call; send an email or a social media message. There is really no time to waste. DM


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