BOGOTÁ — Brazil's 72,000 forest fires have finally prompted an unprecedented, global reaction to deforestation. One of our readers has angrily written, "My son has sent me El Espectador's article on the Amazon fires. He asks me what we can do. It made me cross, I don't know. I don't see anything. Desperate things, I guess: clinging to trees. Months ago we were trying to plant something, which requires a lot of energy and strength."

The 72,850 fires registered in Brazil, mostly concentrated in the northwestern states of Acre and Amazonas, are provoking an immense sense of impotence, and prompting people to ask whether something can be done, or if it is too late. How can we avoid deforestation — a phenomenon that we have lived with for years but that needed a huge fire to finally turn into a global conversation?

There have been numerous suggestions intended to make us feel less helpless. Some people are simply praying while others have uploaded pictures onto the social networks. Others are organizing sit-ins or urging people to vote for better politicians. Or should we resign ourselves, or maybe eat less meat?

Carolina Gil, the Colombia program director of the Amazon Conservation Team, says that many feel there is no point in physically going to put out the fire as that is the duty of the Brazilian state. But she agrees with many experts who have spoken to El Espectador, that while there is nothing we can do for the trees and soil that have burned, we can still "honor" them by paying attention to the Amazon region. And not just the 60% of it that is in Brazil but also Colombia's share of the Amazon, which was up in flames just recently and shrank by 144,147 hectares in 2017.

Yes, do cut down on red meat

If we wish to be coherent on "saving the Amazon," we must certainly eat less red meat, or do so at least while demanding that firms and governments duly certify the means of production and origin of red meat. "Livestock farming is the world's biggest engine of deforestation and this happens in Brazil and Colombia," says Rodrigo Botero, head of the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development, a Colombian non-governmental agency. While in the Brazilian states of Pará, Mato Grosso and Rondonia farmlands are aggressively expanded to make room for livestock, soy and African palm cultivation, in Colombia, Botero says, "in the past three years, they have razed 300,000 hectares to make way for 550,000 cattle heads."

Just like there are international treaties on not buying palm oil that comes from deforested areas, the same should happen with red meat.

The 2018 IPCC climate report was very clear recently in stating that we have already exploited 72% of all unfrozen land and must curb meat consumption. This must go beyond individual decisions meant to put our conscience at rest, and complement governmental action. Governments should ban livestock farming, says Botero, if it entails deforestation or happens in the Amazon. "Just like there are international treaties on not buying palm oil that comes from deforested areas, the same should happen with red meat," says Botero.

The power of electing really Green politicians

Colombia's President Iván Duque recently declared the Amazonian calamity as having "no frontiers." "Everyone must be concerned," he tweeted, adding his administration's willingness to back efforts to "protect the world's lungs," though he did not go into any details. While we have little faith left in our ability to choose politicians, experts agree that politicians do react, and take action, if their image is at stake. "That is where we can do something, with the pressure that we, as citizens, can exert on their political prestige," says Botero. Putting a grim picture of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro next to every photograph of the burning rainforest has consequences. It is true that forest fires are normal in this period, the driest time of the year in that region, but Bolsonaro's climate-hostile policies (he himself is a denier of climate change) have contributed to the current scenario.

Satellite image of the fires burning in South America on Aug. 22 — Source: NASA

Brazil's former environment minister, Marina Silva, has said that Brazil has had many "difficult, environmental moments," but this was the first time the state was brazenly favoring the rainforest's destruction. Speaking in Colombia recently, she said that the Bolsonaro government's resolve to roll back environmental norms suggested it was "in a race against the Amazonian rainforest, for wood or gold." She insists this is not a matter of politics but of ethics. The technology to avoid the destruction exists, she notes, but "it is the ethics of everyone that have failed here."

But, what is the use of putting pressure on our politicians? Can they do something? Peru's environmental lawyer César Ipeza says that having politicians speak up about the environment "is a first step." This, he says, leads to the possibility of implementing some neglected instruments of international law. "Imagine a scenario in which the effects of pollution from the fires and the smoke reach neighboring countries, similarly to what happened in Sao Paulo. This would amount to cross-border pollution and there is a principle that prohibits any state from using its territory to harm a neighboring country," says Ipeza.

Having politicians speak up about the environment is a first step.

There are grounds for claiming damages and demanding a compensation here, he adds, mentioning the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization that binds eight countries, including Colombia.

A moving image

Both Gil and Botero are surprised by one thing: the number of calls they have received over the past ten days after 30 years of working on the Amazon, including from politicians of differing credos. None of these had shown a particular concern for forests so far. "When they burned land in Colombia earlier this year, we also shared pictures of what was happening," says Botero. "Even though they were just as awful, there wasn't even 1% of the mobilization seen with the Brazil fires."

He urged Colombians to "raise the same hue and cry" when farmers engage in felling and burning in the Colombian Amazon. "I see this as an incredible opportunity," says Botero. "Our neighboring country is burning and people are worried. We are finally seeing the common house, the global house, and people are taking common goods into account."


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