Why we should learn how to listen to other than human beings?

Last month, part of the world witnessed a remarkable solar eclipse. Thanks to scientific knowledge, we now know that this is an astronomical phenomenon involving different celestial bodies – sun, moon and earth –, quantifiable and predictable by astronomy. But for many centuries, before astronomy became a science, such phenomenon was observed and interpreted in different ways by a variety of traditional, pre-industrial cultures. For instance, the disappearance of daylight was interpreted by aboriginal Australians negatively, frequently being associated with bad omens, evil magic, disease, blood and death. The ancient Greeks believed that a solar eclipse was a sign of angry gods and that it was the beginning of disasters and destruction.

The phenomenon made me think about other types of traditional knowledge and world-views that are still at the edge of science.  When I was carrying out my plant diet while living in the Amazon with the Yawanawá people, I’ve learned the importance of listening to other than human beings. The extension of subjectivity from human to other than human beings is common to different Amazonian cosmologies. They not only reveal a differential cosmovision, which has triggered the resurgence of the term ‘animism’; but they attribute a differential environmental responsibility to cultures that adhere to these cosmological ideas

Science has been acknowledging what many indigenous peoples have known for ages: other than humans carry some type of intelligence. 

There are now dozens of research papers, hundreds of articles and video hours prepared and published by plant biologists, neurobiologists and other scientists, discussing the many facets of plant intelligence. Through rigorous research and experimentation, behavioral characteristics such as communication, learning, problem solving, memory and memory recall have been established and can be attributed to plants. Nevertheless, modern science is only just beginning to understand nonhuman consciousnesses

Indigenous peoples, on the other hand, hold great knowledge about it. For them, other than human beings have a spirit. Such beings want us to take care of our habitat so we and them can thrive. They communicate this in ways we can understand. We need, however, to be better listeners. 

For many indigenous cultures the true methods of learning are observation and experimentation. They observe and experiment other than human beings and worlds with respect and honour. Consider the sun one more time. One of the most celebrated days of different ancient and indigenous cultures is the summer solstice, when half of the earth receives the greatest amount of sunlight. They believe this celestial being offers the most vibrant cosmic energy that is available to us, being revered by many as a god or a father. 

Trees are another good example of major beings for indigenous cultures. They are one of our oldest companions, and indigenous peoples perceive them with humility. Instead of taking trees presence for granted, as we normally do, seeing them as they do will probably result on us taking better care of these remarkable beings that make life on this planet not only infinitely more pleasurable, but possible at all.

And if indigenous perceptions are not enough, scientists have found that trees are social beings. They help each other through their root systems — either directly, by intertwining their roots, or indirectly, by growing fungal networks around the roots. They share food and nourishment with their competitors and are able to distinguish their own roots from those of other species and even from their own relatives. 

The reasons behind trees being so social are the same as for human communities: we evolve better when we work together. As  Peter Wohlleben explores in The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate

“A tree is not a forest. On its own, a tree cannot establish a consistent local climate. It is at the mercy of wind and weather. But together, many trees create an ecosystem that moderates extremes of heat and cold, stores a great deal of water, and generates a great deal of humidity. And in this protected environment, trees can live to be very old. The substance of their communication, in fact, is often about and even to other species.”  

What about the fungal networks working “behind the curtains”? Fungi constitute the most poorly understood and under-appreciated biological kingdom on earth. They are indispensable to the planet wellbeing (as recyclers of organic matter and builders of soil), but suffer not only our disregard but a deep-seated hostility, what some may call “biological racism”. Funny enough, we are closer, genetically speaking, to the fungal kingdom than to the plants. They too live off the energy that plants harvest from the sun. Some fungi (e.g. mycelia) form Earth’s natural internet, the wood-wide-web – a redundant, complexly branched, self-repairing, and scalable communications network, linking many species over tremendous distances. They are also aware of their environment and able to respond to challenges accordingly. 

We now know that during a solar eclipse, the Moon’s cool shadow, moving with supersonic speed through the Earth’s atmosphere, generate bow waves. These internal gravity waves affect the Earth in different ways. Like with natural calamities, different animals (i.e birds) can identify them much before its occurrence. The reasons are said to be different for different events (i.e. humidity change before rain is felt by animals). Similarly, the death rate is low for other animals compared to humans during a tsunami or earthquake, which indicates their capacity to feel the forthcoming event (i.e. they are getting disturbed due to the change on the atmosphere or on the earth’s magnetic field). This could be linked to the aboriginal interpretations of bad omens. 

But why we have been unable to be good listeners to other than human beings? Since  the industrial revolution we forgot about them. We forgot they are our ancestors and as such know better than us about life on Earth. Instead of honouring them, we started to honour the machines we created. We forgot the role and strength of their voices. 

When I was invited to sing by a Yawanawá woman, I remember telling her I couldn’t do it. And she replied: “Can you imagine being in the forest and seeing a macaw hiding in a tree not being able to chant? No – they do exactly the opposite. With all their hearts, they sing, they manifest themselves.” But nowadays, their (and to a great extend our) voices are drowned by the clattering of machines. It is the rumbling of factories, the fun of jets, the roar of cars in the highway, that are heard instead. 

Other animals, plants, fungi, viruses, parasites, bacteria, rivers, stones, stars and  many others have a very important role in the history of humanity. They are here since the beginning of life. The evolution of our species happened from the adjustments or changes in their physical bodies as organisms and matter. In truth there are no others, we are an open system, all the time co-creating and recreating. From an indigenous perspective this is obvious, they not only recognize our interconnectedness, but they know we are all that is. They are able to see that the world is not something that is given to us but something we engage in by moving, touching, breathing, eating.  There is a fundamental continuity between us and the rest of existence. When we cut down a tree, we are cutting down a piece of ourselves.

No forests — no system — operates in isolation, why should we? Why should science? We need to start listening with the body, with the emotions, not just looking at data. And to better listen we need to be quiet. Quietness is not silence, it’s taking stock. It’s listening. It’s wanting to know more. It’s wondering what are the blindspots we still cannot see. It is wondering how we got here, how we let that happen.

We have forgotten about the voices we can only hear when we are quiet. We need to remember. Indigenous peoples are the only ones keeping such memory alive. Thanks to them, we haven’t yet completely forgotten that we are Earth’s new-borns. The Sun is, indeed, our father, our creator. We forget we are star dust, the result of solar explosions that produced chemical matter, in turn generating our planet and life. Traditionally we should pay respect to the elders; these beings are our elders. For how long will we keep ignoring the obvious?

We are empathic beings, we need to extend that to the wild, wider world. “The others”, who have very different forms, also breath, eat, reproduce, grow, communicate, take care of their kin, strategize their survival. If we want to co-evolve in harmony with them, we need to change the way we interact. This could change the hierarchical relationship we forced upon them and inspire us seeing the world in terms of rhizomatic interconnections, assemblages, or a complex “coming together” of things and beings.

Deleuze once affirmed that knowing is not about reason, prediction and control, but about remaining “attentive to the unknown knocking at our door”. We do not know in advance what is knocking, or what will be the consequences, and how to relate to the new. It is easier to empathise when the other being is closer taxonomically to us. But the way of our existence has changed so fundamentally that we believe we are the ones who can “improve the health of the forest”.  As if forests were waiting all these 400 million years for us – newcomers – to cure them. 

Finally, we are blinded by pre-existing mental expectations. We have known since at least the early 19th century that fungal filaments are connected to the roots of plants. It’s a macroscopic phenomenon, visible to us all. But the senses never have a chance against the power of doctrine. The notion of plant-fungal relationship was so dominated by the concept of pathology — fungus killing the plants — that we kept blinded. We wanted to see competition as the all prevailing mechanism of evolution. It took two centuries before scientists started to realise that fungus were knocking at our doors to say something. In fact, science typically tends to shy away from testing theories that invoke traditional knowledge, non-natural, occult, or mythical ideas.

What are the different unknowns beyond the confines of a liberal imaginary that can provide the basis for knowledge exchange between humans and other than human beings? The question of what world-views are being sustained or occluded by science, politics and modern beliefs is crucial if we want to build collaborations that promote ancestral memories and relations. If we choose to cultivate a disposition for listening to other than human beings, not only acknowledging that they constitute semiotic agents for indigenous peoples, we will need to unlearn many of our cherished assumptions about what constitutes agency and collectivity. 

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The Significant Others: A Letter from Coronavirus to GHG

Spring 2020

Dear Greenhouse Gases,

Let me first introduce myself. My name is SARS-CoV-2, but you can call me Coronavirus 2. As my name implies, I am a virus, a strain of SARS-CoV-1, possibly born in a wet animal market in Wuhan, China, in early December 2019. I have gone through my usual mutations and I am now reproducing fast.

I am writing to let you know the truth behind my plans. I am sure it will help to plot your trajectory.

Like you, I am tiny, and I can also do a lot of harm to human beings. I infect human cells quickly and attack the respiratory system, though in severe cases I can also damage the heart and other vital organs.

I have already killed more than 50,000 human beings.

By now some countries are reaching the peak of infections. I spread swiftly. Because of the lack of health centers that could deal with my symptoms, people in all four corners of the world have been “locked down” into what is called a quarantine. They have been practicing “social distance” to avoid being infected, while still being deeply affected by uncertainty, anxiety, and fear. Some are already feeling my power: they are running out of air. On the other hand, different animals, plants and elements that constitute the essence of human life on Earth are finally managing to breathe.

Although you are not a contagious virus, your emissions have also peaked in many different cities around the world. You can kill a lot of humans through what is called climate change, but most of them tend to deny your destructive potential. The consequences of having more and more of you released into the atmosphere have been emerging gradually. Scientists, activists, and arctic populations have been sounding the alarm for years, as those living on low-lying Pacific islands. You may even extinguish humanity if nothing is done.

In the meantime, citizens of rich countries in Europe and North America managed to postpone the whole climate issue as if it belonged far in the distant future. It is terrible, they acknowledge, but too large, too remote to deal with.

I have come along to help.

I will show the rich countries that it is possible to change, to take action, to reduce the risks you pose to humankind. Will they finally heed the call?

Flights were canceled and a significant number of people is working from home. There is less travel and so fewer emissions. There are no possibilities other than eating from local producers and taking care of one’s family. Governments rediscovered their old confidence to take decisive action in light of my presence. I am happy to see countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom – which during the last 40 years entrusted planning to markets and private enterprises – contemplating universal basic income. A new vision may still be possible.

In the end, I am not locking humans down, I’m locking the system that has caused your emissions to peak: the so-called capitalism.

I am sure that humans will be desperate to return to social life after they are able to control me, but I really hope they do that based on new priorities – such as socializing and enjoying arts locally, planting seeds and watering trees; and letting go of the 20th-century vision of the future based on unlimited growth, unlimited travel, and unlimited consumption. Enjoying life’s simple things, the ingredients for the happiness they keep searching for.

I expect that the health crisis I am generating will help them avoid the climate crisis you will generate. It is possible to shift during troubled times – everything is up in the air: you, me, human lives. Maybe now they will have the chance to reconfigure before the pieces fall back into place. To re-examine personal and governmental choices, to exercise the being of human by becoming with others.

I am making physical cleaning mandatory, but I am also cleaning old habits, the atmosphere, the seas, scrubbing human minds so they can finally breathe from their hearts. There was once a silent spring; this is what comes after silence.

Who were they kidding? Humanity was already sick way before my time. I am the symptom, not the cause. They are the reason for the disappearance of the birds. The cause of illegal trade in wildlife, the reason animal-derived products are widely available – peacocks, porcupines, bats, and rats. They are the millions running away from deserted lands, burning forests, drowned islands.

But they are also me; energy and dust, fire and waves, chaos and order, bees and flowers, atoms and molecules.

Like you.

And even if they kill me – as they have done with many other than human beings – they will fail time and time again if they are not able to destroy the reasons that make them anxious.

I am sounding the alarm from something much more harmful than me… themselves. Hopefully, they will not snooze it.

It is time for humans to mutate.

With love,



The Amazon is sending us smoke signals. Will we finally respond?

In 2014 when I was in São Felix do Xingu, Pará, I remember many farmers I was working with saying: “If the government does not fulfil its promises, we will show them who owns the Amazon. And we will do it by burning it.”

São Félix do Xingu, the municipality with the largest numbers of cattle in Brazil (2.2 million head of cattle, according to 2017 IBGE data), tops the blacklist of areas with high deforestation levels. When farmers threatened to burn the forest to show their ownership, I immediately felt how vulnerable the Amazon is in the hands of humans. The ‘government promises’ they referred to were the benefits of REDD+ and the Amazon Fund. São Félix do Xingu has received much attention over the last decade when it comes to actions to reduce deforestation, such as increased monitoring, implementation of the environmental rural cadastre, and a range of projects aimed at changing behaviour on the ground. Farmers have done their bit, and the municipality has seen significant drops in deforestation. Yet the government and NGOs responsible for local projects have been unable to implement most of the expected benefits. Meanwhile, farmers cannot continue to bear the responsibility of reducing deforestation alone, and so it has crept back up the past few years.

I was recently invited to be on the BBC programme ‘the Real Story’ about who owns the Amazon, who was responsible for the Amazonian fires and why this is happening now. Alongside Daniel Nepstad and Monica De Bolle, I spoke about possible solutions, why we should worry about the forest, and the role of the international community in helping. Here I cover some of the points debated with a more critical view.

Who is causing the fires?

Unlike the Cerrado, the Amazon is a type of forest that does not burn alone. Almost all fires in humid forests like the Amazon are started by people. Historically, fires peaked in 2004 and 2005, with more than 75,000 spots per year. At that time there was no enforcement of environmental measures aimed at reducing deforestation, and many of the plans and policies to control it, such as PPCDAM (Plan to Prevent and Control Deforestation in the Amazon), were not in place.

According to local news, farmers and land grabbers around BR-163, a Brazilian Amazon region subject to many conflicts, scheduled a ‘Fire Day’. News of this ‘fire day’ was first published on 5 August 2019 by newspaper Folha do Progresso, from the Pará city of Novo Progresso. According to one of the farmers’ leaders interviewed, the agribusiness sector felt “supported by the words of Jair Bolsonaro”, who encourages the opening up of protected areas of forest for farming and mining. They stated how they wanted to show the president of Brazil that “they want to work and the only way to create and clean our pastures is by cutting down the trees and using fire”, and promised to promote wildfires on the 10 August.

On 10 August, Novo Progresso recorded 124 active fires, a 300% increase over the previous day. Altamira, the neighbouring municipality, recorded 154 fires between 6 and 8 August and 431 fires over the next three days, an increase of 179%. São Félix do Xingu saw a more significant increase — between 6 and 8 August, the municipality recorded 67 fires, reaching 288 — a 329% increase over three days. In the Triunfo do Xingu Environmental Protection Area (APA), about 3,000 hectares were lost to the fire in the final days. According to representatives from the government of Pará this was a collective and premeditated action to set fire to the forest. “It’s possible that hundreds of people participated in this crime across different states,” they affirmed.

Why is this happening?

The great jump in deforestation can be attributed to both the rhetoric and actual measures of the Bolsonaro administration. INPE (National Institute for Space Research) data from its DETER (Deforestation Detection in Real Time) system pointed to an 88% increase in the deforestation detected in June 2019, compared to the same month in 2018.

Fires throughout Brazil have increased by 82% since the beginning of this year, to a total of 71,497 INPE records, of which 54% occurred in the Amazon. The increase in fires is not an isolated fact. In the short period Bolsonaro has been in power, deforestation, the invasion of parks and indigenous lands, the illegal and predatory exploitation of natural resources, and the assassination of leaders of traditional, indigenous and environmentalist communities have all increased. The Bolsonaro administration has also, in just six months, effectively dismantled Brazil’s environmental agencies, deforestation control programs and environmental licensing system, given numerous statements of encouragement to the predatory occupation of the Amazon, and criminalized those who defend its conservation.

Given the magnitude of these fires, in a less dry year with the dry season yet to come, everything points to illegal activities. The process of setting fire to the land came soon after a wave of deforestation. Likewise one week before the fire day, INPE’s director Ricardo Galvão, resigned following government criticism of deforestation data, alleging that INPE’s data contained flaws that supposedly rendered the numbers “untrue”. Yet the main reason behind this increase in deforestation/fires is Bolsonaro’s position on the following issues:

  • His refusal to demarcate indigenous lands, opening them up to mining, hydroelectric and agribusiness exploitation, in violation of the Federal Constitution;
  • The systematic and deliberate dismantling of the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Natural Resources’ (IBAMA) operational capacity and of other federal agencies responsible for monitoring illegal acts like land grabbing on public lands, deforestation and fires, as well as logging and mining;
  • Public statements that he will loosen oversight and put an end to a supposed “penalty industry”, giving a clear signal of impunity for the commission of environmental crimes;
  • Budget cuts, harassment of staff and dismantling of the structure of the Chico Mendes Institute (ICMBio), responsible for the management of protected areas;
  • Setbacks in the legal framework for environmental licensing of mining, agribusiness and large infrastructure projects with very high risk of environmental impacts;
  • Abandonment of PPCDAm, launched in 2004 and largely responsible for the fall in deforestation rates between 2005 and 2012;
  • Rigging of public agencies responsible for socio-environmental management, with the indication of persons linked to the immediate interests of ruralists and other regulated sectors;
  • Attempts to discredit the government’s technical institutions responsible for generating environmental data, such as INPE.

Where is it happening?

Between 20 July and 20 August, the INPE logged 33,062 fire spots in the Brazilian Amazon. Most fires occurred outside protected areas. Of these fire spots, 22,141 (67%) were outside conservation units and indigenous lands and 10,921 (33%) within such areas. Private areas, which cover 18% of the biome, were the location of 33% of the fire spots. The data points to Pará being the state most affected by the fires, with 8,622 spots, followed by Amazonas (6,654), Mato Grosso (6,147) and Rondônia (5,044). Proportionally, Rondônia had the most fire spots, with three times the fire spots per square kilometre than Pará. Acre, the second smallest state in the Legal Amazon, was another badly affected state: with 2,307 fire spots over the period. In total, there were 3,553 fire spots across 148 Indigenous Lands in the Brazilian Amazon. The situation is similarly serious in protected areas, with 7,368 fire spots in 118 Conservation Units.

Why worry?

Firstly, the forest hosts more than 300 different indigenous peoples with precious knowledge about their lands. Historically, indigenous peoples and indigenous traditional knowledge have made significant contributions to global land use: as 5% of the global population, indigenous peoples protect 22% of the global land base, 80% of remaining biodiversity and 20% of the world’s forest carbon stocks. Secure access to land is a central concern of indigenous peoples. Many of Brazil’s indigenous cultures are completely oriented around their forests. Indigenous peoples have shown remarkable strength and resilience against over 500 years of colonialist attack. But they remain vulnerable to an insatiable global economy which profits from the destruction of their forests. These fires are just a recent chapter in a much longer story. Brazil’s indigenous peoples, initially incentivised to help harvest timber in exchange for European goods, were eventually enslaved and made to destroy the forests which had provided wood for their homes and game and plants for their diet. By the middle of the 20th century, the size of the indigenous population first encountered by the Portuguese had shrunk by 80-90%. Meanwhile, global demand for beef accelerated the destruction of South American forests in a bid to free up new grazing land.

Secondly, and perhaps of greatest importance, these fires and consequential deforestation have major impacts for the region’s climate, rich biodiversity, air quality and human health, not to mention for global carbon emissions.

How can other countries help?

Brazil relies heavily on soy, beef and sugar exports. The government has historically responded to economic sanctions and product embargoes – effective as they include both the producers and consumers of commodities driving deforestation. If major consumer countries impose embargoes on those Brazilian products that are considered environmentally damaging, the government may adapt. The main challenge, however, lies beyond the influence of external forces; the tracking of commodities remains difficult to implement, sometimes only existing ‘on paper’.

The Brazilian government is negotiating a long-awaited agreement between the European Union and Mercosur. Europe must decide: if it continues to buy beef from deforesters and pesticide-ridden products, predatory agribusiness will continue to feel comfortable extending its ‘fire days’.

JBS and Marfrig are global leaders in animal protein production. In addition to dozens of slaughterhouses in Brazil, they have factories in North America, Europe and Oceania. The internationalization of companies gained momentum during the labour party (PT) governments, through the National Development Bank (BNDES) millionaire loans. With the Brazilian government being one of the main shareholders of both companies, the private sector at both national and international levels also has a key role to play in pressurizing the government.

Finally, Brazilian environmental policy has always depended on international cooperation, which has contributed in particular to reducing deforestation. Today, after contingencies, budget cuts and the dismantling of environmental agencies, this international support is even more important. Yet Germany and Norway’s decision to suspend transfers to Brazil is understandable, given the Brazilian government’s lack of concrete plans for environmental protection.

What about money?

The BBC programme included a discussion on the creation of a global fund to save the Amazon. Most of this money talk is déjà vu in my eyes; we have been talking about these same solutions, paying people or countries to reduce deforestation, for decades. Deforestation has clear causes that we know now better than ever how to deal with. We also know that farmers on the ground are not the ones to blame. They are responding to a sharp increase in demand for forest commodities due to population growth. And they cannot change their behaviour without the enabling measures to do so, such as technology transfer and technical assistance.

When Johan Eliasch suggests that money and valuing environmental services are a large part of the solution, he is repeating an old discourse; one that has been repeated for decades and may actually be the cause of fires, as expressed by farmers in São Félix do Xingu 5 years ago. It is not all about money and if we continue with such a mentality, we will probably just repeat the same mistakes. Bill Adams characterises dominant efforts to manage vital landscapes as ‘conservation from above’. This contemporary neoliberal approach to conservation sees ‘nature’ consolidated as ‘natural capital’, and the functions of natural systems consolidated as ecosystem services; common goods – inalienable by nature – are thus transformed into privatized goods, which can be bought and sold. The very materiality of nature, however, presents obstacles to its successful neoliberalization. The dangers of dismembering an exceptionally complex and poorly understood set of natural relations and processes, in order to isolate a single element of instrumental value, are demonstrated powerfully by James Scott in his depiction of scientific forestry in early modern Europe. He shows how denying the diversity of ecosystems, for the purpose of minimizing process uncertainties and ensuring efficient production of marketable goods, results in the breakdown of those systems.

Thinking beyond: time to reforest our minds and hearts!

Reducing deforestation must be a commitment of everyone in the world, not just of countries, not just of governments, not just of farmers. We are ALL responsible for what is happening in the Amazon and we must all share the responsibility of solving it. Almost everything we use can be tracked back to the forest. Unless we change our relationship with nature, the forest will continue to burn.

We must start reforesting our minds and hearts by planting different seeds. One such seed is recovering traditional values and knowledge, on how to better use what’s left of our forests and landscapes, for example. This is vital if we are to find better solutions to the contemporary challenges of land use and natural resource exploitation. Such solutions should transcend the capacities of science, technology and existing political institutions, to encompass a wide spectrum of knowledge(s) and practices that include not only natural and social sciences, but also culture, philosophy, and spirituality in a broad sense. We need, as Escobar highlights, a type of social change that occurs not only within the dimension of economics, but one that is “envisaged as a whole life project, in which the goals and means of individual and collective endeavors are re-imagined”.

We need to start to be concerned with a world constructed of the more-than-human, and acknowledge that humanity is a less than exceptional or necessary species, as argued by Donna Haraway. This is not to deny the social world, but to argue that it is embedded in, and dependent on, non-human systems. What it will take to ensure a future liveable earth must take into account the vital processes upon which all life depends. We are the ones who produce our culture, economy and political systems – we can change them. Such a change could steer the broadening of political and legal systems beyond their axiomatic confines now and in future, and act as a point of departure from which to contemplate a fundamental reordering of social norms and values, the construction of new subjectivities, the relationship between human and other than human beings and, ultimately, the possible extension of rights to living and non-living, human and other than human natures in an effort to dissolve hierarchies between species. What remains certain in all this is that indigenous peoples are of great importance in this process, and that is why they themselves are the reason we should worry about what is happening in the Amazon forest today.

Bolsonaro: The Messias has arrived, but there is no salvation.

Last October, Jair Messias Bolsonaro, labelled by international social media as ‘the tropical Trump’, was elected in Brazil with 55% of votes. What does this election mean for the world, and why all Brazilian environmentalists are so worried?

Coming from a lineage of Germans and Italians, Bolsonaro was elected thanks to fake news that spread quickly and efficiently in Brazil, with supporters making use of pseudoscientific tools. With disinformation out of control, the president and his team further confuse constituents with constant contradictions in their policies and positions. Another strategy of his campaign was to mobilize the Bolsominions, people supporting his election, to criticize the candidate’s opponents.

During his campaign, Bolsonaro announced that he indeed intends to follow Donald Trump in withdrawing the country from the Paris Agreement. Even if he does not, his campaign promises could have dire several consequences for the Amazon, and therefore for the rest of the planet. Extending for more than 5 million km, mostly in Brazil, the Amazon acts as a giant drain for the carbon dioxide emissions that the world produces. Bolsonaro has announced several measures that will open the Amazon to deforestation. The forest, which has already had 20% of its vegetation cover destroyed, is dangerously close to the turning point (25% deforested). If that happens, the world’s largest rainforest will become a region with sparse vegetation and low biodiversity. And the fight against climate change will become impossible.

Bolsonaro’s policy of climate denial – encouraged by Trump’s example – puts the planet at high risk, given the short time we have to change society globally in order to keep global warming below 1.5oC, as set out in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report. On top of that, Bolsonaro supports policies that are of great concern to the scientific community, including the merger of agriculture and environmental ministries, with a minister “suggested by agribusiness producers”. He also affirmed, whilst saluting the stars and stripes of the American flag that “the Amazon is not ours and we must allow other countries to explore it”, proposing a partnership with the United States to “develop it”.

Almost certainly, the next annual figures on deforestation will show an increase compared to the previous period. A recent survey by the Climate Observatory with information from the National Institute for Spatial Research (INPE) Deter B system indicated a 36% deforestation growth from June to September, the electoral period, which the organization considered to be a “Bolsonaro effect“. If even the possibility of being elected is seen as authorization to clear forests, those who protect it are in even more danger. Several cases of violence against peasant leaders and settlers occurred in the Amazon during this election. Brazil is already the most lethal country for environmental advocates. With Bolsonaro, such conflicts will explode.

Bolsonaro fails to present effective measures to enable science in Brazil. According to the candidate, universities and science must line up behind entrepreneurs and companies. He says that “science will not be a priority in his government”, which probably means that there will be more budget cuts.

Diverse scientific studies have already demonstrated that forest reserves controlled by native populations are the best defences against deforestation. Bolsonaro, however, sees other uses for forests. He rejects the idea of reserving forests for Brazilian indigenous peoples, who have lived in the Amazon for centuries, promising that “there will not be a square centimeter demarcated as an indigenous reserve”. He compared indigenous reserves to zoos, and defended population control, saying that he would authorize the military police to kill minorities. He plans to end what he calls the “land granting industry” and the logic of these pronouncements is that indigenous lands are lands to be traded by the capital. “Where there is indigenous land there is wealth beneath it,” he pronounced. During his campaign, he stated that “Brazil cannot bear to have more than 50% of the territory demarcated as indigenous lands, as areas of environmental protection, such as national parks. It disrupts development”. He also promises to open up existing indigenous reserves to mining.

In Brazil, a certain section of agribusiness is linked with land grabbing and is represented in the Congress by what is called the “bull bench”. This front, which brings together parliamentarians from different conservative parties, has acted strongly in recent years to advance on the protected areas of the Amazon. They want to transform indigenous lands and conservation areas, today the main barriers against the devastation of the forest, into land for grazing cattle, soy plantations and mining. Bolsonaro’s campaign also suggested that he will reduce the penalties against those who violate environmental laws, which he refers to as the “fines industry”.

To merge the ministries of agriculture and the environment, so as to reduce the bureaucracy faced by farmers, will only facilitate the emptying of the functions of environmental bodies, such as the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) and the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (ICMBio), resulting in unprecedented violation of the entire National Environmental System . The Ministry of the Environment (MMA) and its bodies play a central role in the implementation of environmental policies; these are not limited to those affecting agriculture, and include the preservation of Brazilian biomes, the protection of biodiversity and the fight against biopiracy, combating illegal deforestation and other environmental crimes. In addition, MMA defines and enforces protected areas, the various types of pollution and solid waste, manages water resources, analyses the sustainability of environmental impacts and combats climate change. The weakening of such a key environmental institution would be nothing short of catastrophic.

There is a desire to weaken the environmental licensing legislation. Environmental licensing was an advance initiated in Brazil following the 1981 National Policy for the Environment, reiterated by the Federal Constitution of 1988. Its maintenance depends on the understanding that production and conservation are domains that must have distinct and independent administrative structures of each other.

Enthusiastic about the dictatorship that controlled Brazil between 1964 and 1985, the ‘tropical Trump’ has stated that he will “put an end to Shiite environmental activism“. The candidate, who exalts torture, says that “minorities have to bow to the majority” or “simply disappear.” Defending the end of activism — including environmental — represents an affront to the Constitution and to democracy, which ensures the free right of expression, organization, demonstration and social mobilization in the defence of rights. This becomes even more serious due to the position occupied by Brazil as a world record holder in assassinations of environmental defenders.

If, in humanitarian aspects, Bolsonaro represents the risk of a return to dictatorship, fascism, torture and the extermination of diversities, the president of the largest country in South America is also a threat to the most vital concern of this moment in history: the climate. Brazil is the sixth largest emitter of greenhouse gases, and the logic that climate change is against progress and against development will allow us to go on exploiting natural resources in unprecedented ways. One thing is certain: if we keep destroying the Amazon at current rates, without a care for its peoples and natural diversities, it won’t just be the forest stumbling into a state of no return, but the whole planet.




The Songs of Trees

We’re all — trees, humans, insects, birds, bacteria — pluralities. Life is embodied network. These living networks are not places of omnibenevolent Oneness. Instead, they are where ecological and evolutionary tensions between cooperation and conflict are negotiated and resolved. These struggles often result not in the evolution of stronger, more disconnected selves but in the dissolution of the self into relationship.

Because life is network, there is no “nature” or “environment,” separate and apart from humans. We are part of the community of life, composed of relationships with “others,” so the human/nature duality that lives near the heart of many philosophies is, from a biological perspective, illusory. We are not, in the words of the folk hymn, wayfaring strangers traveling through this world. Nor are we the estranged creatures of Wordsworth’s lyrical ballads, fallen out of Nature into a “stagnant pool” of artifice where we misshape “the beauteous forms of things.” Our bodies and minds, our “Science and Art,” are as natural and wild as they ever were.

We cannot step outside life’s songs. This music made us; it is our nature.

Our ethic must therefore be one of belonging, an imperative made all the more urgent by the many ways that human actions are fraying, rewiring, and severing biological networks worldwide. To listen to trees, nature’s great connectors, is therefore to learn how to inhabit the relationships that give life its source, substance, and beauty.

David George Haskell

Brazil: The Land of the Future?

It was a moment of hope when I was growing up in Brazil. Although the country has always suffered from corruption and violence, the 1988 constitution was born out of a democratic process. Since 1964 Brazil had been under a military dictatorship, a ‘regime of exception’, in which individual and social rights were restricted and even ignored. The country was governed in the interests of the ruling dictatorship justified by the need to maintain national security. But a desire for change grew among the population who fought for a new constitution. Independent of the political controversies, the Federal Constitution of 1988 secured the fundamental human rights of all Brazilians.

The Amazon forest was just being ‘opened up’ with the building of the two national integration highways — the Belém-Brasília Highway and the famous Trans-Amazon Highway. On the radio, we listened to Renato Russo paraphrasing Stefan Zweig (‘Brasilien Ein Land Der Zukunft’) in song that Brazil was the country of the future (“O Brasil é o país do futuro”):

“We have peace; We have time; It’s time and now it’s here”.

But what is happening now, thirty years later in 2017? Unfortunately, this post does not bring good news. It seems that Zweig and Russo’s predictions were very romantic and Raul Seixas, another rock star from that time, was the one who was predicting the future:

“The solution for our people I will give; Good business so no one ever saw;
Everything is ready here, just come and get it; The solution is to rent Brazil;
Foreigners I know they will like it; The Atlantic has a view to the sea;
The Amazon is the Back Garden.” 

Since President Dilma Rousseff was impeached by the corruption-tainted Senate in 2016, the number of murders in the Amazon has been increasing exponentially. Land-grabbing, deforestation and environmental change have led to increasing levels of violence, criminalization, the repression of environmental defenders, and social instability. In 2017, there have already been 62 murders of environmental defenders. The conflicts, evictions and clashes are mainly caused by the increasing competition over the natural resources of land, minerals and forests. Recent years have seen the increasing power of groups linked to agribusiness and parliamentarians financed by the arms industry, along with the destruction of the national indigenous peoples’ foundation, FUNAI, through budget cuts and pressure from the ranchers’ lobby in Congress. The link between the dominion of the agribusiness group in the government and the growth of violence in the Amazon is clear. There is a direct connection between land grabbing, deforestation, and the treating of many workers as slaves.

President Temer, who has been in power since 2016, has issued constitutional amendments, decrees and bills that not only threaten existing conservation efforts and Brazil’s climate targets, but perhaps more importantly, also threaten the rights of indigenous people, quilombolas, smallholders, rubber tappers and environmental defenders. Corruption and economic interests backed by the same argument of national security are the major forces of the deforestation, impunity and the non-realisation of rights that blight Brazil. Measures such as the possible opening up of the Renca reserve for mining, the paralyzation of the demarcation of indigenous lands through the ‘marco temporal’ 1988 deadline, the possible modifications on the environmental licensing process to allow the faster approval of large scale projects, the changes made at the national Terra Legal program to offer an amnesty to illegal land grabbers, the promotion of commodity waterways and railways backed by Chinese and European financing and engineering clearly show that we are selling out the Amazon. But at which price?

The failure to meet the voluntary targets assumed under the Paris Agreement will have consequences far beyond Brazil’s borders as the Amazon forest is a major regulator of global climate. And the increasing rates of deforestation will release large amount of carbon from climate-related forest dieback. Even more important than halting the damaging initiatives of Temer is addressing the underlying global causes of the growing exploitation of Brazil’s natural resources: consumerism, population growth and the the increasing appetite for development. These are all directed linked to the way we perceive our remaining forest resources.

At this moment, the world’s largest rainforest is turning to ashes. And those who are trying to defend it are the peoples who do not see the forests as their property, but as their lives. And the future? The future is now and it smells like a burned forest marked by innocent blood.


To (m)eat or not to (m)eat: What is at steak?

Post in collaboration with Peter May

Brazil has recently emerged as one of the world’s primary sources of meat, with expanding cattle ranches and intensified swine and chicken operations. Since 1990 beef production in Brazil has more than doubled (104% increase) and the country is now the world’s second largest meat producer (after the United States) and is tied with India as primary exporter. Hong Kong, China, Russia, Egypt, United States and the United Kingdom are Brazil’s principal meat trading partners. Ranchers expect that Brazil will soon outstrip the United States in production. But what is “at steak”?

Land-use, land-use change and forestry (LULUCF) represents as much as 65% of Brazil’s total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and the Amazon forest – the largest remaining tropical forest in the world – accounts for around two-thirds of LULUCF emissions. Much of the deforestation in the country stems from the promotion of private livestock production. Besides being one of the main drivers of deforestation, cattle ranching is also a major source of methane emissions, contributing to global climate change. More than 40% of Brazil’s beef cattle are raised in the Amazon and around two thirds of deforested areas in the biome were converted to pasture between 2004 and 2014.

Opening the meat box

“Weak Flesh”, a two-year federal police investigation currently underway in Brazil, dramatized the corruption and unsanitary conditions that permeate meat supply chains, endangering human health both in Brazil and worldwide. The investigation found that Brazil’s largest meatpackers – JBS and BRF, which are both publicly traded global corporations – and other companies had bribed inspectors to permit rotten and contaminated meat to be exported or sold in-country for school lunches. Dozens of federal inspectors were arrested, accused of having ignored the adulteration or expiration of processed foods and of falsifying sanitary permits.

JBS is one of the world’s largest meat producers, having expanded its foreign holdings recently to include the United States chicken processor Pilgrim’s Pride, Argentina’s Swift/Armour and Canadian ranches. BRF is a major meat exporter to the Middle East and Asia. JBS alone is responsible for around 60% of animals slaughtered in the Amazon. Crop production accounts for a considerably smaller share of the deforested area, since it usually occupies already deforested land, while cattle ranching tends to encroach directly on forest areas. Although deforestation had declined from 2010 to 2015 due to a combination of stronger enforcement and lower commodity prices, recent figures show an upswing of 26%. This presages a worsening of the driving forces behind Brazil’s continued rainforest destruction attributed in large measure to the livestock industry.

Despite legally-enforced ‘zero deforestation agreements’ signed by the largest meatpacking enterprises in 2009, beef exporters continued to accept cattle from illegally deforested areas. Under such agreements, companies commit to accept animals only from suppliers registered under the Rural Environmental Registry (CAR) that have agreed both to refrain from illegal logging and to reduce deforestation where it is still permitted by the national forest code. But in practice most of the cattle is laundered: cattle are often reared on illegally deforested land and then are moved to legal, registered ranches prior to being brought to slaughter. Recent evidence suggests that the CAR may have been used to facilitate land grabbing by criminal gangs in Pará, the main cattle ranching state in Brazil. Landholders there are accused of having created false CARs to continue deforesting untitled lands.

To add insult to injury, cattle ranching in the Amazon also involves high rates of labour conditions akin to slavery. Research has uncovered clandestine airstrips built by some large producers to transport heavy weapons and ammunition in addition to supplies for livestock production. Large ranchers, such as the Santa Bárbara Group in Pará, have been accused in several instances of having used slave labour on their premises, where many workers perform their duties under armed observation.

This all spells trouble for Brazil’s struggling economy and for the lucrative agribusiness industry, one of the few relatively stable economic sectors in the country. It also disturbs beef packers’ market valuation, fostering the spectre of import bans on meat from Brazil. Even more importantly, it calls into question why the National Development Bank (BNDES) – which is funded by the Brazilian National Treasury out of tax revenues – leveraged JBS and BRF in their recent global shopping spree to buy out overseas market leaders. Finally, it also raises issues of BNDES’ legitimacy in its management of the Amazon Fund, the widely acclaimed national results-based payment mechanism for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+).

Shifting our diets is urgent

The livestock sector’s contribution to global climate change is undeniable – GHG emissions are estimated to account for 14,5% of global total, more than direct emissions from the transport sector. If we take in account the indirect emissions from land use changes to account for the feed industry, then we are looking at up to 30% of total global. Its role in providing protein to feed us is equally self-evident. FAO says the world needs to produce at last 50% more food by 2050 and that global meat consumption will reach 460 million tones in 2050, an increase of 65% on 2009. Some of the projections are quite scary – China’s meat consumption could double by 2030, for example. What are the options, then, to respond to growing demand for meat while avoiding further deforestation, ranching-related GHG emissions and associated social costs? Is it possible to reduce GHG emissions while meeting the protein needs of a global population that is projected to swell by another two billion people by 2050?

Recent analyses suggest that, without a shift in global meat and dairy consumption, it is unlikely global temperature rise can be kept below two degrees Celsius. Governments and environmental groups have proven to be reluctant to pursue policies or campaigns aiming to shift consumer behaviour. Knowledge on how best to reduce meat and dairy consumption is hampered by insufficient research funding. In addition, food choices tend to be shaped by taste, price, health and food safety, leaving climate change as a secondary consideration. Nevertheless, some of the greatest potential for behaviour change appears to lie in emerging economies such as Brazil, India and China.

To curtail livestock expansion, associated deforestation and its contribution to GHG emissions, the most important source of pressure must come from the major slaughterhouses themselves, as well from beef buyers and importing countries that insist on certified origin, transparency and safe labour conditions. Unfortunately, the Brazilian government has been unable to build an adequate traceability system to identify cattle origin due to vested interests in the current, chaotic status quo. Landholders also resist attempts to increase transparency, given that cattle ranching is often a means for money laundering and tax evasion. But if importing countries, major buyers and the finance sector firmly demand to know where and how cattle were raised, transparency is bound to improve.

For example, in response to the import requirements made by the European Union (EU), the Brazilian government enacted Law 12.097 in 2009, which demands traceability of the beef supply chain. Following EU requirements, the Ministry of Agriculture and the Brazilian Confederation of Agriculture and Livestock established a task force with the objective of developing, improving and maintaining a cattle breeding and rearing information system, including registration of rural properties, control of animal transport (Animal Transit Guide, GTA) and services toward productive chain traceability.

This shows that Brazil will respond to international pressure. But the problem lies beyond external influence, since the tracking of individual animals still only exists ‘on paper’: it is expensive and far from the large-scale implementation needed for true transparency. Effective traceability is hampered by the fact that the GTA database is not publicly available (not even to the meatpacking companies) and the CAR database is poorly maintained and disconnected from the GTA data and from the federal agricultural management platform created to track cattle production.

Meat consumers of the world, unite!

Brazil is among the top 10 emitters of GHG emissions in the world, but Brazilians are not alone in driving Amazon deforestation. Nor can Brazil take sole responsibility for fixing these problems. Without addressing the chief driver of meat production – our consumption habits – we cannot radically reduce GHG emissions. Integrated crop-livestock-forestry systems, innovative technologies and awareness of other sources of protein are urgently needed. Better feed and breeding techniques may help. But food production factors must be considered jointly with consumption patterns: to link sustainable production with changes to diets. Indeed, the Paris Agreement recognizes the need to make both production processes and lifestyles more sustainable. Therefore, we call for more targeted research on consumers’ behaviour and values, awareness about protein futures beyond livestock intensification, publicity on the role livestock plays in driving climate change, shared responsibility between producers and consumers, and technology transfer.

For consumers, the questions persist: Do you know where the meat you eat comes from and what is ‘at steak’? Isn’t it time to cut back on your meat consumption?


The ‘broken method’: How Brazil’s deforesters are avoiding detection

Brazil has one of the most advanced deforestation monitoring systems in the world: the Program for the Estimation of Deforestation (PRODES). Implemented by the National Institute for Spatial Research (INPE), PRODES carries out satellite monitoring of deforestation in the Legal Amazon. Since 1988, it has been producing annual deforestation rates in the region, used by the Brazilian government to establish and enforce public policies. INPE also implements a Real-Time System for Detection of Deforestation (DETER) to promote in locu monitoring, and a forest degradation mapping system (DEGRAD). Government efforts to curb deforestation, particularly through command-and-control measures, are widely recognized as having played a key role in reducing deforestation, and Brazil has won international acclaim for curbing deforestation in recent years.

True, the rate of deforestation in the Amazon has dropped by 71% since 2004. Yet the forest is still shrinking. Since 2012, deforestation has risen by almost 36%, mainly driven by a shift in the way forest lands are cleared. Previously, large swathes of the Amazon were clear-cut, leaving gaps in the forest that were easily detected in satellite images. But recent years have seen a rise in smaller patches of deforestation, highlighting the need for the federal government to increase monitoring in smallholder areas. Moreover, rates of forest degradation from selective logging, fire and fragmentation have remained high or are increasing in many areas, threatening the ecological functioning and integrity of many remaining areas of forest.

Blaming smallholders for these changes, however, is shortsighted. It has been observed that areas dominated by large properties still account for most of the deforestation, suggesting that larger landholders may have adapted their behavior by clearing smaller, incremental patches of forest that fall below the detection limits of the DETER system. A recent study also suggests that, since PRODES monitors only primary Amazon rainforest (not dry forests or secondary rainforests) and excludes plots smaller than 6.25 hectares, it ends up treating these areas as non-forest. By comparing PRODES maps with satellite sources that measure canopy cover of all forest areas, the study authors showed that, while deforestation in large plots of primary rainforests has declined, it has expanded in areas not tracked by PRODES.

Putting blinders on the eye in the sky

Evidence from different sources suggest that deforestation in the Amazon has been tailored to avoid PRODES detection. But none of these explains how. During field research in the state of Pará – where some of the highest rates of deforestation in the Amazon are found – I observed that landholders have developed new methods for escaping satellite monitoring. For example, the ‘broken method’ (método quebradão, in Portuguese) is used to clear forest without fire or other techniques that are easily identified by satellite or in situ. Landholders leave around 20% of the forest area standing and clear the remaining trees either manually (in the case of smallholders) or by aerial spraying of poison over the canopy, causing trees to die in different stages (in the case of large landholders). In this way, the forested patches are not fully cleared, making monitoring by satellite difficult.

Another way to ‘break the forest’ was recently identified by the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office in Pará: landholders first demarcated by GPS the area they planned to deforest, then set up several logging camps tasked to clear the shorter trees first. With the larger trees left standing, the canopy appears complete in satellite images, masking the true deforestation beneath.

These observations may help explain the significantly higher levels of forest degradation in areas dominated by large properties, where DEGRAD has identified small patches of deforested land as degraded. They also suggest that the increase in the number of small polygons in INPE’s deforestation data may be related to new deforestation methods adopted by landowners. This supports Richards et al. (2016) proposition that using INPE’s data to increase monitoring of forest loss in the Amazon may have incentivized landowners to deforest in ways and places that evade the monitoring and enforcement system. The authors also argue that PRODES-monitored deforestation no longer represents the full scope of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, and therefore has become less accurate as a component of the system Brazil uses to estimate GHG mitigation from avoided deforestation.

Austere times

Brazil is now facing one of the worst economic and political crises in its history. People in the Amazon would not expect controlling deforestation to be a priority under these circumstances. These adaptations on the ground show that enforcing rules is not a straightforward process, especially in Brazil. It also highlights the importance of tracking collective and individual feedback on policies and measures applied to complex situations such as governing forest landscapes. After all, humans are normally resistant to changing behavior, especially if change is imposed by others. Creatures of habit, we tend to focus on short-term gains rather than long-term, sustainable benefits.

The ability of landholders to change their behavior also depends on the repertoire of elements (such as materials, know how, etc.) they have at their disposal. Moreover, at the heart of the behavioral change process is an awareness of the problem that needs to be tackled (i.e. deforestation). It is only when individuals perceive the problem as urgent and worry about its negative consequences that they will consider acting. If Amazonian landholders are convinced that mitigating climate change by reducing deforestation is not their responsibility, believing instead that people in urban centers are solely responsible for modifying their behavior, they will not change their own.

Thus, it is critical to tailor deforestation-reduction policies to local needs, and to consider the possible local adaptations being implemented by landholders to evade enforcement. But given this week’s announcement of draconian austerity measures whether the Brazilian federal government will give the necessary attention to these issues become less uncertain at a time when democracy itself has been thrown under the bus.

How many people will need to die before we really open our eyes to forest destruction?

Last month, an inspiring forest defender was brutally murdered in the Brazilian municipality of Altamira, Pará.  Luis Alberto Araujo, former environmental secretary for São Felix do Xingu, was killed in his car as he and his family pulled into the driveway of their home.

Araujo was the secretary for the environment on the city council of Altamira, recently leading efforts to improve urban sanitation. He was also responsible for getting properties registered under the Rural Environmental Registry (CAR), especially in areas that have been traditionally resistant to registration. He was making a difference in the fight against high deforestation rates.

While in São Félix do Xingu, where he worked between 2009 and 2012, Araujo was responsible for implementing the Municipal Pact to Reduce Deforestation. During his mandate deforestation levels decreased sharply in São Félix, and his tenure was marked by impartiality and a strong drive to implement environmental legislation.

People like Araujo have made a significant impact in stopping the unsustainable exploitation of forest resources. But many risk their lives to do so. Despite this, the international environmental community has so far paid little attention to the human rights abuses that intersect with forest protection.

In 2014 at least 116 environmental and land defenders were murdered – nearly double the number of journalists killed over the same period. While there are several international campaigns to prevent the killing of journalists, there is little public awareness of, and pressure to end, the killing of environmental defenders.

How many more need die?