The Amazon is the world’s largest rainforest - home to 10% of all the known living species. It took days of blazing fires before the press started reporting. A wave of social media posts about the fires triggered a surge in coverage from the mainstream media. Although updates quickly stopped coming.
The fires provoked reactions from many celebrities and world leaders, and were debated at the recent G7 meeting in Biarritz, France. There’s increasing pressure on the right-wing Brazilian President, Jair Bolsonaro, to act. Bolsonaro, in turn, suggested this interference is “colonial”. The G7 pledged $20m to help fight the fires - while this was originally rejected, latest reports suggest the money may be accepted, with fewer constraints.
A petition is also in circulation to urge the Brazilian government to take greater action. Collectively the international pressure to act is growing. Brazil is one of the biggest export economies in the world, currently ranked 22nd – the Government won’t want to damage trade agreements.We just need to maintain interest and continue to apply some pressure.
The Amazon’s dense, damp jungle is home to an abundance of life, so it’s no surprise that some of our everyday products come from the rainforest. An array of spices, vanilla pods, coffee, cocoa, nuts, bananas, and avocados all naturally grow there. Even ingredients that go into our beauty products come from the jungle. We rely on the forest for more than its role as the “Earth’s lungs”.
Although we may feel helpless watching video footage of smoke billowing from the trees, the fact that Brazil and neighbouring countries rely on international trade gives consumers some power. We can back ethical and sustainable businesses by buying their products. And we can stop buying items with ingredients from the region that are not sustainably sourced. We have the power to send a collective message to our government and businesses that engage in unethical operations.
In addition to the fires, the Amazon is being logged to sell timber, and land is being cleared to make room for soy farms and cattle ranches. In some instances, it’s mass production from industrial farming, but in others it’s small scale farmers looking for an income in a challenging economic environment. There are 34 million people that call the Amazon rainforest their home and depend on its resources. Some are working in harmony with the forest, yet some against it.
Brazil nuts are native to the Amazon - they rely on the unique ecosystem and can’t be cultivated anywhere else in the world. The trees are huge, typically growing to 50 metres high and two metres wide. Even in the rainforest they tower above other trees. A coconut-sized pod grows with 10-20 nuts inside. When the fruit is ripe, it falls to the ground, reaching up to 50 miles an hour as it hurtles down. The landing is cushioned by the soft forest floor which is covered with wild debris.
Neide Mamani is 58 and lives in the Tablero community in the Bolivian Amazon rainforest and makes a living collecting Brazil nuts from the jungle. She has a big family: seven children and eight grandchildren and is a member of the Asociación Indígena de Recolectores de la Amazonía (AIRA) cooperative.
Neide lives in a small wooden house on the edge of the jungle. Life in the community is slow and there are very few opportunities to work. As such, Neide relies on gathering Brazil nuts. During harvest season, (January and February), she goes into the rainforest with her family. They carry big baskets on their backs and use a tool that looks like a litter picker to collect the pods from the floor. Each pod weighs around 2.5kg, so the basket quickly becomes heavy and cumbersome. It’s hard work.
The AIRA cooperative has a Fairtrade certificate and all nuts are exported to international buyers under Fairtrade rules. That means a decent price for the nuts, protecting workers’ rights and ensuring all gathering and farming techniques are environmentally friendly. The nuts are sold via an intermediary, Liberation Foods, to the likes of Tesco and Sainsbury’s, to then sell as Fairtrade nuts under their own label.
The nuts provide a vital source of income for rural communities like Neide’s. If the nuts are sold under fair conditions with sustainable supply chains, it supports rural communities and prevents them turning to other means such as cattle rearing to earn a living.
Small organisations like Cacao Crudo talk about their sourcing models and you can see where their products come from. This is great, but ingredients like vanilla, cinnamon or coconut oil can be a little harder to track. Certification systems like Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance are a reliable indication that products have been sustainably sourced.
Technology is also now offering a helping hand – apps like Giki let you scan the barcodes of products to assess whether they’re healthy, good for the environment, or sustainably sourced. Blockchain technology is also helping organisations demonstrate to consumers how their supply chains work.
The more consumers question organisations and demand information on their sourcing models and environmental responsibility, the more it’ll become the norm. Likewise, when we know a company is doing something badly, we need to shout about it. The longer the environment stays a mainstream news story, the greater chance we have of turning things around.
While the fires are raging, organisations like the WWF have suggested ways to donate to help extinguish them. We should absolutely contribute and make donations in a time of crisis, but we can also get into the habit of using our pounds to protect the rainforest on a regular basis.