“Will the Amazon Fires Wake Up the World?” – An Interview with the Rainforest Alliance’s Nigel Sizer

Brazil has had more than 72,000 fire outbreaks so far this year, an 84% increase on the same period in 2018. According to The Guardian, the large number of conflagrations – set illegally to clear and prepare land for crops, cattle and property speculation – has prompted the state of Amazonas to declare an emergency, created giant smoke clouds that have drifted hundreds of miles, and sparked international concerns about the destruction of an essential carbon sink.

We caught up with the Rainforest Alliance‘s Nigel Sizer, to get his perspective on the situation.

The unprecedented scope of the fires across the Amazon seems to have woken people up around the world. What sort of pressure must individuals apply to make a real difference now?

We are seeing a reaction unlike anything we’ve seen before. People and businesses are contacting us to ask what they can do. We responded on social media:

The first thing you can do is donate to frontline groups that are on the ground. We have pledged to redirect 100% of the funds donated in August via Instagram to frontline groups in the Brazilian Amazon, including the Brazil chapter of our Indigenous federation partner COICA and our longtime sustainable agriculture partner IMAFLORA (the other groups are the Instituto SocioambientalInstituto de Pesquisa Ambiental da Amazônia (IPAM), Saúde e Alegria, and Imazon, Brazilian NGOs working to defend the Amazon and advance Indigenous rights). The response has been far above expectations. Our Instagram appeal raised $650K in three or four days. $500K is already transferred to Brazil. 

The second thing you can do is communicate your concern directly to your grocery stores and your food companies, the Tescos, the Krogers, the Unilevers and Burger Kings. Tell them you want their assurance that the food they sell you isn’t making deforestation worse. Ask them to work to promote green agribusiness.

Third, you can change your buying habits. Ask for more transparency – did the animal feed for your beef or bacon come from Brazil? Demand an ethical supply chain.

You can also eat less meat, or give it up entirely.

What is the Rainforest Alliance doing to bring institutions together to stop the madness?

We have been working on the Accountability Framework initiative with collaborators like Greenpeace, WWF, Imaflora, The Nature Conservancy, the World Resources Institute, etc. to help multi-national companies seeking to eliminate deforestation from their supply chains. For companies and others committed to eliminating deforestation, conversion of natural ecosystems, and human rights violations from supply chains, the path forward isn’t always clear. The Accountability Framework provides a practical roadmap, offering principles and guidance at each stage of this ethical supply chain journey.

The Framework is based on a consensus of leading environmental and social organizations – on the “best thinking and experience.” It was developed through an open consultation process with stakeholders around the world over the past two years, and it reflects the collective experience of companies, NGOs, and governments about what “good” looks like for ethical supply chains.

The Accountability Framework is not a new certification standard, nor does it seek to supersede existing efforts–instead, it closes gaps between those efforts and creates a clear way forward for companies to fulfill their commitments on environmental and social responsibility. It helps progressive companies along the way, as they take the journey towards an ethical supply chain. The journey begins with a set of core principles that define key elements of a strong company commitment related to the AFI’s environmental and social scope. The AFi provides operational guidance, the specific and practical details related to putting the core principles into practice.

How is this different from before? We’ve learned that since Bolsonaro took office at the start of 2019, deforestation in the Amazon has jumped by 67%.

Although global attention is now focused on the Brazilian Amazon, it is important to note that manmade forest fires are an ongoing phenomenon that threatens tropical forests around the world, from the Amazon and Indonesia to Guatemala and Mexico.

This should be of utmost concern to people around the world, since forests provide a powerful natural climate solutions that, along with better agricultural practices, could deliver up to 37% of the greenhouse gas emissions reductions required between now and 2030 to stabilize global warming below 2°C in a cost-effective manner. Research confirms that natural climate solutions are critical in mitigating climate change, thanks to their carbon sequestering and storage capabilities.

The problem in Brazil has been worse in the past – in the 90s and again in 2005. But this is different than before. The Brazilian government back then worked hard to reduce deforestation, bringing it down by 70%. They built their own monitoring technology using satellites, and created a leading, world-class approach to conservancy that was exported to Indonesia and Central Africa as a best practice. Now, the current Bolsonaro regime has dismantled that expertise and has encouraged deforestation – setting Brazil backwards on a path of irreversible harm.

Unlike arboreal forest fires in Siberia, for example, fires in the rainforest are not natural. They are set by humans. And this widespread fire across the Amazon is not natural by any stretch of the imagination.

It helps when world leaders step up to make a difference, like France’s Macron did via Twitter:

We all have to appeal to the world’s leaders to take a meaningful stand.

How can companies get involved to make a difference – even if they haven’t focused on the Amazon before?

As I mentioned, we are getting requests from companies that are asking – how can we help? Our employees want to contribute – what can we do?

To them we say:

What are you spending your money on? Can you support the groups making a difference on the ground?

How can you promote certification of an ethical supply chain? What access do you have to other business leaders in the community?

How can you as a retailer educate the people on the issues? We have found that the public is confused about what’s going on. Just allowing the news to get out and alerting the public to what is going on is not a bad way to start.

Ask also – what are we doing with our lobbying efforts? Are we helping politicians make the right decisions for the common good?

Are you supporting the communities your companies impact?

Will we go back to business as usual, or is this a tipping point for a global green awakening?

I hope it is, but I don’t think it will be. We have seen this sort of thing before. Remember Deepwater Horizon?

Already the headlines have changed to the trade war with China. The DNC voted down a Climate Change debate for the Democrats. Unfortunately, the media still isn’t paying attention.

What will it take for people to wake up to the reality of Climate Change? I am guessing it will be something even more drastic. A die-back across an entire region, a collapse of food security, a series of national weather calamities, unless we are able to communicate the seriousness of the issue now, before it’s too late. It’s not like we have a lot of time left.

What do you think of the political situation in the US?  Is Bernie Sanders the only candidate taking the environment seriously?

I am hoping that all our candidates will be more serious about Climate Change. If there is one issue that is an existential threat, this is it. It’s time for us to work together to bring the world back from the edge of disaster. And we urge people to vote for candidates who understand the urgency of the climate crisis and are willing to take bold action.

Thank you for your time.

INTERVIEW by Christian Sarkar