Setting off for the flyover aboard the Greenpeace Cessna plane. The Plane was purchased for Greenpeace by a very special donor and has been invaluable in allowing the Amazon team to monitor and report on deforestation, exposing the scandals and making those companies responsible for the destruction known.
Close your eyes and picture the Amazon. Do you see the huge expanse of endless forest as far as the eye can see, in every direction? Do you feel the heat and humidity? Do you hear the cicadas and insects hum and the exotic song of the birds? With those great rivers passing through, it truly is a paradise. This was also the idyllic dream that came crashing down around me yesterday as with huge excitement and anticipation I set off on a flyover of some of the forest with our Amazon campaign team.
As the plane landed at the end of our flyover I was unusually quiet, wiping away tears and at the risk of sounding melodramatic here, broken hearted. The staff in the Manaus office are bemused at my reaction, after 10 years of working for Greenpeace none of the destruction I saw should have been a surprise, but seeing it with my own eyes is something else.
Is this the Amazon or the Waikato??
I had imagined the destruction of the Amazon to be occurring at the fringes of the forest with the centre left blissfully intact, but the area we are flying over is slap bang in the middle of the Amazon and the forest I am looking at has been utterly butchered. The landscape is bizarre patchwork of beautiful lush intact rainforest and squares of cleared land. Unexpectedly, the cleared land is seemingly in the middle of nowhere set amongst pristine forest. There are different coloured patches; the patches with flames licking up the sides and billowing smoke, the newly cleared and desolate looking blackened patches, the rather dry looking grassy cattle grazing ones, the slightly greener patches where the forest has fought back and reclaimed the pasture and interspersed with these are the rich green chunks of forest left alone.
Paulo (Director of GP Amazon) explains that land grabbers come to publicly owned pieces of forest and take it. With little in the way of accurate and detailed land ownership records there is nothing to stop farmers occupying the land. First the loggers take any of the really valuable trees and then pastures are created by burning off the areas needed. The burnt ashes of the fires provide the fertiliser to grow the grass and soon cattle are grazing there. The quality of the pasture is poor though, based on just the ashes of the forest, so soon new land is being opened up since it’s cheaper to simply burn down more forest than try and make the poor quality pasture fertile again. Cattle farming, which is supplying the world with cheap beef and leather, accounts for 80% of all deforestation in the Amazon.
Lonely Brazil Nut Trees emerge from the smoke haze in a giant soy field surrounded by the forest.
We fly over a beautiful piece of forest which has been protected as a reserve. As I take photos Paulo spots a blue tent. “Illegal loggers” he tells me, snapping some shots of them “See the bright pink tree? They will take it”.
The final part of our flight sees us fly over the area which was decimated by the soy industry (between 2001 and 2006) until the extremely successful Greenpeace campaign which resulted in a moratorium of new deforestation for soy. “Now you will really cry” says Paulo. I am staggered by the landscape. It could be the Waikato or possibly even some of the industrial agricultural areas of the Netherlands rather than the middle of the Amazon. Huge fields are dug up ready for planting. In some sad looking Brazil Nut trees stand all alone in a deserted landscape. It’s illegal to chop down Brazil Nut trees and interestingly this law is followed, though fruitlessly, since the trees die with a few seasons of land use change.
Seeing my crestfallen face Paulo is quick to reassure me “Yes, it is awful, but we stopped it.... we stopped it”. The Amazon team have made an incredible difference here. They have had some indigenous lands protected, forced through a moratorium on mahogany logging, stopped the growth of the soy trade in the Amazon and now are developing similar agreements with industry to tackle cattle farming. The battle to save the worlds most amazing forest is still very much underway but currently we are definitely winning.
Still plenty of stunningly beautiful areas of the Amazon left and the forest has amazing powers of regeneration so there is still time to save the forest, provided we stop deforestation now.