Who Owns the Earth’s Lungs?
The battle to save the Amazon goes beyond Brazil.
CAMP 41, Amazon, Brazil—Thiago Kloss holds up a leaf with a speckled green smudge on it, showing off what is, in effect, the carcass of a zombie spider. He’s pretty sure it’s a newly discovered species.
CAMP 41, Amazon, Brazil—Thiago Kloss holds up a leaf with a speckled green smudge on it, showing off what is, in effect, the carcass of a zombie spider. He’s pretty sure it’s a newly discovered species.
That green smudge, Kloss believes, is a porous film of fungus covering the dead spider. It’s a fungus that appears to infect spiders and transform them into zombies, taking control of their bodies to go find just the right spots near other spiders to die and spread their fungal spores to new victims. This particular zombie spider carcass is one small part of the unforgiving and, at times, brutal life cycle in the dense Amazon undergrowth, a small cog in the complex ecosystem Kloss and his team of researchers with the Universidade Federal de Viçosa are studying at a remote research station in the central Amazon rainforest.
The research station, called Camp 41, is a pinprick of civilization in a vast sea of untouched forest. The collection of tarp-lined shanties is Kloss’s home for several weeks as he and his team conduct research on spiders—and their fungal zombie overlords—in the region. “In the Amazon, the number of species that will be discovered in the next year is amazing, and it increases each year,” Kloss said, as he holds up a large vial of spiders that his team collected with “probably five, six, or seven” new spider species in it.
The region Kloss and his team are in, and all of its species, is lucky. Unlike other parts of the southern and eastern Amazon, it hasn’t been wrecked by clearcutting for logging, mining, or cattle ranching—something that reached near historic highs under outgoing Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.
The integrity of the Amazon is critical not just for the spiders and myriad other species that inhabit it though. The rainforest also serves as the Earth’s lungs, absorbing massive amounts of carbon spewed into the atmosphere by human activity and making its preservation a key component of any war against climate change.
Even here, in the (mostly) untouched rainforest, scientists are starting to see a tangible difference in the environment as the impacts of climate change hit home. The climate is transforming, becoming dryer with more extreme weather events, and the number of some species, particularly birds, is declining over time, said Mario Cohn-Haft, a researcher from the federally funded National Institute of Amazonian Research (INPA), who’s spent decades in this region of the forest.
“Year after year coming out to the woods, you start to notice these changes,” he said. “There are sensitive species out here that are decreasing, even in untouched forest where there’s no reason to suspect any other outside human influence.”
“We can’t say for sure why, but the strongest suggestion—and the only reasonable suggestion so far—is that the microclimate is changing,” Cohn-Haft added. “But the only thing left that’s changing the microclimate out here in these untouched woods is the macroclimate.”
The altering climate and decline of species around Camp 41 is a microcosm of what’s going on in the rest of the Amazon. Preserving the Amazon rainforest as well as balancing it against the need for tapping natural resources and land as a boon for economic growth have been a generations-long struggle in Brazil. But that struggle has taken on new urgency as human activity releases more carbon into the atmosphere and accelerates global climate change. Similar battles are being waged in other countries that house some of the world’s last megaforests, including in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Indonesia, and Russia.
The Amazon rainforest and a number of other massive old-growth forests around the world act as a massive carbon sink. The Amazon alone contains more than 390 billion trees and retains some 123 billion tons of carbon, effectively acting as one of the last remaining lungs of Earth to dampen the effects of climate change. This makes preserving the Amazon a vital part of any climate solution.
But not everyone is on board with preserving it on such a wide scale. Bolsonaro came to power on a surge of populist right-wing support, and he saw the Amazon as a resource to be tapped rather than preserved to gear up Brazil’s economic engines. He gutted the country’s environmental protection agencies and hobbled enforcement mechanisms against illegal miners, loggers, and cattle ranchers, sending deforestation rates surging to a 15-year high.
Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who narrowly defeated Bolsonaro in the country’s most contentious presidential elections in recent history, vowed to roll back Bolsonaro’s environmental policies and reverse the trend on deforestation. But Brazilian environmental officials and outside experts said that pledge is easier said than done. There’s substantial money to be made in cattle ranching, logging, and mining, and organized criminal networks have already sunk their teeth into illegal deforestation.
“In practice, for the last four years, what we have seen was a complete dismantling of Brazil’s environmental governance and policies,” said Carlos Rittl, an international policy advisor with Rainforest Foundation Norway. (Despite its distance from the Amazon, Norway has historically been one of the world’s largest donors of funds to protect the rainforest.) “Environmental criminals, they just feel safe to keep doing their business because there’s a complete sense of impunity on the ground,” he said.
Others still fear there could be a last-minute surge in deforestation in different parts of the Amazon, as ranchers or loggers try to clinch more claims before Lula takes office in January and implements stricter environmental policies. Regardless, Bolsonaro will end his term overseeing a 59.5 percent increase in Amazon deforestation rates compared to when he entered office, with an estimated 11,568 square kilometers (or around 4,466 square miles) of the forest cut down in a singe period between August 2021 and July 2022, according to data from Climate Observatory, a coalition of environmental advocacy organizations in Brazil.
What happens in the Amazon won’t stay in the Amazon, and scientists fear the world is approaching the brink of a “tipping point” where if enough of the forest is destroyed, then it could throw off everything else, including hydrological cycles that, in layman’s terms, keep the rainforest rainy enough to continue being a forest. Without the Amazon’s continued role as a major carbon sink, international efforts to curb global warming to under 2 degrees Celsius would be dead in the water, some scientists predict.
“We could possibly enter this … period where the rainforest is eventually replaced by something similar to a savanna,” Rittl said. “Parts of the Amazon are under huge pressure [from] a combination of deforestation and climate change,” he added. “They are drying out.”
As the Amazon edges closer toward that brink, a hodgepodge of scientists, Indigenous communities, underfunded environmental protection officials, and foreign governments have scrambled to find ways to protect what they can and stave off that tipping point for as long as possible. It proved a particularly hard task during the Bolsonaro era, when the government responsible for the preservation of most of that forest was the very one speeding up its demise, even when it has such drastic ripple effects beyond Brazil’s borders.
Their efforts reflect a nagging, existential, and at times deadly question at the heart of the Amazon’s future: Who owns the Earth’s lungs?
The network of people battling to answer that question span the globe, from isolated Indigenous communities and research stations deep in the Amazon, to the capital in Brasília, to the corridors of power in Washington and capitals as far as Norway and Germany. At stake is preserving the world’s most critical carbon sinks, the communities that inhabit it, and the most biodiverse forest in the world—with all its unique species of flora, fauna, and yes, even zombified spiders.
Each swath of land cut for development, ranching, logging, or mining can mean extinction on a microscale, even as the rest of the rainforest lives on. That revelation, coupled with the accelerated rate of climate change and deforestation worldwide, has prompted many scientists to take on a more activist role in preserving the environment.
“We’re going to need to get our acts together,” said Rita Mesquita, a scientist with the INPA. “I think scientists cannot ignore policy, period.”
Even so, scientists alone can only do so much. When illegal ranchers and loggers come calling, it’s up to a collection of environmental enforcement officials to try and protect the forest and Indigenous communities who inhabit it. They’re often outmatched, outgunned, underfunded, and increasingly under threat themselves.
Carlos Travassos knows he has a job that could kill him.
One of Brazil’s leading specialists on remote Indigenous groups, Travassos’s job is to work with Indigenous communities to monitor and protect their land in what has become an all-too-deadly game of cat and mouse between underfunded enforcement agents and a surge in illegal loggers, miners, and cattle ranchers.
“This is something that’s very important,” Travassos said, now working for the Union of Indigenous Peoples of the Javari Valley, the main entity for remote communities in the region of the Amazon in western Brazil bordering Peru. “It’s not a fight that I’m going to back down [from].”
Travassos’s predecessor and one of his closest friends was Bruno Pereira, who was murdered in June alongside British journalist Dom Phillips by poachers deep in Amazonas state. The gruesome murders brought an international spotlight to the perils that environmental activists and journalists face in Brazil as well as new scrutiny to the policies Bolsonaro enacted, which critics said emboldened environmental criminals and left the enforcers tasked with stopping them increasingly vulnerable to violent reprisals.
International nongovernmental organization Global Witness ranked Brazil the third-deadliest country for environmental activists in 2021 as the battle between preserving the Amazon and harvesting its resources intensified and Bolsonaro defunded and dismantled many of the government institutions set up to protect the environment and Indigenous groups.
Travassos said he has lost five friends in recent years, including Pereira, all in the line of duty trying to protect the Amazon and its Indigenous communities. He said he thinks of Pereira every time he ventures into the remote reaches of the Amazon now. “There’s always some flash thoughts [of him], some memories coming to me whenever I’m there. And I don’t think they’re going to go away,” he said.
Travassos and Pereira used to work at Brazil’s National Indian Foundation (FUNAI), the government agency that oversees the protection of its Indigenous people and culture. Brazil’s Amazon is home to the largest concentration of isolated tribes in the world, including 28 confirmed uncontacted tribes. Many are scattered through the Vale do Javari, one of the largest Indigenous territories in Brazil, which has seen a surge in poaching and illegal logging in recent years. When Bolsonaro came to power in 2019, he vowed to “take a scythe to the neck” of FUNAI, saying it wasn’t a useful agency anymore, and he enacted steep cuts in the budget, authority, and staffing of the agency (though Brazilian lawmakers later reversed some of those cuts).
By 2022, the hollowed-out agency had just around 23 officials to monitor the entire Vale do Javari, an area roughly the size of Portugal, according to one federal environmental official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The situation in Vale do Javari underscores how ill-equipped and underfunded Brazil’s Indigenous and environmental protection agencies are across the country and the challenges they face in protecting the Amazon, even with Bolsonaro leaving office this year and Lula’s fresh pledges to redouble efforts to protect the environment. If Brazil owns most of the Earth’s lungs through boundaries alone, then it’s unclear whether its own government can keep enough control over it to stem the tide of deforestation.
“[Bolsonaro] has weakened many of the country’s environmental bodies … and targeted the workers of these agencies,” the federal environmental official said. “We feel persecuted.”
In total, Indigenous communities in the Amazon control up to 1.5 million square miles of the rainforest—tallying nearly a third of all forested land left in Latin America. U.N. officials and conservationists have increasingly lobbied to put more of the untouched Amazon back into the hands of Indigenous communities, whom they argue have a better track record of being conservationists and stewards of the environment.
Poachers and criminals are increasingly operating in remote Indigenous areas more aggressively and with more impunity since Bolsonaro cut funds to FUNAI and other environmental enforcement agencies. Other agencies, including the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources and the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation faced similar steep budget cuts. It’s no coincidence that some of the areas in the Amazon with the highest rates of illegal mining and logging are on these untouched Indigenous lands. In the massive Yanomami Indigenous reserve, for example, illegal mining shot up by 46 percent in 2021, a surge that coincided with new reports of violence and human rights abuses carried out against Indigenous communities.
Vanda Witoto, an Indigenous leader and activist based in Manaus, Brazil, said Indigenous groups in the Amazon faced a surge in violence in the Bolsonaro era. “Indigenous people became a target of oppression, and the whole atmosphere here has been of war since he was elected,” she said in an interview that took place before Lula’s election. “Since he was elected, it feels like we went back to the 1970s when our people were on the brink of extinction.”
Lula’s win offers a glimmer of hope for some Indigenous activists and the embattled government agencies tasked with helping to protect them. But it’s still not the quick fix they feel they need to go on the offensive against illegal deforesters. The expertise and resources these agencies hemorrhaged over the course of four years can’t be rebuilt overnight, and all the while, ranchers, miners, and loggers have carved deeper pockets and longer roads into the Amazon. “I think it’s going to take time” for the agencies to recover, said one federal environmental official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to candidly discuss the threats his agency faces. “I don’t think it’s just a matter of Lula [winning].”
Travassos, meanwhile, is more hopeful. “This is a kind of work that is done by very few people, but I do think that it leaves a legacy behind,” he said. “So I believe that in the near future, we’re going to have more and more people joining this cause, and soon enough, we are going to have an army of forest guardians.”
Some three thousand miles north of the Amazon lies Maryland’s 5th Congressional District. It would have no relevance to the Amazon, save for one man: Rep. Steny Hoyer, a savvy Washington power broker who has held the seat since 1981. Hoyer has never been to the Amazon. But with the right political maneuverings, he stands poised to become one of the rainforest’s biggest champions abroad.
In 2021, Hoyer and one of his top aides drafted a bill, the so-called Amazon21 Act, that aspires to be a game-changer for how the United States fights deforestation abroad.
“We all breathe the air that the rainforest helps keep cleaner and more healthy,” Hoyer told Foreign Policy in a recent interview. “In other words, we are using this resource, but we’re using it in an indirect way and it’s not monetized.” At least, not yet.
Hoyer’s Amazon21 Act would change that. The bill creates a new $9 billion trust fund for the U.S. State Department to bankroll forest conservation and carbon sequestration projects abroad, with financing conditioned on the U.S. government monitoring results through satellite imagery and other methods. The bill has two powerful champions in the Senate—Sen. Bob Menendez, Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Republican Sen. Mike Braun—though getting it through the laborious process of passage into law is still an uphill battle.
Hoyer said he was working to get more bipartisan supporters in both the Senate and House—though that could prove more difficult now that the Republicans have retaken the House. Hoyer, the outgoing Democratic House majority leader, still hopes to get the bill funded with bipartisan support in 2023.
Hoyer personifies the kind of foreign actors who are scrambling to convince Brazil and other heavily-forested countries to halt deforestation through a combination of pressure and financial leverage. “Outside pressure is crucial,” Cohn-Haft said. “Financial pressure is most of the game. For this kind of a government that basically sees the economy as the only important factor—the driving factor behind all of society’s decisions—then it’s going to be economic pressure that causes a change. I think that’s the only language they’ll react to.”
For the past four years, outside pressure has had a mixed record on altering Bolsonaro’s environmental policies on the margins. Norway and Germany halted funds to a major project, the Amazon Fund, that provided subsidies to Brazil in exchange for halting deforestation, after what the Norwegian environment minister called a “head-on collision” with the Brazilian president over his lax approach to deforestation. The European Union also froze plans for a major free trade agreement with South American bloc Mercosur, after French President Emmanuel Macron accused Bolsonaro of walking back his commitments to climate.
That all could be changing with Lula slated to take power in January. Both Norway and Germany indicated they will restart financial aid to the Amazon Fund when Lula takes over—should he make good on his commitments to protect the rainforest. But the political forces that brought Bolsonaro to power, what one commentator dubbed the “beef, Bible, and bullets” coalition, haven’t disappeared, and it could simply be a matter of time before Bolsonaro or a similar successor takes power again.
“You can’t force a country to do this,” Hoyer conceded. But he’s hoping that, in this case, the money can speak louder than words. “What you deem to do is give them a monetary incentive to do it—not only the governments themselves but the individual farmer or rancher who happens to own some of the rainforest.”
Despite the name, the Amazon21 Act is aimed at providing funding to protect rainforests worldwide, including other massive forests that act as carbon sinks in Indonesia and Congo. Hoyer isn’t the only one with the idea.
In his presidential campaign, Lula proposed creating a new alliance among the three countries to coordinate policies and lobby for conservation funds from the world’s wealthiest countries. His hope is that by banding together, the countries can clinch larger donations and carbon offset deals with the United States and wealthy European countries to protect their forests without curbing their economic development in the process. These proposals are aimed, in effect, at extending ownership of the Earth’s lungs to the rest of the world—or at least the ones wealthy enough to pay for it.
“We have to do this type of cooperation with the rest of the world,” Hoyer said. “The understanding needs to be that we are all getting an economic benefit, a health benefit from these forests, and they need to be retained.”
Back in the Amazon, there are already signs this model can work.
Tumbira is a small Indigenous community less than a day’s ride by riverboat from the old rubber capital of Manaus. Overlooking a picturesque tributary of the Rio Negro, Tumbira and its roughly 130 inhabitants harbor a success story that could be the key to cracking the code on how to preserve the Amazon without sacrificing sorely needed economic growth.
Roberto Brito de Mendonça, a resident and leader in the Tumbira community, makes an unexpected evangelist for sustainable change since he comes from multiple generations of loggers. As he recounts it, his grandfather and father used axes to fell around two trees a week. Then, his father got a chainsaw and began felling two trees a day. Brito de Mendonça began learning to use a chainsaw when he was around 11 or 12, and he expected to be a logger for the rest of his life.
But in 2010, he hung up his chainsaw for the last time. A group of nonprofits, funded by the Brazilian and Western governments, came to the community around that time with a proposal: Would the Tumbira community consider giving up logging altogether and start preserving the forest for some start-up funds and assistance to break into the ecotourism trade?
Brito de Mendonça admitted he was skeptical at first. After all, logging was all he and his family knew. But the proposal won them over eventually, when they saw how much money they could bring in from tourism—all while preserving the rainforest. “I didn’t realize before … but logging, it never changed our lives. We never saw a better way to live,” he said. After Tumbira began transforming into a small tourist hub, more money started flowing into the community. And that money, with more help from nonprofits, was used to build up infrastructure for the community that Brito de Mendonça never had growing up: running water and plumbing, electricity (powered in part by solar panels), satellite internet, and schooling up through high school. Previously, schooling in Tumbira stopped after fourth grade.
Tumbira stands out as a rare model of ecological success and environmental sustainability in a sea of bad news swirling around the Amazon. “All those people who wouldn’t support this idea, they can start seeing this community as a reference,” Brito de Mendonça said.
Tumbira represents everything that conservationists, scientists, international donors, and the Indigenous communities themselves strive for in the Amazon: In effect, it’s cracked the code on how to turn environmental protection into a sustainable business model—one where this local community, with its small slice of the Earth’s lungs, has real ownership.
Tumbira still faces struggles—particularly during the sharp downturn in tourism spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic. And it must grapple with the effects of climate change and environmental degradation as well as dryer seasons lower water levels in the river, making it more difficult to access the community by boat.
“Big droughts, we used to have every 20 to 30 years. Now, it’s pretty much happening every year,” he said. “It does impact tourism.”
But just a small trickle of tourists is the ideal setup for Tumbira—10 tourists a week brings in enough money to keep the community going, all without drawing larger crowds that would disrupt the environment. The alternative—scraping by on subsistence logging—is practically unimaginable to Brito de Mendonça after seeing how tourism and forest conservation could become such an economic boon for his community.
“I have two children, and they haven’t had to cut a single tree to survive now,” he said.
Reporting for this story was supported by the United Nations Foundation and funding from a Patrick J. McGovern Foundation grant.
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer
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