The fires raging in the Amazon have been covered extensively by the media and labelled an environmental disaster. But does this label tell the full story? What we are really talking about is a complex social, economic and cultural problem which we can’t just rely on better enforcement of conservation measures in Brazil to solve. The political actions and rhetoric surrounding this year’s fires may not be realistic or indeed the most effective way to deliver change. In my view, we need nothing short of a new economic model for the region.

For many years, a number of policy measures in Brazil have tried to address deforestation, including periods where fires have been prohibited and heavy fines applied. According to the Brazilian Forest Code, ‘legal deforestation’ allows for only 20% of owned land to be converted to agricultural use, a policy largely monitored using satellite technology. The current government has weakened enforcement agencies’ capacity to prevent illegal deforestation and practices and has been rightly criticised for it. Yet, even under the previous government's tenancy, illegal deforestation and fire clearance were not kept in check. While deforestation rates had reduced dramatically from 2004-2012, they have been on the rise for the last seven years

For the people living and making their income in the Brazilian Amazon, enforcement of these policies remains a remote reality. As policy alone doesn’t hold the answer, we need to pull other levers for change in order to address the global climate challenge, of which the Amazon is a treasured and crucial part:


  1. Changing cultural attitudes and practices

The fires occurring across the Amazon region are a regular practice in the dry season. They are lit to help clear areas of land - either as part of a slash and burn approach to clearing forest, typically for cattle ranching - or simply as an annual process of clearing farmland for the next season's crops.

Lighting fires is a well-recognised way of transferring nutrients back to the soil and eliminating pests and diseases, and of course, for marking your 'patch'. This is not just a decades-old cultural practice but has also been part of human agricultural and social practices for millennia.

Understanding the reasoning for setting fires - both by smallholder farmers and larger-scale operations - is crucial to finding and implementing alternative solutions.

We can be part of shifting mindsets, by working with the local people to find alternative practices that can provide mutually beneficial outcomes. 

  1. Supporting alternative livelihoods and sustainable practices

Many of those farming the land in the Brazilian Amazon were incentivised to move there in the 1970s and 80s by the National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform to help accelerate economic development. They were promised abundant land and natural resources, as well as better lives and it is thus perhaps unsurprising that many refused to pay the environmental fines levied for illegal deforestation. 

These farmers have few options for different livelihoods and are also often the least well rewarded within today’s global supply chains. Yet, if empowered, they can hold the key to protecting crucial ecosystems and managing land in a way that sequesters carbon and restores rather than depletes soils. 'REDD+' (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) was a mechanism originally intended to help recognise the role of those on the ground in delivering better carbon outcomes. Scaling initiatives like REDD+, especially in areas of significant environmental concern such as the Amazon, is essential if the global community is serious about tackling climate change.

There are two key actions required to increase environmental protection: ensure people in the region have viable alternatives to making a livelihood which isn’t based on the current forms of extensive agriculture and redistributes value in our supply chains in a way that empowers land managers and recognises the true value of global land assets.


  1. Changing demand drivers

Demand for cattle and soy has long been associated with expanding agricultural production into forested regions in the Amazon. Since 2006 the Soy Moratorium has been a voluntary system by which key traders and exporters of soy have committed to not source from areas of recent deforestation. According to satellite imagery, this has gone a long way to successfully decoupling large soy plantations from directly driving deforestation. A similar agreement by Brazil's major meatpackers in 2009 also sent a clear signal to the market.

Yet we know that in some instances this has simply shifted soy and cattle production and caused deforestation to 'leak' elsewhere - notably to the Cerrado region of Brazil, but also within the same farms whereby different crops were simply grown at the forest frontier. And Presiden Bolsonaro’s attitude may serve to directly or indirectly license a shift back to large scale forest clearance.

While there has been a clear focus on zero deforestation in Europe, which accounts for around 10% of Brazil’s soy exports, most of the soy from the Brazilian Amazon - especially since the US-China trade war - is exported to China for animal feed where there has been little-to-no scrutiny. The demand for soy-based feed is expected to continue upwards, with rapidly increasing demand for meat by China's growing middle class.

Taking a holistic approach to tackling deforestation in corporate and global supply chains will be key, as well as working to shift demand in the Chinese market.

Jair Bolsonaro may be justifiably frustrated at the global outcry - we are yet to really develop a new vision for agriculture and livelihoods in the Amazon region that can deliver economic development while restoring a vital global asset for tackling climate change. Yet the truly colonial attitude, in my view, would be to take no responsibility for our role in the problem or the solutions. We don’t need water cannons or even just better law enforcement, we need a new economic model for the region.

Roberta Iley is Principal Change Designer at international sustainability non-profit Forum for the Future and Project Lead for the Protein Challenge 2040, a global coalition aiming to tackle the question: How do we provide up to 10 billion people with enough protein in a way that is healthy, affordable and good for the planet?.