Is Losing the Amazon Inevitable?

As the Amazon burns, and the world responds, this might be a good time to reflect on some of the key drivers of this tragedy.

Three major trends have combined to create the conditions that make it almost inevitable that the forest would be burned.

  • Global population increase & increased global middle class
  • Tragedy of the commons
  • Lack of a viable alternative to developing the Amazon

Plenty of ink has been spilt on the first two trends. Populations continue to increase around the globe, with Brazil’s alone increasing from 72 million in 1960 to over 209 million in 2017 according to the World Bank, an increase of almost threefold. At the same time, GDP per capita has risen from $205 in 1960 to $9,812 in 2017. These increase are mirrored around the world, particularly in emerging markets.

The tragedy of the commons has meant that rainforest areas like the Amazon in Brazil and tropical rainforests in countries like Indonesia have been an easy target for both small scale and industrial scale producers of soy, wheat, beef and palm oil.

Global demand for cheap beef, soy, wheat and palm oil– which we in the west are as guilty of driving – provides the markets for these products and the incentive to destroy these natural ecosystems, despite their value as “the lungs of the world”.

Which brings us to the third trend – there is no value in conservation for the people living in these countries. Now that we’ve deforested the north (as the Brazilian President put it), we are dependent upon the south for these ecosystem services. However, despite the many millions of dollars spent on conservation related activities, conservation of these natural resources is simply not a viable alternative to deforestation. In all our modeling for wild capture fisheries, we often find that the costs of conservation increase production costs over and above what the “market” will pay, and that the majority of these costs fall on producers – who face the choice of complying, and potentially going out of business, or finding other markets for their product.

In deforestation, as in wild capture fisheries, as long as there is no way to recognize the resource as an asset, and to provide a realistic payment for ecosystem services provided by those assets, it is unlikely we will ever save the Amazon – or, for that matter, any wild ecosystem, including wild capture fisheries.

The sooner we recognize the need to develop viable assets that provide realistic payments for ecosystem services to incentivize maintenance of priority ecosystems, the sooner we will secure their future.

Fisheries Improvements & Social Impacts

Many years ago, when I was a hotel manager at a resort in a national marine park, I was roundly castigated for employing poachers as guards and fishermen as boat operators for our visitors. The prevailing sentiment was one of enforcement to protect the national marine park – and the expulsion of the local people. While we had made significant strides in improving enforcement, the local people were facing a social challenge – they had no alternatives. 

The recent Interim Policy on Forced Labor, Child Labor, or Human Trafficking by is a reminder of the challenges the seafood conservation community is facing in the 21stCentury. It is an important step forward for Fisheries Improvement Projects which seek to secure seafood sustainability and it is encouraging to note the role of Conservation International (CI) in developing the Social Responsibility Assessment Tool for the Seafood Sector (full disclosure – I am a former employee of CI). However, I would propose that while it is essential to know that we are “doing no harm” we also need to understand the implications of the decisions inherent in effective FIPs and need to ensure that fishery participants either have a stake in the upside or have an alternative source of income.

Fisheries Improvement Projects (FIPs) have historically focused almost entirely on environmental metrics to date. One of the central issues associated with effective FIPs relates to good governance of the fishery. While there are a myriad of issues associated with “good governance”, I would propose that the willingness of local leaders and harvesters to adopt less impactful fishing practices is directly proportional to their financial gain and  / or to their alternative opportunities. 

In most of the FIPs we have reviewed or surveyed, there is no mechanism for harvesters to secure any hypothetical “upside” and they have woefully few alternative opportunities. They simply have no way of adapting to the changes – a factor that remains unaddressed in the current FIP framework. Faced with this, is it any surprise that national and local governments are slow to enforce environmentally appropriate regulations? 

So, while we congratulate on this step forward, it is important to keep the broader picture in mind – in an era of dwindling fish stocks, growing populations, fragmented global markets and populist leaders, the likelihood of “environment only” or “no negative” approaches succeeding in restoring fisheries is slim to none – and risks being passed as irrelevant. The sooner we can begin to address the social and financial implications of seafood sustainability, the sooner we will see these initiatives succeed. 

Oh – and that marine park? Watamu Marine National Park and its numerous supporters continue to develop innovative solutions to turtle conservation and marine protected areas.