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.