The Amazon rainforest is comparable in size to the mainland United States. Rainforest composes almost 60% of Brazil’s landmass, mostly in the Amazon Basin. Brazil’s forests are home to roughly one third of the planet’s species; many are used in medications and others offer potential for future medical breakthroughs. All species have a role in an intricate food web and encyclopedia of biodiversity. Additionally, the Amazon rainforest acts as the lungs of the world, processing carbon through photosynthesis and releasing oxygen in return. Trees and soil are two of the three largest active carbon sinks on planet, along with oceans.
The last decade has been witness to an explosion of agricultural practice in Africa and South America- especially Brazil. The demand is global; many land buyers represent multi-national interests as governments act aggressively to secure enough food in the coming decades for an expanding human population with a growing taste for a meat-centric diet. Brazil is water rich and land rich; an ideal place to secure a growing supply of soy, corn, sugarcane and cattle. But the biodiversity and carbon cycling that the world values are dominoes that are falling rapidly to the recent growing demand for non-indigenous crops. Once the land is covered in soy fields, it will never be returned to forest. How can the global community convince Brazil to value the rainforests as greatly as its global neighbors do?
One method is to place true cost on the resources being exported from Brazil. The land may be water rich for the purposes of agriculture, but the land is at the same time becoming forest poor. Along with the forest go the services that benefit humans, both locally in the Amazon and around the globe. The benefits, called ecosystem services, are being reduced by the spread of agriculture. The services range from responsible timber harvest to fruits and nuts to temperature regulation and carbon sequestering, in addition to hosting myriad species. All ecosystems offer a range of services, but the Amazon Basin is what is called a biodiversity hotspot. How will the beneficiaries of those services, both in Brazil and around the world, be compensated for their loss? By placing economic pressure on the major producers, exporters and importers of soy (and other crops), money becomes a check on the balance of forest to field. In the short term, it is tricky business to impose taxes and tariffs on the industry. Too much taxation and the industry will look elsewhere. This is a global issue, and best addressed by all major multi-national stakeholders partnering together in organizations such as the Roundtable for Responsible Soy.
The true measure of sustainability is met when environmental, social and economic factors are in balance. That balance is too difficult for one government, one business or one consumer to achieve- collaborative action recognizes and seeks the best interest of all parties as the sustainable way to do business in the next decades. It’s not simple. Look at the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Even with a clear disaster, a known perpetrator and obvious victims, it has been a daunting task to truly measure and apply compensation to the extent that it is due. It is even fuzzier to anticipate future damage gradually brought on by an expanding industry and countless links in the supply chain.