On the 17th of September, 2022, Juan Chang, Head of Technical Operations presented a TEDx talk in Fiesole, Italy.
The tree and the rodent
This story begins with an odd couple: a tree and a rodent. They both live in the Peruvian Amazon, where I also lived 20 years ago…
The tree is the Brazil nut tree, one of the tallest and oldest trees in the Amazon that can grow up to 50 meters tall. It produces a fruit that looks like a coconut, heavy and strong like a coconut. That fruit contains the seeds which are the Brazil nuts, that we sometimes find in our snacks. The only animal in the forest that can open this fruit is a rodent, which is called the Agouti – who looks like an oversized Hamster.
The Agouti opens these coconut-like fruits with its teeth and after eating some of them, it stores the remaining nuts in its mouth – much like a hamster – then goes around the forest to bury the nuts with plans to eat them later. But our friend the Agouti, suffers from a bad memory and tends to forget where some of the nuts were buried – those are the ones that may later become trees. This special relationship, that resulted from years of evolution, allowed these species to co-exist in harmony.
Imagine that 5 to 7 million years ago, our ancestors who lived in closed forest habitats, had also harmonic relationships with the environment they were living in at that time.
Over hundreds of years of evolution, they developed new skills and features that allowed them to transform the environment and create the cities we live in, to change the land to produce food, and ultimately affecting the global climate system.
Theater and Roman empire
For example, let’s admire and consider this great venue around us today, a legacy from the Roman empire. A couple of thousand years ago, this place was probably covered by forest before this theatre was built.
In fact, the expansion of the Roman empire had a major impact on the Mediterranean forests, which in turn, may have influenced the downfall of the empire itself.
Some authors suggest that, because of the scarcity of wood for shipbuilding, its military power was reduced, as well as the economic performance was undermined as wood had to be hauled from further and further away, leaving Rome more vulnerable to problems of invasion and internal division.
As the German philosopher Georg Hegel would say, “the only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history”
And here we are… In the last 30 years, 420 million hectares of forests were lost or equivalent to 1 million hectares per month. To have a better picture of the dimension of this. Imagine the entire city of Florence (which is around 10,000 ha) covered with dense forests and then multiply that by 100. This is the extent of forests lost every month.
Deforestation and humanity – extinction
Deforestation today is behind the main causes of the major threats to humanity, including climate change, biodiversity loss and increasing food scarcity.
Around 1.3 billion people or 1/5 of the global population – depend on forests for employment, forest products and maintaining livelihoods. Around 300 – 350 million people, about half of whom are indigenous, live within or near forest and depend almost entirely on forests for their subsistence.
Ecosystem services – glass of water
We receive vital ecosystem services from forests – local and global climate regulation, fresh water, soil protection, air purification, pollination, the list goes on and on and ultimately, also includes the food crops we all rely on.
If you had a glass of water or had a cup of coffee today, you need to thank the forests for them. 75% of the world’s accessible freshwater used for domestic, agricultural, and industrial purposes comes from forest watersheds and wetlands. Also, the productivity of coffee crops increases when planted near forest areas because of the higher presence of pollinators.
Forest emissions and flying rivers
We have heard many times today that forests are essential to address climate change. Around 30% of the global emissions that cause climate change come from deforestation and agriculture, mostly from tropical countries.
It’s not only emissions that cause the increase in temperatures, but also the disruption of ecological processes that contribute to regulating the climate.
This is the case of the forests in the Amazon. The trees from the Amazon Rainforest, pump water into the atmosphere through a process called evapotranspiration. This process generates vast amounts of moisture in the atmosphere that circulates across the continent, just like flying rivers and works like an air conditioner for the planet, cooling down the surface of the continent. But because of the deforestation of the Amazon, those flying rivers are disappearing and essentially the air conditioner of the planet is being switched off, causing the increase in temperatures.
Life in the forest
If forests are so important, then, why are they being destroyed? There are a number of reasons for that, from political, economic and social dimensions. Just let me share one of them:
I still remember a conversation I had with a local lady (called Maria), who was working on her farm in the same region where I met the Agouti and the Brazil nut tree 20 years ago. At that time I was interviewing farmers to understand the root causes of deforestation. I asked her whether she had alternatives for maintaining her family and livelihoods without causing deforestation.
And I got a striking response “we don’t have any other choice! How can we feed our family if we don’t open the land to cultivate our food?? How can we pay for school?? Or pay for medicine when they are sick??”
In that moment, I didn’t have any answers to her questions, other than to acknowledge her genuine and necessary need to provide food for her family and to have a livelihood despite the impact on forests and the loss of habitat of the Brazil nut and the agouti. I also felt very sad thinking that there is probably no solution for the conservation of forests and helping people to improve their livelihoods at the same time.
But here I am today, optimistic to share some rays of hope.
But before that, I would like to you to remember these 3 facts:
1. Forests provide vital goods and services for humanity, but we are losing them everyday
2. Current economic growth models undervalue the services we receive from forests.
3. And we know that people, especially communities living in tropical forest areas, have a right to decent lifestyle and livelihoods (opportunities)
Once we start acknowledging these facts, we’re on track to the solution.
As Thomas Edison would say “Vision without execution is hallucination”
So, it is not only the acknowledgment but also the action needed to make the changes.
It is because of people like yourselves that we are seeing these rays of hope today. From different roles and positions in society, being a politician, a businessperson or a consumer of coffee, your actions have impacts on the environment and on the forests.
1. It is because of people like yourselves, who demanded your politicians to agree to the Paris Agreement, in which a number of countries have made strong commitments in their climate action plans to reduce emissions from deforestation
2. It is also because of people like yourselves, who like to drink coffee that was produced without causing deforestation that the European parliament- just 3 days ago – endorsed a proposal on deforestation-free products that will demand companies ensure that goods sold in the EU do not come from deforested and degraded land.
3. Because of consumers like yourself, many companies are now reducing their emissions footprint through payments for forests conservation and restoration. Companies like Apple, Microsoft, AirBnB, fashion industry like Gucci, Saint Laurent and car companies like BMW, VW are also involved. This transaction is what is called the carbon markets.
This is a new hope for forests, because if done properly – not as greenwashing – it can provide the finance needed to protect the forests and support livelihoods of people living in the forests.
If I was able to speak again to that lady I met 20 years ago in the Peruvian Amazon, I could tell her that now she could receive a payment for protecting the forest where she lives and that could help her improve her livelihood.
This is just one solution – and much more needs to be done -, it may not be a perfect solution nor solve all problems to stop global deforestation, but is a tool that we have today, that gives us hope to keep trying.
May the forest be with you!
Juan Chang Head of Technical Operations