Chances are, if you’re a Twitter-reading, podcast-listening, or Instagram-scrolling person, you’ve heard that the Amazon is in grave danger. No, not that Amazon, though the company was aptly named after a place from which so many of our everyday products are derived. We’re talking about the Amazon rainforest. Let’s start with a fifth-grade style geography lesson to orient ourselves. The Amazon River, also known as the Portuguese Rio Amazonas, Spanish Río Amazonas, Río Marañón and Rio Solimões, is the greatest river of South America. The length of the river, though historically debated, is at least 4,000 miles long, which is the distance between New York City and Rome, and a little shorter than the Nile River. It runs west to east, from the Andes Mountains in Peru to the Atlantic Ocean on the northeastern coast of Brazil, and it is said to carry about 20% of all the water that runs along Earth’s surface. The river is surrounded by the Amazon basin, a 2.7 million square mile lowland area, two-thirds of which is covered by the Amazon rainforest. But the Amazon rainforest isn’t just a sideshow to the river - in fact, it’s the most diverse and important reserve of biological resources on our planet. About 10% of all known plant and animal species live in the Amazon rainforest, so you won’t be surprised to hear that scientists coined the term “biodiversity” there. Currently, about 24 million people also live there, which is about six times the population of Los Angeles and nearly three times the population of New York City. That’s a lotta people.
The health of the Amazon rainforest is crucial to the well-being of the people, plants, and animals that call it home. But it also stabilizes the entire Earth’s climate and rainfall. As the biggest rainforest in the world, representing about half of our planet’s remaining rainforest land, it is an important carbon sink (meaning it absorbs more carbon dioxide than it releases, helping to keep potent greenhouse gases out of our atmosphere).
But for better or worse, the Amazon is also a repository of valuable resources -- and now we’re talking about the type of “value” that equals $$. This fact has led to its quickening destruction as people seek to meet their needs, and the needs of others, with the Amazon’s wealth of natural reserves. The collection of these materials has led to deforestation through both clearing and burning of the land. Over the past 40 years or so, almost 20% of the Amazon has been destroyed by logging, agriculture, ranching, and mining. When the Amazon rainforest is cleared and burned, the trees release much of the carbon dioxide that they’ve stored, reversing their role as a carbon sink and contributing significantly to global warming. The fact that an area so important to the health of our planet is being purposefully burnt to grow and mine materials used in everyday products sold across the world is a symptom of our overconsumption and increasing demand to have everything at our fingertips, all the time. When we click “Buy Now” on that other Amazon, we are sucking up the actual Amazon’s resources faster than they can restore themselves, and in the process, we are putting its indigenous peoples, plants, and animals, and our planet at risk. Here’s the catch: when our planet is at risk, we all are put at risk, too.
What should I know?
These are the types of earth-shattering debacles that keep the Finch team up at night and, if you’re anything like us, you’re probably horrified...and also curious if any of the products you use on a daily basis contribute to this issue. Chances are they do, but don’t panic. Thinking about ‘saving the Amazon’ is a big, complex problem that global governments and big industry monoliths need to start solving...yesterday. We can’t put that burden on ourselves, but here are a few key things we can actually pay attention to.
Did you know that palm oil is in basically everything? Not really, but it sure does feel like it. Look at the ingredients label on your fav cosmetics, body creams, soaps, cleaning products and candles, and you’re likely to find it. It’s in half of all supermarket products, and it’s even in some types of fuel. About 66 million tons of palm oil are produced annually, making it the most common vegetable oil on Earth. It is a very productive crop, offering greater yield at a lower production cost than any other vegetable oil. And its properties make it extremely versatile; palm oil is odorless and colorless, spreadable at room temperature, a natural preservative, and stable at high temperatures for cooking. All of these attributes explain palm oil’s pervasive presence in everyday products.
Oil palm trees, from which palm oil is derived, have become pervasive in the Amazon in the past two decades. As huge swaths of the Amazon rainforest are cleared to make room for these trees, the environment, animals, and indigenous people suffer. Palm plantations destroy biodiversity in their local areas; the fact that they are called “green deserts'' tells you everything you need to know about their impact on soil health. And as is the case with any forest clearing, the animals that called the cleared rainforest home are left without shelter and food.
Indigenous people also lose the ability to control their traditional food supplies since they cannot hunt and gather traditional foods in areas where the forest has been destroyed. The indigenous people in the areas surrounding palm oil plantations also suffer from exposure to the pesticides used in palm oil production. According to Sandra Damiani, a researcher at the University of Brasília who studies the negative socio-environmental impacts of palm oil plantations on the Tembé people living in the Brazilian Amazon, people exposed to such pesticides in the Amazon have reported headaches, itching, diarrhea, vomiting, and skin irritations, especially when pesticide use was at its peak.
Sorry to be the bearers of bad news, but it’s nearly impossible to avoid palm oil altogether, and “sustainable” palm oil doesn’t really exist, despite what the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil says. The best thing you can do is check out the ingredients lists on your cosmetics, body creams, soaps, cleaning products, and food and choose palm oil-free options when possible.
Ahh, mining… one of our least favorite human pastimes. In the past 20 years, the value of gold has increased nearly 360% from $407.97 per ounce to $1,865.90 per ounce. This massive uptick in value has spurred an increase in artisanal and small-scale gold miners in the Amazon, which pretty much go unregulated due to the fact that they operate in remote areas of the rainforest where governments are unable to monitor them. These mining operations are problematic for a number of reasons. First, they are responsible for deforestation; in fact, it is estimated that small-scale gold mining is responsible for about 10% of all deforestation in the Amazon. Second, the mining technologies that these small-scale miners use are antiquated and dangerous. For example, they often use mercury (one of the most toxic elements on Earth) to extract gold with no safety protocols, leading to leakage into waterways that ultimately poisons plants, animals, and people in the area. It is estimated that in 2018 about 185 tons of mercury were released into the Peruvian Amazon. Pretty terrifying, especially when you consider that mercury poisoning can cause brain, nerve, and organ damage, memory loss, and even premature death. No gold is good enough to die for.
Third, while these mining operations are small in scale, they are not small when it comes to economic impact. It is estimated that in Peru alone, illegal gold mining generates $3 billion a year, making it a bigger market than drug trafficking. It’s horrifying to know that we all could be unwittingly supporting this industry; illegally-mined gold often sneakily makes its way into refineries where it is mixed with ethically-sourced gold and then sold on the mass market without traceability. To support artisanal and small-scale gold miners while ensuring that the operations at the source are meeting workers’ rights and environmental protection standards, look for the Fairtrade Gold certification.
Pop quiz: What do the Amazon and Charles Goodyear (yes, that Goodyear) have in common? The answer is…rubber! In 1839, Charles Goodyear accidentally hit the jackpot and discovered vulcanization, a method by which rubber is hardened and turned into industrial products (like tires). The process requires latex, aka the sap from rubber trees. Although indigenous peoples of the Amazon have been extracting latex from rubber trees for generations, the invention of vulcanized rubber kicked off a “rubber boom” and European colonization of the area. The demand for rubber and latex that followed was met with deforestation and a deadly system of forced labor in the Amazon rainforest that enslaved and killed millions of indigenous people, all for the profit of the “rubber barons”. The most infamous rubber baron was Julio Cesar Arana, who made over $75 million in rubber exports while nearly 74% of the indigenous people in his area of operation died.
In 1876, a British explorer named Henry Wickham smuggled rubber seeds out of Brazil and into British colonies. The rubber trees thrived in some areas, like Sri Lanka and Malaysia, resulting in the collapse of the Amazon rubber boom (and increased deforestation in the new rubber-bearing Asian countries). By 1910, rubber exports from Brazil had diminished by 50%, and by 1940 they were almost entirely gone. Thankfully, the collapse of the rubber boom also thwarted the forced labor and large-scale deforestation associated with the industry.
Despite all of the past suffering, this one has a happier ending. Good news: Today, tapping rubber trees is an important economic activity for about 63,000 families living in the rainforest, many of whom are descended from exploited rubber tappers of Julio Cesar Arana’s time. The government in Brazil established a reserve of rubber trees that covers up to 1% of the rainforest to help indigenous rubber tappers maintain their trade. Thankfully, the tapping process requires no electricity and, when done in line with indigenous practices, does not damage the trees. The rubber tapping trade is important to maintain for the livelihood of these indigenous families and for the maintenance of the forest. To support indigenous rubber production, look for companies that partner with Brazilian rubber tappers, like the French shoe company Veja, or look for Fair Rubber and Sustainable Natural Rubber partners.
So(y), what’s with all of the fires in the Amazon? Well, lots of them actually started because people wanted to rapidly clear land and plant soybeans. Native to Asia, soybean farming has become a significant economic activity in the Amazon, resulting in the destruction of massive swaths of the rainforest. You may associate soy with food, but the crop also has industrial applications in rubber, fiber, coatings, solvents, plastics, lubricants, adhesives, and most importantly, fuel. Soybean oil is a common feedstock for the production of biodiesel, which is fuel made from plant and animal products rather than fossil fuels. While we need all the help we can get to transition away from our dependency on fossil fuels, biofuels are not necessarily the answer. In fact, they have drawbacks including changes in land use that may increase greenhouse gas emissions (ahem, the burning of the Amazon to clear land for soybean farms, ahem), pressure on water resources, air and water pollution, and increased food costs. And alas, as soybean oil has become increasingly popular and valuable as a biofuel, we’ve seen more and more land in the Amazon rainforest burned to make way for this crop. To ensure you’re not contributing to the deforestation of the Amazon, look for soy grown in the U.S., or products with RTRS, ProTerra, or CRS certifications.
What should I do?
TL;DR: Lots of our everyday products contain raw materials that were derived from the Amazon and possibly indirectly contributed to deforestation, loss of biodiversity, and suffering of indigenous peoples in the area. Choose palm oil-free cosmetics, body creams, soaps, cleaning products and candles when possible. If there’s an occasion to buy gold, look for Fairtrade Gold. The rubber industry in the Amazon has largely been cleaned up, but if you want to be sure you’re supporting indigenous rubber tappers, shop with Fair Rubber and Sustainable Natural Rubber partners. Like palm oil, soy is also super hard to avoid. Look for U.S. grown, RTRS, ProTerra, or CRS certified soy when you can.
Above all, be aware of how your consumption habits could very well be affecting people and places all over the world. We’re so far removed from some of the horrible goings-on that allow us to have the things we want now now now. It’s our responsibility to take a step back and understand the larger impacts of our consumerist culture...and then force accountability for those that are putting us in this position in the first place. Voting with your dollars is a start, but don’t forget to actually vote, too.