Until now, most people thought of the Olympics as a forum for athletic records, not temperature records. But the Rio organizers wove environmental themes into the celebration of sports, showing the dangers we face if we allow climate change to worsen. The message was clear: We may live in separate countries with unique languages, flags and medal counts, but we are all bound together by the limits of our natural world. At no point was this more evident than when the stadium floor was covered in projected images of cities such as Lagos, Shanghai, Amsterdam and Rio being submerged by rising seas. On an otherwise joyful night, watching images of the “marvelous city” sink beneath the waves was a sobering moment I will not forget. Yes, Brazil, like the whole world, stands to lose a lot in a climate-altered world. But it’s also one of the major forces determining our future: It’s the home of most of the Amazon rain forest.
I was particularly aware that night of what was at stake. Only a month before I entered Maracanã wearing a gown and stilettos, I had been walking through dense Amazonian jungle in sneakers and snake guards.
After nearly a decade of decline, deforestation in the Amazon is on the rise again. To find out why, I traveled to the Amazon with the film crew of “Years of Living Dangerously,” a National Geographic series focused on climate change. Brazil is home to two-thirds of the Amazon, the world’s largest rain forest and the “lungs of the world,” which is responsible for more greenhouse gas absorption than any other tropical forest. While we did spend time in pristine, untouched areas, our visit focused mainly on a zone known as the “Arc of Deforestation” in Brazil’s northern Mato Grosso and southern Para states.
We know that nearly half the world’s tropical deforestation takes place along this arc, but even with technologies such as satellite imaging to help identify where it’s taking place, the destruction of the rain forest is enormously difficult to stop. It can take hours — or even days — to arrive in the remote places where illegal activities occur. And by the time satellite images are analyzed and law enforcement officials deployed, the damage is already done. The officials charged with the herculean task of protecting the Amazon demonstrate incredible daily strength and dedication to the cause.
I spent some time with one of these officials, an inspiring young official with a federal agency called IBAMA named Maria Luiza Souza, in a dusty town called Novo Progresso. She was armed with a gun and an unwavering dedication and passion for protecting the forest.
“Why is deforestation in the Amazon getting worse?” I asked her.
“Two reasons,” she replied. “One, there is no accountability. Criminals see that they can profit from crimes without big consequences… so they continue them. Two, there’s still demand. There’s a market for buying illegal cattle… and illegal timber from the Amazon. As long as there’s [cheap] supply, people will buy it.”
That’s starting to change. More companies are beginning to scrub their supply chains to ensure they don’t include products from illegally deforested parts of the Amazon. Cleaning up the supply chain is made increasingly achievable by technologies that help monitor and tag products’ points of origin. As consumers, we need to demand that companies sell us sustainable products that do not disregard and destroy our natural world.
But a lot more still needs to be done. Everyone needs to become aware of what is happening in the Amazon and the consequences that the choices we make have on our future. We are all connected; what happens in the Amazon affects not only Brazil but everyone across the world. More Brazilian — and global — resources need to be committed to support the front-line defenders who risk their lives holding the rule-breakers accountable for their culture of impunity.
Population growth and greed are putting the Amazon under intense pressure. But we must remember that natural resources are finite, and if we exhaust them, we will change life on Earth forever. For too long, the world has been focused on short-term growth and development at the expense of our long-term survival as we have depleted our natural resources at historically reckless rates.
We cannot afford to put Brazil in the rearview mirror after the Rio Olympics. Even if there aren’t athletes to cheer on or medals to be won, we all have a stake in what happens in Brazil. This is the only home we have. Unlike the races in Rio this past month, the race against climate change is not winner takes all — it will take all of us working together to win.