Who belongs to the Amazon Forest?

The footage from the video below was done in March 2021, inside the Privately managed reserve of Cristalino Lodge, and from its surroundings, up until the outskirts of the city of Cuiabá.

Nature inside this reserve is well preserved, and tourism plays a central role in financing this protection. Most of the visitors are foreigners who pay good money for a few days experiencing trails in the forest and boat trips conducted by experienced guides, who are often also biologists. On the menu of the resort, as brought on their website, “fresh fish and a variety of meats can be enjoyed”. Even though a vegan option can be requested and met with wonderful dishes, it’s safe to say that most of the people attending there will choose one (or all) of the animal flesh options during their stay. So despite their much appreciated and positive work towards the preservation of the forest surrounding their private land, the absence of the vegan philosophy at tis core brings a good deal of incongruence, as it is common in our current society. That incongruence is where I’m aiming at, so let’s move on beyond this particular resort menu.

According to articles like this, written with the main purpose of serving the animal agriculture agenda and marketing an image that is pleasing to investors, the area dedicated for cattle in Brazil is not increasing, but on the contrary, it is shrinking, due to more cattle being created in less land. That is counterintuitive since we’ve been hearing quite the opposite in the news, and indeed, it is absolutely false. One of the evidences disproving this nonsense is the increase not of legal farming, but of illegal farming, which don’t appear in the statistics employed in such biased article. Satellite images such as these provided by NASA ad up a to a pile of evidences of more land being deforested every year, not less. Even if it may be true that more cattle is being created in areas that before could handle less, it is not true that the exceeding area is being left alone. Cattle is the main responsible not only directly for the Amazon and the Cerrado deforestation, but also indirectly through the cultivation of soy and other grains to feed cattle and farm animals in Brazil as well as abroad. China, for example, imports a great deal of Brazil’s soy, the majority of it is destined for animal feed, not to make tofu. It’s interesting to acknowledge that grains like soy or corn were never meant to be part of cattle diet, as Michael Pollan explains in his book “The Omnivore´s Dilema”, yet the surplus of the maize that gained momentum during the 50s turned to cattle as a way to increase profits, and an upgrade of animal exploitation was inaugurated.

So no, land that was once forest is not returning to be forest because of more efficient ways to breed cattle, it’s just making it possible for those who employ such methods in Brazil to grow their pockets deeper by selling more cattle, especially by exporting it to countries like China, Saudi Arabia and Russia. Although for the stakeholder it is a gain, it is certainly a loss for each animal born and raised under this system, subject to a life as an object. So when the word “sustainable” is used to refer to animal breeding and commercialization, who is it sustainable to? And at what cost does this sustainability comes to the ones most directly affected by such practices: the animals themselves? Are their lives really that unimportant so to be left completely out of the equation? And even if not taking their lives into account, the impact generated by their consumption and excrements is anywhere near sustainable in a rainforest that until recently in the history of humankind had never seen a cow?

Its native inhabitants, on the other hand, do not contribute to profit other than through tourism, an activity possibly positive if done in a respectful manner, but unable on its own to stop the ongoing destruction. The Howler Monkey, the Guianan Brown Capuchin, the Giant Anteater and its smaller cousin, the Southern Tamandua, the Red Brocket and the Amazonian Brown Broket, the Giant Otter, the Tapir, the Sloth, the Opossum, the Jaguar, the Cougar and the Jaguarundi, the Kingfisher, the Boat-billed Heron, the Razor-billed Curassow, the Spangled Cotinga, the Red-fan Parrot, the Toucan, the King Vulture and the Harpy Eagle… I stop here, not intending to enter the inestimable diversity of insects and fish, or trees, plants and fungi, as the list of wonderful living beings, in delicate balance among themselves living in the forest they call home, all of which are gradually decimated, replaced by the Nellore cattle (originally from India), by soybeans, and by some other species of domesticated animals and plants that can provide profit to their producers.

© Vitor Schietti

At times it appears as if not everything is yet lost, or is it? When the sustainability issue comes into play, and the sense of preservation of the planet’s natural ecosystems is making the headlines, it seems like even the market is more willing to acknowledge the need for change and for improvement, and so it promotes the speech of sustainability. If on the one hand there is a certain popular outcry and recognition of the fragility of wild animals there threatened by the growing presence of domesticated animals and plants that are inserted and recreated in this territory, on the other hand these wild animals are also perceived as inferior, rendered incapable of  managing their survival in the face of civilisational progress, therefore needing our protection. That the protection they need is from ourselves is clear, but are there only the men and women who are direct agents of agribusiness who threaten them? If these people take their livelihood from such practices, who pays them? If they are generating wealth, what wealth is this that springs from destruction?

Usually considered a secondary (or tertiary) line of argument, animal sentience is not even part of the conversation. Thus the main focus should not be on the preservation of fauna and flora by imposing limits on extractive exploitation and the application of environmental protectionism while encouraging tourist exploitation, but on recognising the already proven animal sentience, as well as the intrinsic value of the forest as a complex and multiple but indivisible organism, a pulsating being, and not a sum of resources to be exploited. When the blunt and undeniable fact of the sentience of the domestic animals raised there is briefly considered, economic interests again assert themselves, impose a smokescreen, say that cattle are well treated, that animal welfare is sought, that they are slaughtered in a humane way, they receive a healthy diet… and the consumer is again easily induced to disregard the issue altogether, focusing more on the industry’s problems as if these could be solved with improvements in animal welfare, a more adequate use of natural resources, even the reduction of human consumption of meat, but never by the complete cessation of the central problem, which is the view of animals as resources and their deliberate consumption.

still from the short movie “Who belongs to the Amazon Forest?” © Vitor Schietti

In the states of Mato Grosso and Goiás, neighbour states that share the Amazon and the Cerrado ecosystems, fields of soy and cattle are growing everywhere. But also other states that host the Amazon found profit in exporting live animals, at the cost of the forest. Native peoples have their territory constantly under threat, both by legal and by ilegal forces. National and regional parks once protected are being reduced in size, private properties grow over native forests and public territory, and the greed for more profit, more production and more “sustainability” seems unstoppable. The planet’s natural defenses are already reacting, climate change is real and it’s upon us. But when are we going to stop the mental acrobatics involved in denying the roots of this problem or handing it over to the “other”? Reducing meat consumption or improving animal welfare are not real solutions… any action that perpetuates the current paradigm of animals as resources is doomed to fuel the ongoing disaster we see in the news year after year: more storms, more fires, less wildlife, more disease, epidemics, hotter temperatures and so on… Reducing the size of the problem won’t solve it, taking half measures either. For most utopian it may sound, we face either a complete shift of paradigm or the complete ruin of civilization as we know it. And the way we perceive and treat animals is at the core of this shift. Raising cattle in the Amazon Forest is just one of many absurdities that we take for granted as part of the civilized world.

I suggested a friend to consider veganism as a tool to make this change happen, rather than just talk about it. This particular friend not only shows deep concern for the preservation of the Brazilian biomes and its fauna and flora by constantly sharing news about the course of the terrible actions in the country but also being himself a public employee of Brazil´s most important preservation institute, IBAMA. His answer was that “if only it was that simple to solve the issue, by each one of us adopting veganism…” and he’s right: it’s not that simple, as just shown with a few hints of the complexity of the situation. So yes, the solutions are certainly not easy  to implement nor do they resume local actions. Even if most Brazilians would go vegan and stop consuming animals, the country exports would still account for 26% of the world market of bovine meat and so tens of thousands of cattle would continue to be bred for slaughter while other tens of thousands of acres of land would be used to cultivate soy to feed farmed animals in other countries. A Chinese who eats meat for whatever reason is perhaps equally responsible for the destruction of the Amazon Forest as a Brazilian that also eats meat, even if neither consumes meat that was produced in the Amazon, his or her consumption sustains the demand and makes it profitable to raise cattle anywhere possible. To advocate for the preservation of nature with a mouth full of animal flesh is, to say the least, disastrous hypocrisy.

© Vitor Schietti

Certainly the resolutions for this scenario go far beyond our individual actions, the change is collective and involves collective forces. It will be the result of the work of governments, companies, universities, newspapers, research centers across the planet… The notorious work of animalistic NGOs like Animal Equality is also part of the solution, as currently, they are holding a petition named “Why Brazil Burns: the meat industry uncovered”. But it´s important to acknowledge that in each one of these entities, animal sentience must be kept in close range, being it the wild or the domesticated, and the natural habitats that allow for the wild animals to exist can only be preserved if we recognize their value in our daily actions too. If we don´t, it would be like saying one thing and doing/financing its opposite.

Going vegan is the starting point.

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