Wicked Problems — Understanding how the Amazon is Burning, and How to Save It

The same, connected jungle — the Pantanal, just south of the Amazon
Caiman attacking a herd of capybaras

One of the recent global crises in the news lately is the wildfires in the Amazon. CNN and other news outlets blew up with the story, with various headlines like “80% more fires this year than last!” and “the Amazon is the lungs of the planet!” The strongest signal message that came out of all of this in the U.S. was “ban Brazilian beef!”

OK. First off, I’m actual close friends with one of the founders of the Rainforest Action Network. I’ve supported stopping Amazon deforestation since forever. I’m a card-carrying forest activist that spent a good hunk of my 30s and 40s saving native forests in the U.S., and wrote a book on the experience mid-solution, before we actually won with the Clinton Roadless Initiative, called Wild to the Last.

And I’m all for saving the Amazon. But saving the Amazon is a sticky wicket. It’s not just a matter of insulting the current, awful President of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, as European leaders have done. He IS awful — but any cursory history of problems in the Amazon threads back through the past three-four decades, or even longer. You want to see how much some governments want to destroy the Amazon? Read the history of the Belo Monte dam — a dam that for a good hunk of the year, won’t have enough water behind it to generate power — to realize that this problem is deep, systemic, and wicked.

The problem with the fires is that they are presented as unprecedented, and without parallel in the popular press. And getting the finger for the blame are the peasant farmers who practice slash-and-burn agricultural to clear fields for increased cattle production. Many people in the U.S., therefore, have called for a trade boycott of Brazilian beef.

But slash-and-burn peasants aren’t the only problem in the Amazon. Mining is huge, and builds roads that peasants follow to open up land. Without those roads (and there have been multiple controversies over various roads over the decades) there would be far less opportunity for slash-and-burn ag, as well as indigenous displacement and illegal logging.

But even worse is the growth of large-scale soybean cultivation across the combined Pantanal/Amazon ecosystem. For those that have never heard of the Pantanal, it is the largest wetland ecosystem in the world, and blends the watershed of the Paraná and Paraguay river with the Amazon river, only being separated from that watershed by a low divide. (The topography is a bit more complicated than what I’ve described here, but you hopefully get the idea.)

You can witness this for yourself. Go to Google Maps, and put in the term ‘Mato Grosso’ — the name for the state (along with the Mato Grosso do Sul) where part of the Pantanal is. Or Google ‘Xingu reserve’. Zoom in around the edges of the reserve and you’ll see clearly demarcated mega-farms.

We are offered the notion that the number of fires occurring in the Amazon are at unprecedented levels. It IS a problem!!! But I’ve also worked on fire science in an earlier life, and the way one determines the real extent of fires is by looking at acreage, which is only available after the season ends. Maybe it’s the worst in history. But maybe not.

And land conversion for soy farming has continued apace across these two critical ecosystems — both the Pantanal and Amazon — as long as I’ve followed the issue, which is about twenty years of awareness. Originally, the driver was Japanese agri-business finding appropriate soil amendments to Pantanal and north soils so they could grow soybeans. I can’t find any of that mentioned in the current news, but apparently much of the current soybean production is going to China for hog raising. Maybe. Everyone in that part of the world has soy as a core element in the diet, so I’m not sure I’m ready to believe that completely, though rising demand for meat certainly plays into the cause-and-effect.

So — there is a hue and cry from the various countries of the G-7 for trade embargoes of Brazil, if Bolsonaro doesn’t fix the problems with the Amazon fires. A paltry amount of money is offered up to fight said fires — $20M or something. To put this in perspective, $20M would be a modest size fire season in central Idaho. And I’ll bet you thought that central Idaho mostly has just potatoes. (It doesn’t — it’s the last big forested wilderness complex in the lower 48 of the U.S. See below.)

Upper Fish Creek in the Clearwater Country of central Idaho

And Brazilian beef imports into the United States make about .5% of the total supply. We just don’t buy much Brazilian beef, with Canada next door, and Australia behaving felicitously.

OK — it’s Wicked Problem time (with a few assumptions.) We believe the problem is the poor Brazilian vaqueiros (cowboys). But it’s at least a 50/50 split with people who a.) have a product that vegans don’t object to (soybeans) and larger PR firms can make money off of. We might be facing an enormous die-off of the forest (so say some scientists) because of the ‘unprecedented number of wildfires’ (remember that acreage comment) and that’s the end of the Lungs of the Earth. All this is compelling stuff.

So let’s do that trade boycott!

Except —

a.) The trade boycott likely will have unintended consequences. Brazil, rejected by the West, will turn to China and the rising Asian economies, who will demand even more soybeans and cattle. Thus making the problem even worse.

b.) The Amazon may or may not be the Lungs of the Earth. Most of the CO2 is absorbed in the ocean, and the Amazon works closer to a 50/50 balance (at night, trees let off CO2!) and the Amazon is equatorial. The Amazon may affect global weather (I’m more inclined to believe this than the CO2 argument.) But no one really knows.

c.) Amazon die-back? Maybe. But there is deep historical record that a good hunk before our current European era was settled by native civilizations that were not small, and rather extensive. A great book by Buddy Levy, River of Darkness: Francisco Orellana’s Legendary Voyage of Death and Discovery Down the Amazon, describes the river at a landscape level. And there are a ton of people living down there — not in a jungle setting. After those people were removed, due to disease, etc. THEN it became the jungle that we know.

If there’s a lesson in all this regarding solving Wicked Problems, it’s this. If you want a real solution, at least to part of the system, you have to constrain the system boundary so that part of the system more resembles a closed system. And that constraint has to make some global sense.

All my friends who work on creating protected reserves will like this outcome, in this circumstance. The way to protect the Amazon/Pantanal system is to protect the landscape. There are, of course, many ways to do this. But it’s the only thing you can be assured will actually do some good — even in the hyper-connected, globalized world of today.

The rest of the actions start unrolling unintended consequences, that are largely driven by our own cultural/personal biases. No one’s mentioning soybeans, because the vegans aren’t going to like that. No one’s mentioning large plant agribusiness, because those guys have better press agents. And no one’s talking about the uncertainty in the impact of the fires, because that would (in their mind, and probably correctly) add to complacency.

What’s the point of all this? It’s not to do nothing. But we have to prioritize actions that assess across the total threats to a given system, and peel off actions with some hope of close-able boundaries. Being aware of how unaware we may actually be is not a bad place to start.

How to create emergent solutions for Wicked Problems is a WHOLE ‘other ball of wax. But that’s enough for today. And that chain of thought is an ongoing discussion.

2 thoughts on “Wicked Problems — Understanding how the Amazon is Burning, and How to Save It

  1. Always thought provoking. Thank you Chuck. One of the main problems with modern hominids compounded by sheer numbers is our tendency to foreclose on emergent solutions within closed systems by force of immediate( if only perceived/projected )need. These foreclosures accelerate of course right to our front door, then the door itself is consumed. We look for solutions in a panic. Tragicomedy ensues. As ever, thanks again for your pungent advocacy of remaining engaged. Salud ! North/central Idaho.


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