Wales and the Amazon: Taking responsibility for the impact of global imports

Image description: An area of deforestation

A 2021 report by the World Wide Fund for Nature Cymru (WWF Cymru), the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds Cymru (RSPB Cymru) and Size of Wales titled “Wales and Global Responsibility: Addressing Wales’ Overseas Land Footprint” emphasizes the ways in which Welsh imports of cocoa, palm oil, beef, leather, natural rubber, soy and forest commodities has a direct impact on rates of deforestation and biodiversity loss. Given the alarming rates at which the Amazon rainforest is declining, Wales has a responsibility to find alternative ways of acquiring these commodities for environmental and social reasons. 

As indicated by the Institute of Welsh Affairs, figures indicate that around 20 percent of the Amazon rainforest has been lost already. Should another five percent of the rainforest be lost, then this would likely trigger an “irreversible tipping point where the Amazon will no longer be able to sustain itself as a tropical rainforest.” Given the rainforest’s capacity to remove greenhouse gases from our atmosphere, such a loss of the rainforest as such would be devastating in our ability to combat climate change. The Amazon itself also houses at least 10 percent of the world’s known biodiversity, including species that are endemic only to the Amazon. 

uncontacted groups are especially vulnerable to deforestation, forest-fires, and subsequent contact with alien pathogen

But, furthermore, the loss of the Amazon itself would be disastrous for an already perilously socially-located minority group: that of indigenous peoples who have their homes in the Amazon. Already, these groups are hard-hit by deforestation and the increase in rates of forest fires– both of which often go hand-in-hand. As Mongabay indicates, forest fires are often started when farmers or ranchers illegally begin fires as a means of clearing land for planting or ranching. These fires have destroyed the ancestral lands of various groups, like the Awá people who live on Bananal Island. In 2019, 80 percent of their island’s forest burned.

Furthermore, these forest fires often force indigenous people into contact with other groups whom they have never interacted with before. The results of this, particularly in a pandemic, are disastrous. As Survival International indicates, uncontacted groups are especially vulnerable to deforestation, forest-fires, and subsequent contact with alien pathogens, for there is little to no immunity to certain diseases within these isolated communities. 

Welsh imports could be responsible for “not only deforestation but indigenous blood.”

The aforementioned environmental effects from deforestation and forest fires directly impact these communities as well. Decreased biodiversity implies decreased food sovereignty for these indigenous groups. Furthermore, contamination of water sources as a result of forest fires is common, and leads to the spread of more disease within indigenous groups. The pollution of waterways further decreases food sovereignty as aquatic biodiversity is negatively impacted as well. 

For these reasons, Rivelino Verá Gabriel, a Mbya Guarani indigenous chief, has warned that Welsh imports could be responsible for “not only deforestation but indigenous blood.” The previously mentioned 2021 report indicates that “an area nearly half the size of Wales” was necessary to provide for Welsh imports of beef, leather, soy and other forest commodities, all of which contributed to deforestation, greenhouse gas emission, and habitat conversion. In particular, imports of soy, beef, leather, timber and pulp and paper all originate primarily from Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Argentina– countries with high risk factors related to deforestation and/or social issues. 

What are the implications of the report, exactly? For one thing, the report itself has a section devoted to recommendations which should be implemented in lieu of the analysis on Welsh imports and the imports that these have on the Amazon and other at-risk areas. These recommendations can be split, roughly, at two different scales: one emphasising what larger groups, such as corporations and governmental organisations can do and the other emphasising what individuals can do, to help reduce the damaging effects of Welsh imports.

Corporations should seek to engage with those who are committed to upholding a standard of human rights

The report calls on corporations to “develop concrete, time-bound and ambitious action plans and policies to commit to supply chains that are free from deforestation, conversion and social exploitation.” Practically, this would involve corporations carefully reviewing the agricultural partners they choose to engage with, ensuring that these engage in ethical farming practices. For example, corporations should not engage with farmers and ranchers who intentionally and illegally set fires for the purposes of clearing land, as this leads to deforestation, habitat destruction and significant harm to indigenous groups in areas like the Amazon. Corporations should seek to engage with those who are committed to upholding a standard of human rights, both in the people directly employed in the supply chain and the people who may be affected by the supply chain (i.e., indigenous groups who live in the Amazon). 

Furthermore, corporations should invest in sustainable initiatives– insofar as agricultural and ranching practices are dependent on intentionally setting fires and destroying forests, these practices are not sustainable. Lack of sustainability has economic, environmental, and social drawbacks in the long-term: by depriving ourselves of natural resources and the means by which to replenish them, we also deplete our economic resources, and the resources which indigenous groups directly depend on, and which we, ultimately, depend on as well.

Finally, corporations should work hand-in-hand with the British government and other governments to broker trade agreements that ultimately support sustainable and ethical initiatives aimed at protecting the Amazon and other at-risk environments. Sustainable and ethical initiatives ought to be incentivised by governmental authorities to encourage Welsh, and other industries abroad, to switch to these initiatives. Given that this switch; however, is ultimately a process of transition, governmental authorities should also provide programs to facilitate Welsh farmers and corporate partners to switch to these different initiatives as well. 

Finally, on the individual consumer: it is imperative that we as individuals try to be as conscientious as possible in our buying choices. As a cook from a Cardiff burger restaurant Aled Hill articulates, “It’s important that people question where produce comes from, where the meat comes from, where the food comes from because you don’t know whether something you buy is causing huge damage overseas.”

Image credits: gryffyn m via Unsplash