[Editor's Note: Bill Ulfelder is the Executive Director of The Nature Conservancy in New York. Bill recently returned from a trip to Brazil with volunteer leaders from five chapters. While Bill has lived and worked in South America for many years, it was his first trip to Brazil.]
“Go see the Amazon before it’s gone.”
Those were the words of my granddad, Col. Robert B. Simpson (Ret.), to me nearly 25 years ago. I was weighing my options for a summer overseas. My granddad, a geographer, had been stationed in Brazil during WWII, mapping the Amazon for the U.S. Army in case it became a theater of war. He told stories about lush forests, massive rivers and abundant wildlife. One could see the vast, unbroken forests in his mind’s eye.
But when we had this conversation in 1989 the Amazon was burning. Roads were starting to crisscross the region, massive fires were burning, deforestation was increasing and it felt like it was only a matter of time before it was all gone.
I remembered my long ago conversation with my granddad a few weeks ago, as I dragged my hand through the “meeting of the waters” – where the Negro and Solimoes Rivers come together at Manaus, in the heart of Brazil, to form the Amazon.
Thankfully, a lot has changed since then.
Deforestation rates in the Amazon are their lowest levels since data began to be collected. The Brazilian government has a very progressive forest code that requires large portions of land owners’ properties to remain in standing forest. Companies, like Cargill, are requiring that farmers who supply them with soy to comply with the forest code, and The Nature Conservancy is providing the government with the scientific and geographic information that helps them work with farmers to grow soy sustainably.
This same approach is now being used with livestock producers, the real drivers of deforestation in the region, so they can raise cattle and keep the forest intact. And the Conservancy is working with the Brazilian indigenous federation to assist the native people of Brazil steward the 250 million acres of ancestral lands that the government has transferred to their management – one fifth the Brazilian Amazon.
Many scientists believe that if half the Amazon is cut down it will come undone. Rainfall patterns will change, and the ecology and hydrology of the region will be forever altered. I came to appreciate on my trip that there are now strategies in place that will help prevent this from happening. We’re not there yet, but people are grappling with solutions, not writing the region’s obituary. Brazil can become a global economic powerhouse and keep one of the world’s greatest treasures intact. In fact, what Brazil understands, is that in order to thrive economically it needs the Amazon Forest.
I look forward to giving my grandchildren advice about their travel plans many years from now. I know what I will say… “Go see the Amazon. It is a marvel to behold.”
[Image: Bill Ulfelder in the Amazon. Image source: TNC]