November 20th, 2009
Published in the Huffington Post
The following post was originally delivered at the UN General Assembly’s meeting on climate change on Thursday, November 19th.
It has been 20 years since Sting and I first visited Brazil, and met some of the people for whom the Amazon rainforest is home. On that trip we saw for ourselves the sickening destruction that was taking place. One of the world’s most precious resources simply being cleared out of the way, used up, wasted.
We met people who lived in the forest, who’d lost their land, their way of life, their families. We met a Kayapo tribesman called Raoni, who asked us to help him deliver a message to the world. Raoni’s message was this, as he spoke of the burning of the rainforest:
“There is a lot of smoke. My people are very sick. But whatever happens in my forest today will affect all of you, in your lands, tomorrow.” Well, as we all know, “tomorrow” is already here.
Over 20 years the work of the Rainforest Foundation has spread from Brazil to 18 countries, on three continents. The Foundations based in the UK, the U.S. and Norway work in partnership with more than 100 local organizations in all major rainforest areas.
We’ve protected over 115,000 sq km of forest, as well as an area bigger than Switzerland for the Kayapo nation.
Projects now underway aim to save nearly one million square kilometers of rainforest — that’s the size of the United Kingdom, Ireland and France.
Alongside our remit to conserve the environment, we support hundreds of thousands of forest peoples in their mission to protect their own rights to their land, livelihoods and culture. But against the relentless tide of land-grabbing, logging and forest-clearing by multinational corporations, none of this is enough.
One of the great tragedies of the ancient world was the burning of the great library of Alexandria. Countless volumes of accumulated knowledge were destroyed, and the wisdom of centuries was turned into smoke that cast a cloud, it is said, over the whole planet.
Today we face a tragedy even greater. The people of the Amazon have no writing.
Their library is the forest. Their university is the forest. Their church is the forest.
Every day we are burning down the library that has taken thousands of years to grow. Every day we are burning down the natural laboratory that could hold a cure for AIDS, a cure for cancer. We are burning down the kitchen that tomorrow could feed the world.
There is an area of the Ecuadorean rainforest I’ve been visiting for the last few years, which was once a paradise on earth. In the 1960s, however, Texaco — later bought by Chevron — started prospecting for oil there. The drilling practices employed by Texaco and inherited by Chevron had been outlawed in the U.S. since the 1930s. But it was cheaper to take shortcuts.
That region is now described by independent assessors as one of the most contaminated industrial sites in the world.
Chevron have admitted to dumping 18 and a half billion gallons of toxic waste directly into the rivers and onto the ground — that’s 30 times more than the pure crude spilled in the Exxon-Valdez disaster.
One thousand unfenced and untreated dumpsites still leak toxic and carcinogenic chemicals into the rivers and streams, 16 years after the company pulled out of the region in 1992. As a result, the water contains 280 times more hydrocarbons than is permitted here in the U.S.
On my visits to the region, I have spoken to mothers who know that the water they give their children to drink is poisoned but they’ve simply had no choice. I met Maria Garafolo, a 38-year-old mother, who has cancer of the uterus. Her 18-year-old daughter, Sylvia, has cancer of the liver. They showed me the stream where they collect their water. It stinks of petroleum. Nothing grows there. The animals they rear to sell at market die in the toxic environment. It’s no surprise to me that Maria and Sylvia are also extremely ill. A spokesperson for Chevron counters that these diseases are due to poor personal hygiene and sanitation. That’s as cruelly cynical as it is preposterous.
And so in 2007, the Rainforest Foundation joined hands with Unicef Ecuador and the local Amazon Defense Fund, to provide rainwater collection and filtration tanks for the families affected by the oil production damage. Now, for the first time in 35 years, mothers can be sure that the water their children drink is free from toxic chemicals. This band-aid solution will have to do until Chevron accepts its responsibility to the people whose lands and lives they have devastated.
What has happened in Ecuador is not an isolated incident. On the contrary. It is a microcosm of how the world works.
Whichever area of the Amazon I’ve visited since the late 80s, it is always the same tragic tale. Sometimes it’s about oil, sometimes it’s gold, or cattle-ranching. But whatever it’s about, it’s always about corporate profit. And nobody is holding these big businesses accountable.
In the 20 years Sting and I have been involved in rainforest issues, not once has there been meaningful government consultation with indigenous forest people about the development of their ancestral lands. The UN’s declaration of their rights has not been bound by governments. In fact this week Sting will be adding his voice to the chorus of indigenous Amazon people in protest against the lack of information shared about the Belo Monte dam in the Xingu river in Brazil.
It is time for all governments and industry leaders to work together with indigenous rainforest peoples to preserve this vital natural resource.
Rainforests once covered 14 percent of the earth’s land surface. Now they only cover 6 percent. Once they have been decimated to the tipping point, there will be no way back. We will face such extreme weather conditions that our planet will no longer support human life.
In March of this year a group of climate scientists met in Copenhagen, and agreed that the climate situation was actually much worse than we’d thought. It is now believed that there needs to be a 40% reduction in carbon emissions by 2020, rising to over 90% by 2030.
We are now hearing that global temperatures could rise by 6 degrees by the end of this century. Do we want to be the generation that destroyed ourselves? What will it take for us to stop hiding from these terrible truths?
There is a way out of this mess. But we have to face the truth, and we have to embrace change. We can’t leave it to the next government, and the next generation.
It’s time to take the responsibility — not by 2020, not by 2050 — but NOW, to cut carbon emissions decisively and urgently.
Deforestation accounts for around 20% of the world’s carbon emissions.
Simply halting deforestation would be the single fastest and cheapest way to make a significant reduction. So why aren’t we doing it?
Land is exploited, human rights are abused and precious resources are plundered, because we have allowed mahogany sideboards and cheap beef burgers to hold more intrinsic value than human life.
It seems that forests are worth nothing until they’ve been turned into toilet paper.
Land is worth nothing until it is producing something that can be sold on the world markets. We have allowed the dollar, the pound and the petrol in our tanks to rule the world.
We have recently proved that we lack the wisdom to look after the global economy.
Never mind the global economy, it’s the globe itself that’s in danger. We are now at a turning-point in our short human history. As the world’s financial systems begin to settle, we have a unique opportunity to shift our focus, to change our priorities.
We don’t have to make a choice between the economy and the environment.
A transition to a clean economic system — one that values vital natural systems, one that understands the cost of pollution and waste — will open up huge opportunities.
The shift is inevitable. Countries can’t stop it. They can only slow it down. And as they do, they will be left behind.
As a species, we have overcome far greater obstacles. We’ve landed men on the moon. We’ve developed weapons capable of destroying whole countries.
The challenge you will face at Copenhagen is far less daunting. But the implications of failure are literally immeasurable.
Twenty years ago, the world did not heed Raoni’s message. Now that we know he was right, will we heed it now?
I want to end with a very personal appeal to each and every one of you. The very fact that you are in this room today means that you are powerful. When billions of poor people think about the global elite holding the collective fate of the planet in their hands, they are thinking of you.
The United Nations was created to bring order and responsibility to our world.
It is a magnificent testament to much that is good in humankind. You are the inheritors of that tradition. You are the keepers of that sacred flame. I am asking you — no, I am begging you — to live up to your responsibilities. Don’t settle for warm words and fine-sounding declarations. Don’t accept clever compromises.
As we go forward to Copenhagen, the signs are not good. In the face of the greatest crisis our world has faced for generations, too many powerful people are behaving with shocking irresponsibility. Instead of meeting the challenge of climate change, they are sidelining it in favor of short-term priorities. Instead of building a sustainable global economy, they are ignoring it in favor of short-term growth.
Instead of telling their citizens the truth, they are obscuring it in favor of comforting lies about painless solutions.