I was 15 when fires engulfed the Mediterranean forests around my city in coastal Tuscany. I still have vivid memories of the sinister red of the night sky, the acrid smell and the difficulty to breathe.
Days later I walked through that forest with the most intense feeling of devastation, waste, sadness. Months after that, with the first rains, the sea and the beaches were turned black by the ash carried by the water.
A reminder of the far-reaching impact of that incident. Then, the fires ‘just’ destroyed a few thousand hectares. Fast forward two decades and I lived through the same experience in Sumatra, only on a much bigger scale and impact.
The same unnatural “cloudy” sky, pungent smell and breathing difficulties were experienced in Sao Paulo a few weeks ago, originating from fires thousands of miles away in the Amazon. People in Southeast Asia are experiencing the transboundary haze, as Indonesia experiences its worst annual fire season since 2015.
And these are just one of the many forest fires burning across the globe right now. Bolivia, Paraguay, Angola, Russia…the list goes on. The causes for these fires may be different but sadly, the impacts for people, wildlife and ecosystems are the same. As is the common thread of despair.
Since I was a teenager, science has advanced tremendously and we know better now the contribution forests bring to our lives, helping stabilise the climate, freshwater supply, sources of food, medicines, livelihoods and at times, even creative inspiration. And yet, each forest fire is a reminder that maybe our knowledge hasn’t changed at all. And many million reminders on, we still haven’t learnt.
After massive losses in the 70s through the 90s, local and global awareness and political campaigns led to new laws and corporate commitments that significantly curbed deforestation in the Amazon, which has become the world’s most iconic forest. Brazil was looked at as an example of controlling deforestation. And yet, today, it is seeing rampant deforestation.
The fires burning today are no doubt caused by a complex set of factors driven by accelerating pressure on land and natural resources. It essentially comes down to two interlinked elements: political leadership and land use planning (or lack thereof). And the clash of two fundamental cultural values that appear to often place people at odds with the planet that sustains us: short-term individual interests versus long-term public good.
The mismanagement of our forests is, sadly, reflective of our broader relationship with our natural world.
Marco Lambertini, director general, WWF International
Since humans stopped being full-time hunters and gatherers, forests have increasingly been cleared for ‘economic’ activities. Today, the flames sparked by tens of thousands of small fires - driven by land grabbing, illegal mining, land clearing for agricultural use, and unsustainable infrastructure development - highlight the collapse of land use planning and strong landscape governance. And in the ‘crossfire’, it is the indigenous communities and wildlife that depend on these forests that suffer the most.
The mismanagement of our forests is, sadly, reflective of our broader relationship with our natural world. The way we currently produce, use and consume is catastrophically undermining the natural systems upon which we depend.
Science is clear that humanity’s overexploitation of the earth’s resources is damaging our land, our lakes and rivers, and our oceans — with shocking impacts for people and nature. Since 1970, again within my lifetime, wildlife populations have declined on average by 60 per cent, while the environmental instability we face is on the rise.
It is time for a New Deal for Nature and People, a deal that ensures nature, and the people who depend on it the most, are not undermined for short-term gains. This deal must address today’s main drivers of deforestation and nature loss – agriculture, infrastructure and illegal and unsustainable logging – within a broader move to place sustainability at the heart of our political, economic and social systems.
At the UN General Assembly this week, WWF is convening a meeting of world leaders on the need for an Emergency Declaration to protect nature and people. With the renegotiation of key international treaties – including the Sustainable Development Goals – coming up next year, we have an unmissable opportunity to course correct.
The Amazon and Sumatran fires, along with the many others around the world, reflect a planet in crisis. They must also become a rallying cry to action.
From the ashes, we need to build a future where nature and people can thrive together.
Marco Lambertini is Director General at WWF International.
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