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Forests on fire

Forests on fire

– a complex situation with vast involvement

Over the last weeks, the fires in the Amazon rainforest have been the focus of social media posts all over the world. The hashtag #prayforamazonas has urged the media to cover the fires, and people to take action. There are forest fires in the Amazon every year, so why have this year´s fires gotten more attention than usual? Compared to 2018, the number of fires in Brazil increased with 82 %. More than half of these fires happens in the Amazon, and about 30 % in the Cerrado (source: globo.com, 23.08.19) – a biome that is found in large parts of central-western Brazil. Brasília (where we, Thomas Røkås and Ane Omland, are based this year) is located in the Cerrado. As part of a three-year long project within Hostelling International (HI), we are working with sustainability in the hostels. Since the Amazon is a biome that benefits the entire world, we found it pertinent to dig a bit deeper into the events.

Here in Brasília, we have not felt the ramifications of the fires per se, and the city has not been covered by a “blanket” of smoke like in São Paulo. However, the fires have been covered in the media here in the capital, and on the 23rd of August there was a big demonstration in the streets of Brasília, with one main purpose: to save the Amazon. It was great to see the involvement of all the people that participated in the peaceful demonstration. This commitment among the people got us wondering what guests and staff at the HI hostels we work with think about the situation.

Praying for the Amazon

At Hostel7 in Brasília, we had the pleasure to talk to some of the guests. Sylwia (38) is polish but lives in London. When we met her, she had just come back from a two months long retreat in the Amazon. Sylwia tells us that when she was in the Amazon, she did not know about the fires. Nobody talked about it, and it was first when she got back to a town with internet that she heard about it. When asked if there is anything she as an individual can do about the situation, Sylwia says that in the forest the natives taught her how to pray, and that she will pray for the Amazon. She explains how the tribe she visited has opened up their society and are focusing more on tourism in order to benefit from the income this can generate. The idea is that tourists learn about the native lifestyle and the connection to the nature, while the local community earns money which can be used for school and healthcare.

More complex than we think

At Hostel7, we also talked to André Perotto (35), hostel owner and manager. “The situation in the Amazon is much more complex than it seems like”, André says, and explains that the interpretation of what is going on depends on if you look at it from the political of environmental perspective. According to André, what is sure is that this year´s forest fires have tarnished Brazil´s image, at least Brazil as a sustainable tourist destination. “Are tourists going to want to come here and visit a country that does not seem to care about sustainability and environmental issues?”, he asks, rhetorically. On the other hand, André also mentions that the fact that information about the Amazon is being spread all over the world might be a positive thing for Brazil. “When people hear more about the Amazon and the bio-diversity that is found there, who knows – maybe more tourists will come?”, he says hopefully.

André explains that there have been worse forest fires in the Amazon than this year. However, this year is an evidence of the intensity with which such fires appear. When asked what can be done about the situation, André expresses that what is needed is diplomacy and to raise awareness. When it comes to what he as a hostel manager can do, André mentions the “demonstrations” on social media in order to raise awareness and pressure politicians. “As a hostel manager, I feel that I have a responsibility to do something, because tourism is my livelihood, and Brazil´s image is important to me”, André says. He continues by explaining that also the Cerrado suffers from fires every year, albeit it does not get the same international coverage as the Amazon. The Cerrado burns easier than the Amazon, and Hostel7 has made a partnership with an organization that works with the reforestation. Every reservation made at Hostel7 will turn into a tree in the Cerrado region (without the guests paying anything extra), and the guests will be informed about this, as a way of raising awareness.

Planting small seeds in everyone´s hearts

At the heart of the Cerrado, some 200 kilometers north of Brasília, the beautiful Chapada dos Veadeiros is found, known for its many waterfalls. Here, we have stayed at Hostel Catavento (located in the town of Alto Paraíso) on several occasions. The receptionist at the hostel, Pedro Oliveira (25), says that the situation in the Amazon is extremely sad, and at the same a wakeup call; “Living here in Alto Paraíso I am surrounded by people that care about preserving the nature, so I end up thinking that most people think this way. But when something like this happens, at this scale, in this huge rainforest, which is important for the entire world, you see that we are really quite far from an ideal world. For me it is a reality shock, which tells me that there is a lack of consciousness, and too many profit-interests”. When asked what hostels can do to help, Pedro says that the most important thing is to increase the general consciousness. He suggests that hostels can use the Amazon case as a starting point to inform about sustainability and nature preservation. “Hostels can, for example, put up signs about sustainability, which will influence staff and guests. It is an educational job”, Pedro explains; “We have to explain that this is a problem. If people gain more awareness they will start caring”.

Hostel Catavento is among the most sustainable hostels we have visited during our travels in Brazil, and Liege Alves (57), the hostel owner, has a lot of knowledge about sustainability. “Environmental issues always affect everyone”, she says, and continues: “The most incredible thing about the Amazon, being a rainforest, it that it takes care of the humidity, the climate, in the world. If we kill off the Amazon, the world will become a desert”. Liege talks about how in addition to plants and trees, animals and microsystems in the rainforest are affected by climate changes and fires. “In addition to this, the Amazon is such a rich territory, so people from all over the world have, during many years, taken advantage of the wood, the mining, and the other resources found there. The Amazon is also a natural pharmacy, which can cure innumerous illnesses”, she says. Liege describes the Amazon as the world´s natural air-condition, and states that the rainforest has so much water that it cannot be put on fire by itself, which means that the fires are human-made.

When asked about what the hostels can do about the situation, Liege says that they can use the hostel´s Instagram and Facebook-accounts to spread awareness. On an individual level, Liege mentions participating in demonstrations, eating less meat, reducing our use of disposables, reusing, recycling, and she says, “I like to plant a small seed in the hearts of everyone I meet by talking about the environment”.

Brazilians in Norway – frustration and commitment

Our project (Say HI to Sustainability) consists of us two Norwegians working in Brazil, and two Brazilians working in Norway. How has it been for our Brazilian colleagues to be in Norway during the last weeks? Amarílis Coelho (29) explains that she gets frustrated when this happens in a country as rich in natural resources as Brazil. “Being in Norway and not being able to participate in the demonstrations in Brazil is what mostly affects me. However, I try to help in any way I can online, and I participated in a demonstration here in Kongsberg”, she says. Amarílis also organized a movie night at Kongsberg Vandrerhjem, where An Incovenient Truth was screened, a documentary about global warming. Our other colleague, Emília Barreto (36) participated in Klimabrølet (The Climate Roar) in Oslo, a big manifestation that supports political parties that put the environment and the climate first. “Being in Norway for the last six months has helped me gain a new perspective on sustainability. The country has some of the highest recycling rates in the world and many well-preserved landscapes. Norwegians are passionate about nature, and they know how to balance economic and environmental aspects”, Emília says. She also says that she feels powerless when it comes to the events in the rainforest. “The Amazon is home to a myriad of unique and endangered plants and animals, who can only survive in this region. The deforestation also affects other ecosystems and contributes to global warming. We need to take action now before the damages become irreversible”, Emília urges.

How the Brazilian tourist industry will be affected by the fires in the Amazon is still too soon to tell. Nevertheless, let this be a wakeup call for us all and a motivation to lead a more sustainable lifestyle, and follow some of the tips from the dedicated people quoted in this article. Because, even though the politicians are the ones that can do most about the climate crisis, we as individuals can also do our part. For example, we can ditch plastic, consume locally, walk or take our bike to work, eat less meat, spread awareness about sustainability and climate change, and join a demonstration for the environment. Keep praying for the Amazon and join a more sustainable life! Say HI to Sustainability!

 

Written by: Ane Omland and Thomas Røkås