Podcast - Ep 58: What will become of the Amazon?

Jeremy Campbell speaks with President Washington on his podcast Access to Excellence. Jeffrey is a white male, bald head, wearing a blue suit jacket and unbuttoned collared shirt.
What will become of the Amazon?

Jeremy Campbell, associate director for strategic engagement in George Mason University’s Institute for a Sustainable Earth, says that at its current pace the vast Amazon rainforest, in five to 10 years, could pass a tipping point in which it could transform into grasslands. That process, fueled by deforestation and climate change, is a threat to the biodiversity and socio-cultural aspects that define the region, and has global implications as well. In this fascinating conversation in recognition of Earth Month, Campbell explains to Mason President Gregory Washington the magnitude of what the loss of the Amazon rainforest would really mean, and how the Institute for a Sustainable Earth in on the front lines in the region.

Where there used to be forest, you’re not going to get any more of that transpiration cycle, and so the drying isn’t limited to the places where deforestation happens. Where things are dry, things get hotter. And then when you add like we had last year with the horrible situation throughout the Amazon of an El Nino-induced heat spike and drought, then you have villages that rely on fish, rely on the rivers to get around because the rivers are the highways of the Amazon, who are literally stranded. So the drying out of the Amazon is a tremendous biodiversity challenge, it’s also a tremendous economic challenge. But it’s also a human tragedy that is taking tremendous costs on the people of the Amazon as well."

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Narrator (00:04):

Trailblazers in research, innovators in technology, and those who simply have a good story. All make up the fabric that is George Mason University, where taking on the grand challenges that face our students, graduates, and higher education is our mission and our passion. Hosted by Mason President Gregory Washington, this is the Access to Excellence podcast.

Gregory Washington (00:26):

The Amazon Basin, which holds the world's biggest river rainforest and a fifth of its fresh water is running dry. That was the news in the Washington Post recently. The New York Times went even further citing a study that says the Amazon rainforest could transform into grasslands in the coming decades because of climate change, deforestation, and severe drought, such as the one the region just experienced. Jeremy Campbell is a cultural anthropologist who studies land conflicts and environmental change in the Brazilian Amazon. He is also the associate director for strategic engagement at Mason's Institute for Sustainable Earth. Since 2020, Dr. Campbell has served as the president of the Society of Anthropology of Lowland South America. That's an international scholarly organization that advocates on behalf of peoples and environments in Amazonia and beyond. In this Earth Month, I am thrilled that Dr. Campbell has given us an opportunity to engage. Welcome Dr. Campbell.

Jeremy Campbell (01:44):

Thank you so much Dr. Washington. It's a pleasure to be here.

Gregory Washington (01:47):

Well, it's great to have you. So let's get right to the bad news.

Jeremy Campbell (01:51):

Yeah, let's do it.

Gregory Washington (01:53):

According to the Times and the study that was produced by an international team of scientists and published in the Journal Nature, the collapse of all or part of the Amazon rainforest would release the equivalent of several years of global emissions, possibly 20 years’ worth, into the atmosphere. Give us a template or an understanding for how that actually happens.

Jeremy Campbell (02:19):

Sure. It's complex inherently because the Amazon is, is a very complex region. But to understand what's really going on, you have to really appreciate the size and the immensity and the complexity of the Amazon, which I think for most North Americans, certainly me growing up, I didn't really have much of an understanding other than maybe the, uh, back of the cereal box image of the canopy rainforest with monkeys and toucans and things like this. But you know, the Amazon is vast. It's the size of the lower 48 United States. Yeah, the Amazon Basin is that big.

Gregory Washington (02:51):

The Amazon Basin is the size of essentially the US minus Alaska and Hawaii.

Jeremy Campbell (02:58):

You got it. That's it. It's amazing. Yeah. Not only that, there are nine different nation states that share a portion of that basin going around from Bolivia in the southwest up to Peru, Ecuador, Columbia, Venezuela, Guiana, Surinam, French Guiana, which is an overseas part of the French Republic, so it's part of Europe, it's part of the EU. And then of course Brazil is the lion's share about 70% of the basin. You mentioned Dr. Washington, your stats are good. Your research is good that the Amazon is the world's biggest river by water discharge. Yes. But if you look at the top 20 hydrological discharges rivers in the world, six of them are tributaries of the Amazon. So you've got seven of the top 20 rivers in the world. Right. In that region. Okay. So it is a region that is so immense and so complex to say nothing of the diversity of different river types.

Jeremy Campbell (03:49):

You have black river systems, you have clear water systems, you have white water systems. The subbasins are very complex. What that all adds up to is with this immense area, with immense amounts of water, it is big enough to generate its own weather. And so when we talk about the tipping point, the looming tipping point that actually our departed colleague Tom Lovejoy coined that phrase back in 2018. It's the idea that the neotropics, the subtropical system that is the Amazon is in danger of phase shifting from a robust complex rainforest to something like a Savannah, a grassland, or even in some cases something more like the Sahel region of Northern Africa

Gregory Washington (04:35):

That's near desert.

Jeremy Campbell (04:35):

That's near desert. Exactly. And so how can that happen?

Gregory Washington (04:38):

Now, now let's, let's put it in perspective. You're talking five years, we're talking five decades, or we're talking 500 years? What are we talking about?

Jeremy Campbell (04:49):

Great question. So back in 2018, when Dr. Lovejoy and his colleague Dr. Carlos Nobre from the University of Sao Paulo, published in Nature, the first warning about the tipping point, they estimated what it would take to get to the tipping point is a gross deforestation of approximately 20 to 25% of the land in the entire basin. That was in 2018. At that time, about 18% of the basin had been deforested. Flash ahead six years we're at about 20% of the basin has been deforested. So depending on the projections, and depending on what we might be able to do to put the brakes on deforestation, we might be looking at a tipping point in the next five to 10 years. And again, to put that in perspective, you have the wettest place on earth, some parts of that place becoming a savanna due to deforestation,

Jeremy Campbell (05:40):

but the other crucial part, we can handle deforestation. It's difficult, but we can handle it. The other contributing factor to the tipping point is climate change. And that we're locked into in terms of warming that's affecting the Amazon. The Amazon is warming faster than other regions. It's already warmed 1.3 degrees Celsius since 1980. And it's on an upward trend. That means that some parts of the Amazon are getting wetter, especially the northern parts of the Amazon. But other parts of the Amazon within the global climate system are getting far, far drier. And that's irrespective of seasonal anomalies like an El Nino or a La Nina, which intensify things even further as we know. So you have deforestation cutting down trees that make their own weather through transpiration and evaporation. The Amazon is big enough to, through the transpiration process, there's literally rivers flying above your head.

Gregory Washington (06:39):

That much water.

Jeremy Campbell (06:39):

That much water. Exactly. And those rivers basically follow the trade winds that come from Senegal, from Cape Verde in Africa, and those winds pick up moisture over the South Atlantic. They pick up all the moisture at the Falls of the Amazon near the city of Belem. And then all of that goes kind of in a southwesterly direction towards the Andes. And the Andes is 20,000 feet high. So what happens when air hits that barrier?

Gregory Washington (07:04):

It turns into ice and snow.

Jeremy Campbell (07:05):

It turns to ice and snow. Some of it turns left, which is to say south and southeast and irrigates, South America's bread basket where most of South America's wheat in Argentina, soy in Paraguay and Bolivia and Brazil is grown. And then of course, cattle and pig operations. South America's economy over the past 20 years has been based on the export of commodities in the agricultural sector to East Asia. You turn off the spigot, which is the Amazon hydrogeological cycle, and you're going to see some drying out of that bread basket as well. And so the Amazon plays a crucial role in the global climate system sequestering carbon, we can get into some of the numbers for that if you like. But it also plays a key role in the hydrological and geochemical cycling beyond its borders in South America, which then has implications for global trade and for wellbeing of people who, you know, we've got 8 billion of us on this planet.

Gregory Washington (08:04):

That’s exactly right

Speaker 3 (08:04):

Hungry souls, right?

Gregory Washington (08:05):

You got more than 8 billion. So climate change is affecting that way. I was also reading in the same Nature article where they were talking about the drought significantly reducing the depth in a number of the rivers and slso causing tremendous warming of the waters in some of the lakes. I think they talk about one of the lakes, I think it's pronounced Tefe

Jeremy Campbell (08:30):

Tefe. Yah, that's in Brazil.

Speaker 2 (08:31):

Yeah, where the temperature had reached 40 degrees Centigrade. For those of us who are challenged on that system, it's 104 degrees Fahrenheit and you had large pods of dolphins over 150 of 'em, these freshwater dolphins that perished. 'cause the water got so warm. So that meant other water life didn't live either. If you major and if you major living, eating and living off and using the sea life that's right in that water for commerce, you probably saw some changes there as well.

Jeremy Campbell (09:09):

Sure. And for subsistence living, I've done a quite a bit of work over the past 20 years with indigenous and other traditional peoples in the Amazon. And you're absolutely right. The stresses caused by climate change and by deforestation, which really do interact with one another dynamically to push us ever closer to that system change, that phase change from a stable system where water gets recycled to one where, you know, when you cut down a tree and around 20% of the forest is gone now, you are drying out that soil. You are drying out that part of that region. And basically the southern strip of the Amazon has been converted to pasture and cities in the past 40, 50 years. Where there used to be forests, you're not gonna get any more of that transpiration cycle. And so the drying isn't limited to the places where deforestation happens, where things are dry, things get hotter.

Jeremy Campbell (10:01):

And then when you add, like we had last year with the horrible situation in Lago Tefe, but all throughout the Amazon of an El Nino induced heat spike and drought, then you have villages that rely on fish, rely on the rivers to get around because the rivers are the highways in the Amazon who are literally stranded without the ability to get to major cities, the without the ability to get healthcare. So the drying out of the Amazon is a tremendous biodiversity challenge. It's also a tremendous economic challenge in the ways we just talked about, but it's also a human tragedy, and it's taking tremendous costs on the people of the Amazon as well.

Gregory Washington (10:41):

Wow. This is a pretty significant outcome. I've always wanted to get a better understanding of the impact that the Amazon can have on the planet in terms of a losing of substantial portion of it. What do you think that will do to the rest of us? So let's say if we lost, let's make it a big number, 50%. What are we talking about relative to what the rest of the globe will feel?

Jeremy Campbell (11:10):

Well, the catastrophic loss of biodiversity, let's take that first, because the Amazon is estimated these are our best guesses.

Gregory Washington (11:18):

I know. I look, I understand.

Jeremy Campbell (11:19):

I mean, it's …

Gregory Washington (11:20):

But your guess is a scientific guess.

Jeremy Campbell (11:24):

Well, that's right. That's right.

Gregory Washington (11:25):

And that's better than me putting my index finger in the air and saying, you know, about, okay, so.

Jeremy Campbell (11:31):

Right, right, right. And so, yeah, for the sake of argument, if we lose half of the rainforest, then I think we're definitely, even though there was some quibbling when Dr. Lovejoy and Dr. Nobre said tipping point will be reached at 25% deforestation. There was some pushback against that. But if we get to 50%, we're definitely seeing a phase change. We're gonna be seeing savannization, we're gonna be seeing the loss of endemic species diversity in the affected valleys. Again, the Amazon is the name we give to the river that goes west to east. But there are huge river systems that go north south and south north that feed that Amazon. And each one has its distinct biodiversity profile and has also distinct sociocultural properties, different social groups who speak different languages. And so, depending on what happens valley by valley, region by region, we could be experiencing a catastrophic loss of biodiversity.

Jeremy Campbell (12:22):

What goes along with that, of course, is part of the mystery of life. Part of what makes us human is that we share this planet with other creatures. And so even before we're able to describe them scientifically, you would see thousands, if not millions of species being pushed to the brink of extinction. Of course, many minds would go towards the opportunity value or the, or the opportunity lost to develop medicines or to develop new technologies based upon things that we don't know, that we don't know in the Amazon, because it is such a biodiversity library. Library is also a good metaphor. Uh, and it's actually a metaphor that's used by my indigenous colleagues when deforestation or drought spikes and begins to challenge and affect indigenous lands. My indigenous colleagues describe that as the libraries of their people burning. Because the trees and the animals and the plant life are part of the traditional knowledge system. Part of how you make your way in the universe, know your place in the universe, find medicine, find food, find stories to pass down to the next generation. And so deforestation plays a sociocultural role in terms of challenging culture's ability to reproduce itself, right? And for people to continue to hold onto their languages and their traditional knowledges and medicines. Also, it's worth saying, because we're talking about climate change, that the system, the broader Amazonian system, sequesters roughly 200 billion tons of carbon dioxide, 200 billion tons. If we lost half of that, let's just go,

Gregory Washington (14:03):

Just cut it in half.

Jeremy Campbell (14:04):

Really gross numbers here, exactly. A hundred billion tons goes into the atmosphere, poof, just like that. We, as the United States of America, the world's second largest emitter emitted 4 billion tons of carbon last year. So that's 25 years’ worth of our emissions.

Gregory Washington (14:21):

Okay, so now we start to get an understanding of the magnitude exactly. Of what this loss can actually mean for us. And that's kind of what I wanted people to kind of grasp. Wow. It's a big number.

Jeremy Campbell (14:36):

It’s a big number. And again, the loss of biodiversity. I mean, here in the United States, we're comfortable. We plug into our cell phones, we plug into cable news, whatever it is, it can feel like the Amazon's far away. But some major drugs have been developed based on traditional ecological knowledge and biodiversity. In the Amazon, for example, the very first drug that treated malaria quinine or quinine, right? Quinine is based on, uh, derived from the bark of a tree in the Amazon. And so that's kind of a big deal, right? There are others. There are,

Gregory Washington (15:09):

And there probably, you know, as we start to, uh, for lack of a better way of putting this, use AI and other tools to look at the pharmaceutical benefits of natural extracts from plants and from plant life and all throughout the planet, but particularly that in the Amazon, we're gonna discover many more.

Jeremy Campbell (15:31):

That’s right, that’s right. So we're putting at peril future discoveries, we're putting at peril a big chunk of the mosaic of life and the big chunk of sociocultural diversity. Part of the bad news in the Amazon is in part the attitude that outsiders have taken and continue to take that understanding the region as a place where you can get rich quick, right? So I, I hear you, and it would be great if we could develop something that would be that elixir, but what the trick would be to develop that drug or develop that therapy and make sure the proceeds stay with the people of the Amazon. Because unfortunately, the more that we study the Amazon, and I've been working there for 25 years, there is chapter after chapter of economic boom that is all about getting a particular commodity out. First it was rubber.

Jeremy Campbell (16:21):

The world's rubber supply was limited to the Amazon basin because it's native to the Amazon basin. So during the industrial revolution of the late 1800s, all the world's rubber came from the Amazon. So that resulted in actually a really bad impact on the Amazon, because rubber is hard to extract. You have to physically cut the trees and collect the sap. So basically slave labor, uh, indigenous peoples were enslaved other peoples from throughout the Americas were taken in and dropped into the Amazon by their bosses and forced to work in really terrible kinds of conditions. And that all basically flamed out when the British, during the British Empire, Grand Britannia, stole some rubber trees and began a rubber plantation in Malaysia, which allowed for other markets and other sources to open up for rubber. Then you get a gold boom, similar kind of extraction, where profits are extracted, leaving behind very little in the region itself. I would argue that the cattle and soy boom that's happening right now is similar. We have 50 million people living in the Amazon, 50 million individuals, 40 million of them live in cities. A lot of people don't understand that either, right? The Amazon is a highly urbanized place.

Gregory Washington (17:34):


Jeremy Campbell (17:34):

There are cities of 4 and 5 million people, but they are very low on the human development index because they are the sites of factories or farms or these sorts of things where labor and environmental protections are looked askant at or really not enforced. And people are getting by as best they can. And the investment that goes to the area, because it is an incredibly rich area, tends not to stay in the area. That's a key piece of this too. The environmental and social sustainability of the area depends on economic sustainability as well. I believe that crucially, you gotta have all three pillars, uh, all three legs of that stool. And that's a key piece that we really do need to be figuring out.

Gregory Washington (18:17):

Well, that brings me to my next question, because recently it was announced that the governments of Brazil and France announced a plan to invest 1.1 billion in the Amazon over the next four years to protect the rainforest, right? Now on first blush, anytime you hear the word billion, you think, wow, it's a lot. But there was a part of me that says, given what you just told me now, it didn't seem like that much money for a region that vast. Now it's also been reported that Brazil has contemplated allowing oil exploration t certain parts of the Amazon as well. So, Can you talk a little bit about these plans and what your thoughts are relative to success?

Jeremy Campbell (18:58):

Absolutely. Yeah. So it is good news that donor countries like Germany, like Norway, like France, like the United States, actually, the United States has pledged just under, I think around seven 50 million to the Amazon Fund, which is an international, it's based in Brazil, but it's an international scoped fund to try to set up conservation areas to set up sustainable business practices, to support community led conservation and all these sorts of things, which really are project by project wonderful examples of keeping the social, the environmental, and the economic flowing in the right direction. So that's to be applauded. But I think you're right. It's a drop in the bucket when compared to the potential revenues that Petrobras, which is Brazil's largest company, and the second largest petroleum company on the planet Sees when they look at oil exploration in the Amazon, and specifically in a place that is all in the news right now. Brazil has been investing in offshore oil drilling technology in the southern part, uh, near Rio, near Sao Paulo.

Jeremy Campbell (20:06):

But a lot of oil has been found just where the Amazon River empties into the Atlantic. It's called the Falls of the Amazon. And so they are moving ahead quickly to begin to develop that area. And we're talking, if it's 1.1 billion that the French and the Germans and the Norwegians have pledged for doling out projects over the next couple years, we'll see 200, 300 multiples of that when it comes to the oil revenue based upon what's there in the offshore area. So the question then is, is that a good idea? Does that not

Gregory Washington (20:37):

Well, we, well, well, we can tell you that it's not a good idea once you have a spill. Uh, but the reality is, my fundamental philosophy on deposits of hydrocarbons in the ground is that people are going to develop 'em. To the extent that we develop technologies for mitigation, we need to, The reality of the situation is until the planet forces us to stoP, man will pull those hydrocarbons out of the ground and we'll burn them.

Jeremy Campbell (21:08):

I tend to agree with you, provided that it isn't too expensive to get them out. There has to be an economic kind of motivator. And right now, at least for the foreseeable, we see oil selling at a high enough level to justify those offshore investments, which are in the billions themselves To get started. But I absolutely agree with you. And so then I think if we're realists about it, we need to think about mitigation. We need to think about, okay, with those tax revenues going into the public coffers of Brazilian nations or multicultural corporations, what is the dividend that needs to be paid forward to the Amazon to make sure that the commitment to climate change that you're getting by pumping those hydrocarbons outta the ground can be mitigated with the peoples and places? Here's a, a moment of hope, guarded hope next year in November of 2025, so 18 months from now, Brazil will be hosting the 30th meeting of the Convention of the Parties, COP, so COP Paris,

Jeremy Campbell (22:07):

Right, The Paris Agreement, et cetera. Copenhagen, Brazil and other Amazonian nations are eager, very eager to appear to be doing right by the Amazon, which they understand to be simultaneously a globally important asset, but also their particular sovereign ground, right? So Brazil, Brazil is not interested in any, in the UN or the US coming in and taking it over, right? But they are interested in a COP or in a huge international meeting being able to tell a good story about what they're doing. And so if they're gonna move ahead to your point, right? If they're gonna get those hydrocarbons out of the continental shelf, off the Falls of the Amazon, when everyone knows that, right? What can they do when they're up there on that stage to say, this is what we're doing to make sure that the Amazon is not gonna be the victim of these or other kinds of economic development schemes?

Jeremy Campbell (23:02):

And so many of the people that I work with are pressing hard, both publicly and quietly in the back halls of power in Brasilia and other Amazonian capitals to make sure there can be some kind of, okay, if you're gonna do this, or you're gonna continue with agriculture as well, 'cause we could talk about deforestation, right? We need to have some real commitments, some measured commitments, and a plan on how to get there when it comes to putting the brakes on deforestation, protecting human rights, protecting biodiversity, and really investing in the potential there that's in the Amazon.

Gregory Washington (23:33):

That leads me to my next question, and let me make it a little more specific. So what would you like to see in a response to outcomes like this, right? Not just from the Brazilian government, but from other governments in the United Nations. From the United States for crying out loud, right?. So what would you like to see in terms of a, a response?

Jeremy Campbell (23:56):

So I think that the United States and the Brazilian government and all governments, and for that matter, NGOs and consumers, need to pay a little bit more attention to what's going on in the Amazon. And that's where I think getting some of that pretty basic, but often lacking context out there about the Amazon, that it is as big as it is, that it is really diverse. I mean, I, I don't think I mentioned this, but this is a good time to sort of say there's 300 different languages spoken in the Amazon.

Speaker 2 (24:27):


Jeremy Campbell (24:28):

Yeah, yeah, 300 different Amerindian languages to say nothing of the, the colonial languages, Spanish and Portuguese and French and and English, right? And many, many different kinds of societies. There are 2 million indigenous people. There are roughly 6 million Quilombola or Maroon communities. These are descendants of enslaved people who escaped slavery to the Amazon. A lot of people don't appreciate this, that Brazil was actually the destination of most enslaved Africans who were forced to cross in the middle passage.

Gregory Washington (25:00):

Is that for sugar primarily, or what was it?

Jeremy Campbell (25:02):

For sugar. For sugar in the Northeast and for coffee in the south of the country, right? And so enslaved people's fleeing for freedom would go to a place that was relatively uninhabited and set up their own communities called Quilombos starting in the 1600s, right? They would trade with indigenous people. Sometimes they would fight with indigenous peoples. But there were cultures set up, uh, Afro-Brazilian cultures set up that are thoroughly Amazonian and are thoroughly unique with their own cultural, religious, and subsistence practices. You have riverside communities as well, who are the descendants of, I talked about the rubber boom after the rubber bust when there was no more money in the very laborious production of rubber in the Amazon. The communities that were brought there, stayed there and basically hunted and fished and had a relationship with the environment. That was a very sustainable and interesting one. And so the Amazon, in addition to being an urbanized place, is also a place of tremendous social and cultural diversity. And it's a place of poverty, it's a place of corruption, it's a place of international crime. It's a place where all of this is happening. And so, as with any place, I mean, think again, it's, it's the size of the lower 48. Is there one policy solution to all the problems in the lower 48 United States?

Gregory Washington (26:20):

Of course not.

Jeremy Campbell (26:21):

So there are many different things that we need to think about that most of the time when we're in international audience, we just think climate or biodiversity or forest.

Gregory Washington (26:31):

Right. We just think, yeah, stop deforesting.

Jeremy Campbell (26:34):

Uh, and we need to That's absolutely crucial.

Gregory Washington (26:36):

No, I get it, I get it. But what I hear you saying is that it's more than that.

Jeremy Campbell (26:39):

Yeah. It really is. And so real partnership, real engagement, government to government or corporate or consumers needs to appreciate that diversity of the Amazon, needs to appreciate that Amazonian people have a lot to contribute to the world in terms of being stewards of the environment, in terms of the knowledge that they have and that they can share with us. But that, that has to be done in an equitable way. It's not the case that we can go save the Amazon from the United States, you know, like parachuting in. Their capacity is, is actually there in the region, but also the forces that are leading to its destruction are there in the region. Not to make this too political, but if you're in the United States and you're in higher education like you and I are, chances are you may be invested in a TIAA retirement account. Full disclosure, I've done research on this. I have the receipts, but they're not the only ones. Okay. So don't get at me, TIAA, please. They've invested, and subsequently, once this came to light, they divested, but they were investing in ranch properties on recently deforested land on the edges of the Amazon. And so, in other words, they were good investments, these ranches were accruing in value. But I didn't know, and maybe you didn't know that your own retirement is vested in, you know, deforestation.

Gregory Washington (28:01):

This is, this is the very first time I'm hearing about it. Wow.

Jeremy Campbell (28:04):

People are concerned about meat. And they should be, because it was the case in the 1980s and 1990s that Brazil was exporting meat grown on deforested land to the United States. That has stopped. So it's actually not the case that we should go after McDonald's for selling Amazonian beef in the United States, 'cause they don't. But that beef is going to China, so the rest of the world is engaged in benefiting from the Amazon's destruction. But the rest of the world can also show up in solidarity with the people who are the true stewards of the land, who are the indigenous and traditional people.

Gregory Washington (28:41):

The, the reality is, is the people who are there trying to survive as well, right?

Jeremy Campbell (28:47):

That’s right, yep.

Gregory Washington (28:47):

And it's hard to tell them, hey, make a change in your lifestyle now and suffer now, starve now so that somebody in America or some other country could have a better quality of life, 10, 20, 30 years from now, right? And that's what makes it hard and a little self-serving when we sit here.

Jeremy Campbell (29:13):

Yeah, right. I'd agree with that. And, and that actually brings to mind something that you ask how the US or how outsiders could engage. And one thing that I think we can do is support sustainable commodity chains, right? So verifiable chains of value that begin in the Amazon, and maybe the product goes to the United States, maybe just goes to urban Brazil or urban Argentina. But the majority of that profit gets reinvested in the local community. It does not get captured by a middleman or by the urban retailer, but instead it really gets returned much like shade grown coffee, you might think of that, right. It's not a good example for the Amazon, but you probably have heard, and maybe you've enjoyed acai, the wonderful super fruit from the Amazon, right? Yeah. Well, it is really wonderful and it's, it's a great way for the Amazon to be exported all throughout the world. But 90% of the economic value chain of acai rests outside the Amazon. Only 10% rests in the actual cultivation of the Amazon. So that needs to be switched, right?

Gregory Washington (30:22):

Not surprised by that, right.

Jeremy Campbell (30:24):

Yeah. Yeah.

Gregory Washington (30:25):

So talk to me a little bit about Mason's Institute for Sustainable Earth and how it's involved with what's going on in Amazonia.

Jeremy Campbell (30:32):

So we, at the ISC, the Institute for a Sustainable Earth, are involved in a lot of different projects with partners in the region, but we're also supporting a lot of really talented Mason faculty who are working on a variety of issues. And really what we try to do, our kind of theory of the case that the ISE, is to bring together teams that are interdisciplinary to do research that can be of impact, be of consequence, right? And so along those lines, I actually had the privilege of convening a high-level international symposium, I guess is the best way to to think about it, back in January of 2023, where we went to the Smithsonian Mason School of Conservation up in front Royal, spent a couple days really hashing out the priorities for international interdisciplinary research that includes communities that valorizes and really platforms scientists working in the region at Brazilian Peruvian Bolivian institutions,

Jeremy Campbell (31:38):

right so that it's a real partnership as opposed to, uh, global northern institution coming in and making the discoveries or taking the credit. And it was really eye-opening. We came out, we published a, a paper, basically a white paper, laying out what some of the big priorities are, and also where we want some of the funding mechanisms to go, whether it's agency funding for research or corporate funding or foundation funding for conservation, how that needs to be thought about and maybe redistributed in the context of the tipping point in the context of we have 10 years to make as much progress as possible with halting deforestation, with supporting the human right and dignity of Amazonian peoples with building socio, bio economy value chains that return economic investment to the region without cutting down the forest.

Gregory Washington (32:36):

So Tom Lovejoy coined that tipping point phrase in 2018. What progress have we made since then?

Jeremy Campbell (32:44):

Overall, we have done a good job since 2018, getting the word out. People are tuned into the Amazon more today than they have been, I would say since the 1988, 1989 forest fires grabbed the headlines and made the cover of Time Magazine. Remember Time Magazine?

Gregory Washington (33:01):

I do.

Jeremy Campbell (33:01):

So that was, that was a big deal, right?

Gregory Washington (33:03):

That that was. So for those of you who don't know who Tom Lovejoy is, he was a world-renowned faculty member and Mason professor. And he was studying, spent a good bit of his life studying biodiversity in the Amazon, and would often take groups of very wealthy and very famous individuals, whether were actors and actresses. And I saw what Leonardo DiCaprio and

Jeremy Campbell (33:32):

That's right. Mel Gibson.

Gregory Washington (33:34):

Mel Gibson, Cameron Diaz, and all of those people, Angelina Jolie, he would take them right into the Amazon to learn what you and I are talking about right now.

Jeremy Campbell (33:46):

That’s right. And so Tom's

Gregory Washington (33:47):

And to physically see the diversity and to see the wildlife that was there.

Jeremy Campbell (33:53):

It makes such a difference to be up close and personal. And Tom knew that Tom understood the power of the forest and the power of making that connection with the wildlife and with the people of the Amazon. And so

Gregory Washington (34:06):

Are we still doing that now, or has that subsided with Tom's passing?

Jeremy Campbell (34:10):

We are still actively engaged as a mason community with the Forest Fragments project that he was basically his brainchild and which is under the care of one of our partner organizations, the Amazonian Institute for Research. We actually have a graduate student that is funded through an ISC grant doing research right there where Tom Lovejoy took Angelina Jolie and, and Tom Cruise. We've had regular check-ins. We have one of our colleagues, Dr. David Luther, continues to do research there. And Tom's legacy really has been putting that part of the Amazon on the map. I think it's inspired a whole lot of consciousness raising in the English-speaking world about what's going on in the Amazon. And so what we're trying to do at the ISE is press that forward, really press that legacy forward.

Gregory Washington (34:58):

I got to spend a lot of time with Tom before he passed, and just one of the nicest people on Earth. I hate it we lost him so soon.

Jeremy Campbell (35:06):

He's a towering figure still, for some reason, the phrase science diplomat comes to mind, right, 'cause he was thoroughly a scientist.

Gregory Washington (35:15):

You would routinely, when I would have these meetings at his home, which was extraordinarily modest, right? It's such a Tom Lovejoy home, right? But you would routinely have the ambassador from Brazil or some dignitary from some foreign country. Some industrial leader.

Jeremy Campbell (35:34):

Or a World Bank president.

Gregory Washington (35:36):

A world bank president. Yeah. You’d routinely have those individuals at his home as well.

Jeremy Campbell (35:41):

And as you say, he was so modest, so humble, but so passionate and singularly focused that the story about the Amazon got out there. And in addition to being a, an incredible advocate and a bridger of dialogues and a diplomat, he was also a brilliant scientist. But also the whole debt for nature idea where impoverished nations would have some of their debt forgiven in exchange for conserving areas and keeping them pristine. That was his idea, right? So I mean, practical applications that have really left their mark on the world.

Gregory Washington (36:17):

And it's better and it was better than writing the debt off, right?

Jeremy Campbell (36:20):

That's right. That's right.

Gregory Washington (36:21):

No, outstanding, outstanding. So talk to me a little bit about your research. What is it you do, what are your next steps?

Jeremy Campbell (36:30):

Yeah, great. Thank you for that. I, as I said, I'm a cultural anthropologist and I've been working with native people and other traditional riverside communities who are really taking the lead in defending their own lands. The phrase for this is forest defenders, although it goes by lots of different names depending on the language you're speaking. But it entails physically defending land from loggers, from miners, from government agencies that might want to do something different with the land. And doing so not only through the physical demarcation, but through political alliances, with non-profits, with advocacy organizations, with researchers. My role specifically has been in helping the sociocultural and environmental mapping of these areas so that there can be some translation of traditional ecological knowledge that's associated with a landscape into a kind of language that maybe an ecologist or a politician might understand as well, right? And so it's really fascinating, the interplay between the kind of ethic of responsibility to lands and non-humans and waters that an indigenous person has, and how that lines up with how an ecologist sees the interaction and interdependence of species and the abiotic world and, uh, climate, et cetera.

Jeremy Campbell (37:54):

And so I sit at that node where indigenous peoples are organizing for their own defense, facing an existential threat, but helping connect them with data, with science, with storytellers, so that they can tell those stories. And I'll give you an example. The people that I've been working with for the past 10 years now, the Munduruku, have been tremendously successful in demarcating lands that were slated for, to basically to go to the bottom of a lake, a reservoir, that was going to be behind the world's second largest dam. But they stood up and organized themselves and protected their sacred land, protected the relationships that they have with non-humans. And were able to shelve that dam and have become sort of a real inspiration to other indigenous and traditional societies throughout the Amazon, standing up to not just dams; and dams, we can have a debate about whether that's green power, whether it's not.

Jeremy Campbell (38:47):

But what they were really standing up to do was to stand up and say, we're here. I’m moved by their courage and the courage of others like them who stand up. And we see it with indigenous peoples here in, in North America as well, who stand up and refuse to say we are in the past, who refuse that may be social expectation that whether it's assimilation or you've given up your culture, that the expectation that indigenous people are, are no longer among us. And the Munduruku and others in the Amazon are standing up and saying, we're here and we know how to steward these lands. We know how to make sure that the biogeochemical cycles and hydrological cycles continue. They wouldn't say it in those terms, but the terms that they would use would be about balance, reciprocity, relationship with the forces of life that course around us.

Jeremy Campbell (39:43):

So the ecology and the traditional learning really go hand in hand. And then we get them to policy through making arguments, through communication strategies, through raising awareness. There's a big push that I'm part of, and that the ISE is part of and supporting to try to preserve 80% of the Amazon by 2025. Now that's next year, we're not quite there. About 50% of the Amazon is officially protected, whether you're talking about national forests or national parks or indigenous lands, about 20% of it is deforested and urbanized, which leaves 30% up for grabs. And we're not gonna get there next year through a stroke of the pen to lock up the other 30% of it. The task here is to raise awareness and to, even in the 30% that remains, make sure that whatever happens to it, it's sustainable. That we don't see it kind of a zero-sum game. It's either a park or a paved cityscape right. There can actually be sustainable, thriving, living landscapes with people in them whose economic models are not based on extraction and destruction.

Gregory Washington (40:54):

How much time do you spend in Brazil?

Jeremy Campbell (40:55):

Well, I've got two small kids, so not as much as I used to. I'm sure you know how that goes. ... 9-year-old twins actually. Boy, girl twins. They keep me busy. But I'm down there once or twice a year usually to check up on research and to engage my research partners, but also to create new opportunities for Mason. I mentioned we've got some great faculty here that are working. We've got, uh, David Luther who works on birds. We've got Louise Shelley in the Schar School who works on transnational criminal networks, which is a big thing in the Peruvian, Colombian, Brazilian Amazon. So I've been working with her a little bit on sort of how to have conversations about rule of law and cross-border diplomacy when it comes to not just drug trafficking, but get this trafficking of species, trafficking of huge fish, the pirarucu, which is a fish that can grow up to 50, 60 kilos that is caught in Brazil, and then brought into Colombia illegally to feed an urban frontier in Colombia and, and Peru.

Jeremy Campbell (41:56):

So money laundering, drug trafficking species, et cetera, Louisehas been doing some really great work with the IUCN on traceability. You got Mike Gilmore, who's working in Peru on anti-road demonstrations and building a biocultural corridor with the Maijuna people. So I don't just go to Brazil, that's where most of my research is, but I'm also working with Mason faculty, trying to connect them better and, and really get their research out into the community and the community present in what we do here at Mason, so. I used to live in Brazil. I lived in Brazil for three years. So I have dear friends and colleagues and family, so I wish I could get there more, but we've got good stuff going on here too in Fairfax.

Gregory Washington (42:39):

So your award-winning book, “Conjuring Property: Speculation and Environmental Futures in the Brazilian Amazon,” gives a good sense of the conflict between indigenous land rights and the corporate colonization of the land for agriculture, for ranching, for mining, and for deforestation that goes along with that. So can you talk a little bit about the book? Give us a sense of how this all plays out in actuality.

Jeremy Campbell (43:10):

It's not unlike, if you think about sort of the 19th century story of the United States, this whole idea of manifest destiny, that the western part of the continent was for the taking of the proud, ambitious pioneer, usually white, the bro, the white man, right?

Gregory Washington (43:28):

The, the few, the bold.

Jeremy Campbell (43:29):

Exactly, right. So Brazil, it's a very different country than the United States. I don't want to suggest that it's the, the same, but it is continental in scale and in size. And often it has at different key moments in its history likened itself to the United States. And so there was a kind of manifest destiny moment in the 1950s and 60s where the Brazilian government, which at the time was a dictatorship, encouraged people to leave the coast of Brazil and move into the Amazon, which in the popular imagination was the next frontier. It was empty. It was a place where you could go and make something of yourself. So there was a ton of propaganda. There was a ton of kind of social engineering to try to move the vast majority of the Brazilian population, which due to it being a colonial export colony, lived along the coast, lived along the places that were close to ports.

Jeremy Campbell (44:25):

The average Brazilian thought of the Amazon as completely empty. The average Brazilian thought of it as a place where if I go and clear the forest, what I'm doing is improving the forest. What I'm doing is I'm making something where there is nothing, this terra nullius kind of idea. And so the book really traces how in the 21st century that idea continues to play out with both rich Brazilians and relatively impoverished Brazilians coming into the region and buying into and reproducing a kind of idea and ideology of the land belonging to them and their being no indigenous people there, and how they actually use land speculation and access to capital and access to political influence to undo some of the conservation and indigenous rights protections that were placed into law in the 1988 Brazilian constitution. So Brazil, as I mentioned, was in a dictatorship in the 1960s coming out of the dictatorship, had some of the most progressive environmental and human rights legislation and constitutional provisions of anywhere in the planet. But we've seen a backslide since then. And so the book really does explore that backslide and, and explore some of the social, political and environmental effects of this idea prevalent in Brazil, but again, I would say it's, it rhymes with what we have in the United States of there being no indigenous people there and it being the nation's goal to fill up this empty space with progress, and then how that motivated people's activities. It's the story that I tell in that book.

Gregory Washington (46:08):

So, uh, you have a friend in Brazil, Alessandra Korap, I, I believe the name is, who is part of one of Brazil's indigenous nations, who you have quoted saying that the resistance from the indigenous population to those who would exploit the Amazon is a fight for all of us. I think I know where this is going. But talk to me about a fight for all of us and what exactly does fight mean?

Jeremy Campbell (46:37):

Alessandra Korap is an amazing person, so I absolutely want to answer your question, but if I can paint just a quick portrait of her. She stands all of maybe four foot one, but has the fight of a thousand people in her. She is 28 years old, a law student, basically went to law school from her village, grew up in a village in the middle of the recesses of the Amazon rainforest, has gone to law school to learn how to fight with the master's tools for the rights of her people. And so when she talks about all of us, what she means, I think, is really in three different registers. First is people like her, indigenous people who have been sidelined, who have been written out of existence, who have been bulldozed. Second, the entire world's population, because she understands, as her elders do, and as her brothers and sisters do, that the work that the Munduruku are doing and, and the other indigenous people are doing, not just in the Amazon, but throughout the world.

Jeremy Campbell (47:47):

Here's another statistic. Indigenous people occupy and manage roughly 23, 24% of the world's terrestrial surface, where 80% of the world's biodiversity can be found; untold, name your metric of environmental service, whether it's clean water or wooden fiber, or carbon sequestration. So the work that indigenous people do, managing actively managing landscapes like the Amazon actually has a global benefit for all humans. So that's the other, all of us. The third all of us is non-human creatures, which for the Munduruku and many Amazonian people are literally relatives, literally brothers, sisters, uncles, cousins. And so there's that depth of compassion and empathy for the freshwater dolphins that you mentioned that literally baked or boiled alive in those warm waters. In Lago Tefe, she sees, Alessandro Korap, sees her advocacy on behalf of her people, on behalf of non-human relatives, and on behalf of all of us, even people, all of us humans, even people who might be her enemy. And so there's a kind of Gandhi-like, uh, stance or a Dr. King's stance to love even the person who would cut you down. That's what Alessandra Korap brings. It's not just me as a good friend and colleague of hers, but she received the, uh, RFK Leadership, Humanitarian Leadership Award two or three years ago. She's been to Switzerland, she's been to Germany, she's been to New York a couple times, really being an international sensation when it comes to advocating for the rights of her people and the rights of nature.

Gregory Washington (49:23):

As we close, talk to me about your level of optimism that we can avoid the worst consequences of the Amazon Basin.

Jeremy Campbell (49:31):

I am cautiously optimistic. My optimism meter goes up a point or two or several points. When I think about the indefatigable work of somebody like Alessandra Korap or other indigenous leaders who, unlike me, I, I have the luxury of being able to be in the thick of it but then come home, right? I can come home to Fairfax, I can come home to the United States. For Alessandra and for Ailton, the struggle's never ending, and they are positive. They are optimistic.

Gregory Washington (50:02):

That's amazing.

Jeremy Campbell (50:04):

They know that the world that they're giving to their children and their grandchildren is a better one, even though it is existentially threatened. So I think we all have to take our lead or, or take their lead and fall in place to do what we can to be innovative, to be a science diplomat in the model of a Tom Lovejoy, and to really try our best. I do think it's inevitable — here's just the caution part — I do think it's inevitable that 20, 30 years from now, the Amazon will be different because the world will be different, right? We've baked in a certain level of warming, we've baked in a certain level of anthropocenic and anthropogenic changes. But from the indigenous perspective, the world already ended in 1500 and has been ending in lots of different kinds of ways, and transforming in lots of different kinds of ways throughout all of that time. You know, 90% of the indigenous people who lived in the Amazon, there were 10 million there in 1500, 90% of 'em died, were gone by the time of 1600, right? So they know a lot about resilience, they know a lot about adaptation. They know a lot about bouncing back. And so I think we can take some inspiration from their lead in that respect, knowing though that the Amazon will be changing, we can nevertheless try to mitigate those changes and adapt to the new situation as it unfolds.

Gregory Washington (51:22):

Well, let's hope we can stay on the right track

Jeremy Campbell (51:25):

Here. Here.

Gregory Washington (51:25):

Jeremy Campbell, associate director for strategic engagement at George Mason University's Institute for Sustainable Earth. Thank you for a great conversation.

Jeremy Campbell (51:38):

Thank you, Dr. Washington. It was a pleasure.

Gregory Washington (51:40):

I am Mason President Gregory Washington saying, until next time, stay safe, Mason Nation.

Narrator (51:49):

If you like what you heard on this podcast, go to podcast.gmu.edu for more of Gregory Washington's conversations with the thought leaders, experts, and educators who take on the grand challenges facing our students, graduates, and higher education. That's podcast.gmu.edu.