My Journey Through The Amazon With The Team Of 'Years Of Living Dangerously'

MATO GRASSO, BRAZIL - Traveling by boat on the Cristalino River within the Cristalino Private National Heritage Reserve
MATO GRASSO, BRAZIL - Traveling by boat on the Cristalino River within the Cristalino Private National Heritage Reserve to explore issues of drought and deforestation.

Over the course of ten days in June 2016, I traveled to the Brazilian Amazon to film an episode for “Years Of Living Dangerously,” the National Geographic documentary series about climate change. You can watch my full story on Wednesday, November 16th at 10 p.m. ET on the National Geographic Channel. To listen to an audio version of this piece, click the player below.

June 1: Cristalino Eco-Lodge, Cristalino State Park, Mato Grosso State, Brazil

Today was not my typical workday. It was over 95 degrees, humid, and I was following a man holding a machete that I had never met into the jungle. My outfit included padded shin guards to protect me from snakebites. As I walked, the former miner-turned-environmentalist guide named Francisco was giving me a quick safety briefing: don’t veer off the path, don’t go in the nearby river with open cuts and don’t feed the monkeys, no matter how cute. “Why can’t I swim with open cuts?” I asked. “Because open cuts can get infected and because the cuts also attract piranhas.he explained. No, this was definitely not my typical workday.

Where was I? I was walking through a dense forest on the Cristalino Reserve in the Brazilian Amazon. The guide at the front of our group, the one wielding a machete, was helping to clear our path of low-hanging vines, thorny branches and fallen logs. Suddenly, he stopped. “I want to show you something,” he said, as he guided me towards an absolutely massive tree that six or more adults could encircle. “This tree is about 800 years old,” he tells me. “It has lived through more of the world than any of us ever will.”

Our destination was a 165-foot tall observation tower that allowed me to climb up through the forest’s layers, past the canopy, for a bird’s-eye view of this small piece of the Amazon. Until now, I had been so focused on the beauty of our hike – and on avoiding snakes – that I hadn’t focused on my fear of heights. The tower is sturdy, but it vibrated and shook a little as I slowly made my way to the top. As I climbed, it helped to focus on the fact that someone was waiting for me up there, a renowned Brazilian scientist named Antonio Nobre who I’ve been a fan of and wanted to meet for some time. 

Even if you live in New York, you are benefiting indirectly from the invisible functions the Amazon performs to sustain the Earth. Brazilian scientist Antonio Nobre

Once I made it to the top of the tower, I looked around and saw mist coming up through the trees. I heard the amazing sounds of the forest; the Macaws along with lots of other kinds of birds I’d never seen before flew over me. It was breathtaking! It’s easy to feel entirely remote up there and surreally disconnected from the rest of the world beyond the tree line. Yet, Nobre explained how misguided – and ultimately damaging – that type of thinking can be. He pointed out how the things that happen here significantly impact the rest of the world.

He explained to me that, “Even if you live in New York, you are benefiting indirectly from the invisible functions the Amazon performs to sustain the Earth. There are all of these invisible systems that are critical to the environment and have an immense impact. The forest is providing all of these crucial services to us for free; we don’t have to pay for them. We gain the benefits, but because they are invisible, we unfortunately tend not to value them as much as we should.” 

He explained that one of the functions of the rainforest is to be the  “lungs of the world,” absorbing greenhouse gases. In addition, the forest absorbs groundwater through its roots and releases it in invisible streams – what Antonio called flying rivers - that help in cooling the Earth’s atmosphere. “When they do this,” he says, “same way as when you’re sweating then cool down, trees cool down the surface. They’re like air conditioners.”

“If you lose the Amazon,”he told me, “you lose a critical function of the rainforest that moderates the world’s climate by pumping and filtering ― cleaning and breathing for the entire planet.”

June 3: Alta Floresta, Mato Grosso State, Brazil

I now had a better idea of just how much is at stake in the fight to protect the Amazon. Next up was to find out what’s driving its destruction. Especially because I had heard that after decades of decline, overall rates of Amazon deforestation are on the rise again.

To learn more, I went to nearby Alta Floresta, or “High Forest,” a city that was covered with trees when founded in 1976, but now, sadly, is almost entirely deforested. In the past, the government encouraged people to come to the Amazon and exploit it. The city’s progression from a forested area to a deforested one in the 1980s and ‘90s made it notable, albeit in a negative way. The nickname reflects its high deforestation rates: “Falta Floresta” or “Lacking Forest.” Alta Floresta’s story, I discovered, is not unique in this region, and even as some have made efforts to reforest some of its cleared areas, newer cities and towns are driving deforestation around it.

To get a better sense of why this is happening, I met with Paulo Adario, the Brazilian director of Greenpeace’s Amazon program, who took me up in a small plane to fly over the region. This perspective was different from Cristalino, where I’d gotten the impression that the forest stretched on forever. As we moved further and further away from the reserve’s borders, I realized how mistaken I was in my impression of an infinite forest; the landscape below was a mosaic of large cleared areas cut out of the forest. The extent of this devastation was heartbreaking.

ALTA FLORESTA, BRAZIL- With Greenpeace activist Paulo Adario.
ALTA FLORESTA, BRAZIL- With Greenpeace activist Paulo Adario.

Adario told me that we were actually in the middle of the “Arc of Deforestation,” a crescent shaped belt of largely deforested land that passes through Brazil’s northern Mato Grosso and southern Pará states where nearly half the world’s tropical deforestation takes place. Protected areas like Cristalino and indigenous reserves like the nearby Xingu National Park represented some of the most effective buffers against encroaching deforestation, though even they are not immune to illegal activity on their lands. What is driving these trends? “People don’t deforest because they hate trees,” Adario told me. “They deforest because they can make money.” There are many causes: mining, logging, infrastructure projects like roads and mega-dams to name a few. What is the number one reason for deforestation in Brazil? Adario pointed out of the plane’s window to some white blobs: Cattle. “They are responsible for 65 percent of all deforestation in the Amazon…and 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions,” he told me.

I had a flashback to my family’s dinner table growing up in Rio Grande do Sul in the south of Brazil. Eating meats and especially beef. They were a central part of our daily meal routine. Meat is still a staple in Brazilians’ diet and around the world. On this trip I have learned we cannot continue to eat the same way. If we don’t make changes, the future generations won’t have the same abundance of natural resources.

June 5: Novo Progresso, Pará State, Brazil

Being with Adario in Alta Floresta revealed how much we already know about what’s driving deforestation in the Amazon and endangering our climate. The flyover showed we also know where the worst destruction is taking place, both legally and illegally. Unfortunately, deforestation is back on the rise. The logical next question is why can’t we stop it?

To find out more, I’ve crossed the border from Mato Grosso State to neighboring Pará to visit a place that many consider the prime example of Brazil’s “Wild West” – a frontier town called Novo Progresso or “New Progress,” which was elevated to the category of Municipality  only in 1991. The city is located on the roadside of BR-163. This roadway is of fundamental importance for the flow of Brazilian production. It is right at the edge of the rain forest’s borders. Novo Progresso, which has about 25,000 inhabitants, appears to have many legalized timber companies in its surrounding areas. As we drove along BR-163, I saw many of them on both sides of the road. I don’t understand how that is even possible – how can they authorize the operation of timber companies inside of protected areas?

Business in remote Novo Progresso, a place I’d never heard of, seems to be booming. Given what I’m seeing, the industries driving the growth are the same ones Adario said are placing the most pressure on this irreplaceable forest. In the battle to save the Amazon, it is clear that Novo Progresso is on the front lines, divided between those whose living depends on exploiting the forest and those whose living revolves around defending it.

I went to meet one of the defenders of the rainforest. We turned off the city’s main road and onto a dusty side street; we stopped in front of a single-story building with a guarded perimeter. We had arrived at the local outpost of Brazil’s environmental police, IBAMA. Inside, there were several armed men dressed in camouflage lounging on wooden benches. I was one of very few women there, but not for long. I was told that the “Blonde Devil” was to arrive soon. It appeared she was coming straight from a raid on an illegal logging camp.

Maria Luiza Souza, known by those she chases as the “Blonde Devil,” is a senior IBAMA official in charge of surveillance operations for the region. Her accomplished reputation precedes her. Her success has not only earned her notoriety and her nickname, it has also shockingly earned her a price on her head. Bravely, despite the repeated threats to her life, Souza refuses to back down.

“Why is it so hard to stop illegal deforestation, especially when we often know where it’s happening?” I asked her.

“We are blind during the rainy season in the Amazon,” she told me. “Why; because it’s too cloudy for the satellites to capture quality images of the forest.  During this period, the deforestation runs rampant.” She explained, “That even when armed with good imaging, the remoteness of many Amazon locations means it can take hours, or even days, for law enforcement officials to arrive on site. This can give criminals a sufficient head start to do their damage and disappear without getting caught.”

“There is no accountability,” Souza continued. “Criminals see that they can profit from crimes without big consequences... so they continue them… [and] there’s still demand. There’s a market for buying illegal cattle... and illegal timber from the Amazon. As long as there’s [cheap] supply, people will buy it.”

“I first came to Novo Progresso in 2007 and nothing has improved in this city. Nothing,” Souza replies. “The environmental crimes don’t improve the city, they don’t improve living conditions in Novo Progresso. Nothing stays for the community. They are plundering the Amazon [and] Novo Progresso has not developed at all. It should be called Novo Regresso,” she finished.

Despite the fact that IBAMA needs more resources to cover the vast territory, it was clear that Souza and her IBAMA team continue doing critical work to reduce the region’s criminal activity and defend the Amazon from illegal destruction. It was clear after speaking with her that IBAMA enforces the laws put in place by the government but would benefit from the additional support of more environmental police. There are two other points to be considered in this fight:  law enforcement needs to hold criminals accountable and there needs to be policy incentives to promote less destructive industries overall.

Brazil’s economy is struggling and its government is under fire. As a result, budgets are being slashed and compromises are being made.

June 7: Brasilia, Federal District

I arrived from the Amazon to Brasilia, Brazil’s capital, triggering a bit of culture shock. After days of high heat and higher humidity, dirt roads and lush forests, the city’s dry savanna climate, famous modernist architecture and sweeping boulevards felt like an entirely different world.

It is a tense time for my country. Brazil’s economy is struggling and its government is under fire. As a result, budgets are being slashed and compromises are being made in an effort to restore short-term growth and national stability. The country is at a crossroads for how to move forward and jumpstart its economy once again. What does this all mean for the Amazon? As we drove by the beautiful architecture of Brasilia and the National Congress buildings, I wondered how many of the country’s political leaders have visited the rainforest.

To find out more, I arranged to meet with Senator Katia Abreu from the state of Tocantins, a major player in the negotiation of the country’s new forest code. A rancher herself, she is the former president of Brazil’s Confederation of Agriculture and Livestock as well as the country’s former Minister of Agriculture, a role she held until just three weeks before my arrival.

Brazil made a commitment at COP21, in Paris, to halt all illegal deforestation by 2030. Given that the forest is under siege now and it’s only 2016, this seems a long way off, so I ask her: “Why wait until 2030? Why not now?”

“Because you need tools to reduce deforestation,” she told me. “It is not the case that you say ‘stop’ and suddenly, with a magic wand, everything stops…we fight against it every day. We made a promise for 2020, and now a new promise for 2030. It is a promise we are striving to keep.”

I told her that I saw a lot of clear land and that I was shocked with the size of the devastation. I asked her if it is possible for Brazil to grow without having to cut more trees. She says yes, but then she explained “Brazil carries a huge responsibility on its shoulders.” Abreu continued telling me that the Food and Agriculture Organization expect Brazil to increase its production 40 percent by 2050 ― more than any other country ― to feed the world’s growing population.   “Meats and soy are the most important products in our commercial balance,” she told me. “In general, not only the meat industry but all segments of agriculture, of Brazilian agribusiness, have saved Brazil in this [economic] crisis…”

I learned agriculture is important for Brazil and more soy will be needed to feed more cattle to combat world hunger. How can the expansion in production be managed so that it will put less pressure on Brazil’s forests and not endanger the indigenous and riverside communities that live and depend on the rainforest?

June 8: Memorial of Indigenous Peoples, Brasilia, Federal District

The Memorial of Indigenous Peoples in Brasilia is a round, spiral structure that the famed architect Oscar Niemeyer created from inspiration he found in the traditional village structures of the Yanomami Indians in Brazil’s north. The memorial is a symbolic tribute to Brazil’s diversity and wealth of indigenous cultures. Today, the memorial serves as a grave reminder of the highest stakes possible in the fight to protect the Amazon ― human stakes.

BRASILIA, BRAZIL -  Meeting with Sônia Guajajara, the national coordinator of Brazil’s Association of Indige
BRASILIA, BRAZIL -  Meeting with Sônia Guajajara, the national coordinator of Brazil’s Association of Indigenous Peoples (APIB) at the Indigenous Peoples Memorial in Brasilia.

I walked slowly past the memorial’s displays of indigenous artifacts as I spoke with Sonia Guajajara, the national coordinator of Brazil’s Association of Indigenous Peoples. She is a key spokeswoman for the country’s indigenous movement.

“Look Gisele,” she told me, “here in Brazil, we live under enormous pressure from the development model that’s been adopted. It’s based on the expansion of agribusiness, the planting of crops like soy, and on animal agriculture that uses huge expanses of pasture to raise livestock… Everything is in the name of increasing production to expand the economy, not considering the lives and the social rights of the people living there.”

The perception throughout Brazil that indigenous and environmental interests can’t be aligned with national economic goals has elevated tensions between indigenous communities, activists, loggers and ranchers in the Amazon to deadly levels.

Last year, Sonia’s indigenous territory, Arariboia, suffered from a forest fire that burned more than half of its 413,000 hectares. It was a massively destructive blaze – and it may have been arson. Ninety percent of Brazil’s forest fires are caused by human actions, intentionally set in areas of conflict to force people to vacate protected land.

“We are living in a moment of great global transformation,” says Sonia, “where all those who do not incorporate themselves into this system are seen as an inconvenience and embarrassment because of our age-old and harmonious relationship with nature, where land is a sacred good and not merchandise, where rivers represent life, and the forest is our protector. In the name of economic development, all of this is threatened.”

As a self-described “conscious citizen,” Sonia says her mission is to get people to care about the Amazon, indigenous people and their rights. This made me think about my own role as a conscious citizen. How can I inspire others to care – and do – more to help the incredible people I’ve met and places I’ve seen here? I want to show that environmental conservation does not slow or impede economic development and that we need to find sustainable ways to use the forest’s richness without destroying it.

We cannot pretend it isn’t happening and that we have nothing to do with it.

June 10: Boston, Massachusetts

Back with my family and friends in Boston, I have so much on my mind. I have been humbled by the opportunity to have this experience and learn so much. I wanted to tell them about the Amazon’s overwhelming importance to the earth and the beauty. Before this trip, I would have focused on the physical beauty, its rich biodiversity, describing the colors, sounds, foliage and animals that I was fortunate enough to witness. Beauty is so often thought of as only something visible. I realized that the Amazon forest goes much beyond its physical beauty. There are invisible treasures, the interconnected systems, like Nobre’s flying rivers that give life to all other treasures. Everything I’ve learned on this trip to the Amazon further affirms my central belief, that we – and everything around us – are connected. Just as the Amazon rainforest is connected with the world’s climate, the foods we choose to eat connect back to it and its long-term sustainability, too. Every choice we make has consequences and we are the only ones responsible for them and the only ones who can change them. We cannot pretend it isn’t happening and that we have nothing to do with it.

I recall something Sonia Guajajara said in Brasilia, “people think that because they are living in the United States, in Europe, or on any other continent, they believe they are separate, that they have nothing to do with what happens here [in Brazil]. The world is round, isn’t it? It spins. What happens here happens to everyone. The importance of having the forest preserved, conserved, is that it is going to benefit everybody.”

If we willingly ignore how interconnected we are, the Amazon’s incredible treasures will disappear and so, too, will life as we know it.

We can’t let that happen.

Gisele Bündchen is a Brazilian-born model and Ambassador for the UN Environmental Program, who can next be seen as a correspondent for the National Geographic documentary series Years of Living Dangerously on Wednesday, November 16th at 10 p.m. ET on the National Geographic Channel.