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Wednesday, 25 May 2016

The big gap between people and nature

Guest Blog Post by Jéssica Fonseca da Silva

At the past few conservation meetings I attended, the apathy of the general public for nature was a hot topic. This distance between people and nature contributes strongly to the lack of empathy towards nature loss and degradation. Thinking carefully, we only care about things we value; and we only value things we know. There is very little space to get to know nature in our modern lives. For most people, the only opportunities to be close to nature are occasional visits to parks, natural reserves or to the beach. However, most people fail to realize our interdependence with natural resources – especially urban residents. This ignorance is responsible for the big gap between people and nature and for the denial of our dependence on natural resources and ecosystem services.

A canoe "parked" near the floating house, very typical of Amazonian riverside populations. 
Photo courtesy of Jéssica Fonseca da Silva.

As someone coming from the Amazon, it is hard for me to imagine that some people have never had the opportunity to be close to nature. I remember climbing in trees and running barefoot in my childhood; eating fruits directly from the trees and swimming in rivers.  We would often find animals in our backyards and gardens. Once, we came home and there was a big green iguana in the garden. We struggled, but finally caught it and released it in the forest. Every day, little blue birds came to feed from the fruit on the kitchen table and in the late afternoon we could see macaws flying across the sky to reach a cozy spot in a big tree nearby. I often wonder how many children born in cities nowadays can still have these experiences. It is rare to see kids playing on the ground without worrying about getting dirty or making their parents terrified. There’s a risk that when these kids will turn into adults, they will feel apathetic about nature and the environment. Unfortunately, this is true for the majority of the population, even those living in Manaus – located in the middle of the Brazilian Amazon forest!

Children playing in the river near their house, about 50 km north from Manaus (Just like me and my cousins).
Photo courtesy of Jéssica Fonseca da Silva.

The lack of value attributed to the environment arises not only from a scarcity of contact with nature, but also from ignorance of the source of raw materials, supply chains and market forces. Tropical forests are the ecosystems most threatened by our greedy demand for goods and raw materials. To put this situation in perspective, forests produce more than 90 percent of the world’s terrestrial biomass and of this, tropical forests account for two-thirds (Pan et al. 2013). The main commodities driving deforestation in these forests are beef, palm oil, soybean, timber and pulp (Forest Trends 2014). Demand for these items is ubiquitous, especially by the food, construction and paper industries. Many of the items we get from supermarkets are either directly made from one of these items, or consumes them as part of the production process. However, as consumers, we are often unaware of the environmental cost of our choices. Thinking carefully about the products we consume is a simple and highly effective way to temper the destruction of tropical forests. Buying items that show certificates of environmentally sustainable production (Ecolabels1) and fair trade is a good way to start.

Reducing meat consumption or opting for sustainably raised sources of meat requires a stronger commitment, but markedly reduces deforestation. Finally, choosing items produced locally when possible also reduces our carbon footprints. Because markets are driven by the consumer’s demands, we have the power and the responsibility to drive the increasing offer of items that are produced sustainably by buying them preferentially.

Many people say they care about environmental issues, but they do not understand that the problem requires much more than just recycling. Often, we shift the responsibility to governments. Of course, governments have a part to play in the sense that regulations help to ensure people follow the rules. Nevertheless, the need for government action does not absolve the individual from responsibility. It can be hard to admit that we are all part of the same problem and that we should take action, but there is no other choice. Real change will only happen when we, collectively, understand that we rely entirely on the remaining natural resources, and that we have to make the best use of these resources from now on.

Macaws preparing to rest in the end of the afternoon (tree was at least 40 m tall).
Photo courtesy of Jéssica Fonseca da Silva.

There is some good news. Governments are starting to understand that materials, sources and consumption, as well as our well-being, are related to the status of natural resources and that one of the best choices (we still have) is to keep our forests safe. Recently, more than 177 countries signed the climate change agreement that was produced in the last United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change — COP 21 in Paris —for reducing CO2 emissions to avoid further increases in temperature and other climatic problems. Now formal instruments of ratification have started to be deposited by the signatory countries, showing their real commitment. Actions will involve reducing pollution and deforestation and improving the use of natural resources. However, the road ahead is still long. It is now time for us all, as individuals, to take responsibility and work toward a better future. I believe that a profound change in attitude is possible, although it will not be easy. In addition to the governments’ top down measures, we need to build our changes locally to get significant results. It is in our hands, so let's be positive and do our best!


Forest Trends. “Consumer Goods and Deforestation: An Analysis of the Extent and Nature of Illegality in Forest Conversation for Agriculture and Timber Plantations.” September 2014.

Pan, Y., Birdsey, R. A., Phillips, O. L., & Jackson, R. B. (2013). The structure, distribution, and biomass of the world's forests. Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics, 44, 593-622.


About the authorJéssica is a tropical ecologist, and currently a postgraduate pursuing her PhD at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. She studies ecosystem function, biodiversity conservation, and responses of organisms to global changes. Jéssica is a winner of the SCB European Section Student Blog Competition held at the 2016 Student Conference on Conservation Science in Cambridge, United Kingdom.  

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