September 23, 2019

How can we repair the lungs of the planet?

Green Infrastructure

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While reading the daily news on a late August day, I stopped breathing. The Brazilian Amazon rainforest was on fire and had been for several days without media coverage.

This news hit me deep inside my core—how did we not know about such a catastrophe? How was this not on the front page of every paper, every news website? And moreover, how did we allow this to happen?

Growing up in Colombia—one of eight South American countries that share the Amazon basin—I feel accountable for what is happening in Brazil. I think these eight countries should be responsible for taking care of what the world knows as the lungs of the planet, providing almost 20 per cent of the air we breathe.

As the news coverage spread, still (frustratingly) at a slower pace than the actual fires, the world learned more about the causes and actions that led to such devastation. We discovered that farming, mining and drilling are significant causes of deforestation.

Other factors such as the expansion of large-scale agriculture under the guise of providing economic opportunities for Brazil, the displacement of cattle ranchers onto forested areas where the land is cheaper to plant soybean for animal feed and biofuel, and the Brazilian agrarian reform which has supported the creation of several new legal, rural settlements have also contributed to the aggressive deforestation of the Amazon.

According to the Global Forest Atlas from the University of Yale, in Brazil, only 70 million hectares out of the 350 million hectares of Amazon rainforest are some form of the national park or protected areas, including 110 million hectares designated for indigenous reserves and 25 million hectares for sustainable development reserve and extractive reserve for rubber.

All of these facts, together with a government that supports less-ecological practices and reduction of penalties for past illegal deforestation through the amnesty program (2012) to the Forest Code, add more instability to a series of unfortunate decisions that led to the increase of fires in the current year. The National Institute for Space found that forest fires increased by 85 per cent from 2018.

The Amazon rainforest fires signify a wake-up call to act more responsible and give more respect to our environment. Whether it’s personal-scale changes to reduce our carbon footprint, or substantial, mass-scale changes, like boycotting companies that continue to contribute to global warming, we must take a hardline approach to combat climate change.

Meanwhile, as an urban planner, this is a case study in understanding the importance of making better regional planning decisions about the conservation, protection, and management of urban and rural developments. It’s also essential to recognize the implementation of green infrastructure as a vital tool for guiding the metropolitan and regional planning to prevent future types of deforestation.

Best practices in planning at every scale should include conservation, protection and prevention policies of the green and open spaces to find a balance between the natural and built environment. This includes our communities, cities, metropolitan areas, super regions, bioregions, regional territories and rural areas, including our natural space and forests.

Some examples in North America like the Tennesee Valley Authority (TVA), use regional planning for the control and use of water resources to prevent floods, provide irrigation to agricultural lands, generate electricity and create opportunities for recreation or some combination of these. Others like the Toronto waterfront utilize the watershed bioregion concepts as an organizing principle for environmental protection and restoration of ecological diversity in the area.

Applying some of the concepts of bioregional planning at a larger scale into the Amazonian region and integrating the natural environment into the planning processes—leaving aside the political boundaries—could help establish conservation and prevention guidelines to be followed by all the countries of the Amazon basin. This may guarantee a better quality of land distribution and management for future generations.

It would be a travesty if our children and their children may never see forests like the Amazon or have the opportunity to visit national parks. In Austria, a new large-scale public art intervention by Basel-based art collector and curator Klaus Littmann creates this exact scenario.

Littmann transformed the Wörthersee football stadium in Klagenfurt into Austria's largest public art installation titled, For Forest: The Unending Attraction of Nature. The installation asks viewers to imagine a world where trees thrive solely in specially designated spaces, like soccer stadiums.

The installation, which was inspired by Austrian artist and architect Max Peintner's artwork The Unbroken Attraction of Nature, feels particularly poignant as we witness the annihilation of the world’s “lungs”. We are reminded that if we don’t take proper action right now, we will become spectators to rare pieces of land that once was our living nature.

I believe we can do better and that we need to do better. In Colombian popular culture, when something is inevitable, we call it a “chronicle of a death foretold”, taken from one of Gabriel García Márquez’s most famous novels. In the case of the amazon rainforest, everyone knows what the consequences of illegal environmental activities are, but very few (or no one) will actually step up and do something to prevent the results. Now breathe, here are some ideas to help with the amazon reforestation.