Did You Get That Handbag From…The Amazon Rainforest?

Here in Copenhagen, while negotiators hash out the details of an international climate agreement, thousands of organizations and businesses from all over the globe are monitoring the talks and bringing to the table ideas for how to solve the climate crisis.

National Wildlife Federation is working to solve a big problem: uncontrolled cattle ranching, which is right now the single biggest cause of rainforest destruction in the Brazilian Amazon, and subsequently, a major source of global warming pollution.

When millions of acres of rainforest are wiped out to make room for cattle or the crops that feed them, it removes a significant CO2 sponge that had been holding carbon in the ground. When the trees are cut or burned, massive amounts of CO2 are released into the atmosphere. Right now, tropical deforestation accounts for about 20 percent of the world’s global warming pollution (PDF) – an amount equivalent to the total emissions of China or the United States, or more than that produced by every car, truck, plane, ship and train on Earth.

A recent article in the newsletter of the Yale School of Forestry tells a stark story.

I interviewed NWF’s international policy expert Barbara Bramble today about an event she hosted at COP15 about what’s being done to address this problem:

I had no idea that the leather boots I’m wearing could very well have come from the hides of cattle being raised on clear-cut land that was once Brazilian rainforest, and may actually have contributed to global warming.

Barbara explained it to me like this:

What can be done? An effort led by NWF and local organizations in the Amazon is underway to improve local law enforcement and develop incentives for ranchers to use sustainable ranching practices that avoid massive deforestation. At the same time, we’re working to educate big retailers who buy huge amounts of leather to make shoes, belts, purses and other popular leather products about the source of their material. If big retailers insist that their leather come from sustainable ranches, and reward responsible ranchers with more business, these products become more valuable, which becomes a win-win for the ranchers and the rainforest.

In August, NWF hosted a roundtable in Brazil that brought together major retailers, leather manufacturers and large ranching operations to discuss the potential for creating a tracking system not unlike the Forest Stewardship Council’s timber tracking system. By tracing leather products back to the actual ranch on which a calf was raised, retailers – and we the customers – can be assured our leather products are not contributing to global warming. Barbara and her colleagues are going back to Brazil in January to continue this important work.

To learn more about about protecting rainforests, go to www.forestjustice.org.

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Published: December 12, 2009