The evening of April 15 2019 united the world in horror as the 859 year old Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral was engulfed in flames. The French-Gothic marvel felt immortal: she stoically witnessed centuries of French and European history; was desecrated by the Cult of Reason during the French Revolution; housed the coronation of Emperor Napoleon I and was scarred by bullets as Paris was liberated from Nazi Occupiers in 1944. It was as if the very heart of France – immortalised in the pages of classic literature, on the silver screen and in the hearts of all who visited – was crumbling before our eyes.
It felt apocalyptic.
Almost as soon as French President Emmanuel Macron sent out a call for donations, money began to pour in. By the end of the day, $670 million had been pledged. By April 22, three days later, donations reached $1.12 billion.
Enormous, headline-grabbing sums of money were donated by billionaires – many of them French. The Pinault family – owners of Converse shoes, Christie’s auction house and several premiere American ski resorts – pledged €100 million. Not to be outdone (not that it was a competition), The Arnault family of Louis Vuitton and Bettencourt family of L’Oréal each donated €200 million.
As of June 2019, only 10% of the money pledged to restore the cathedral had been donated. According to France24, this is mostly due to the contributors of small donors. The money from the Pinault and Arnault families is yet to materialise, but Christophe Rousselot of the Notre Dame Foundation told the Catholic news agency Aletia that the foundation is in the process of drafting agreements for the money to be donated in instalments, and believes that the full sums of money promised will be delivered.
The Notre-Dame fire is undeniably a tragedy and it is okay to mourn the loss of its elegant spire and arresting acoustics. But it is not a tragedy that threatens whole ecosystems, like the fires which ravaged the Amazon Rainforest in the summer of 2019.
As reports of the devastation began to filter into western news cycles, some people started to question why the same billionaires who were willing to promise vast amounts of money to restore a treasured cathedral than halt the destruction of an ecosystem in which one in ten of all species can be found.
Before one assesses why billionaires have not chipped in to the preservation effort, it should be noticed that it will take more than financial aid to halt and reverse the damage. Supporting NGOs who are fighting to protect the Amazon, especially those like Amazon Frontlines who promote indigenous-led conservation, is one way in which individuals can make a valuable contribution.
But it cannot be ignored that the primary causes of the devastation are economic. The Amazon is not on fire because of accidental wildfires caused by mother nature herself. It is actively being burned in order to clear land for agriculture – mostly cattle ranching. Brazil is the second largest producer of beef in the world (15%), after the United States.
The Brazilian beef lobby is extremely powerful. In 2017, as many as 207 out of 513 lawmakers in the Brazilian Congress are members of the ‘Beef Caucus’, who oversaw reductions in restrictions on cattle ranchers, making it easier for them to expand deeper into the Amazon.
The current Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has viewed protection of the Amazon as a barrier to economic development and deforestation has surged under his presidency. President Bolsonaro has rejected the G7’s offer of $20 million to fight the fires and has blamed the crisis on NGOs.
The sum of money offered by the G7, and Leonardo Di Caprio’s $5 million contribution, pale in comparison to the sums of money donated by billionaires to Notre Dame (and the $125 million budget of the 2017 Dreamworks movie Boss Baby). So why have they been so tight-fisted?
The answer could lie in the nature of the Amazon itself. Unlike with a historic building, there is nowhere for the billionaire donors and their trusts to have their names emblazoned; there is nowhere for them to stamp their names and their brands. Once the headlines have faded from circulation, there is no opportunity for promoting themselves and their business.
Dr Mortimer Sackler of Purdue Pharma donated heavily to the Westminster Abbey Restoration Appeal and Queen’s Dimond Jubilee Galleries. For their generosity, they were rewarded with two small windows dedicated to them in the triform. They also have a more dramatic stained glass window in the magnificent Henry VII Lady Chapel.
Who knows how the donors to the restoration of Notre-Dame wanted in return. But it’s clear that if they are thanked with a commemorative window or plaque like the Sacklers, their names, trusts and businesses will be linked with a building at the heart of French culture.
Philanthropy also an excellent public relations’ move if one is involved in unethical business practices. The afore-mentioned Sackler family have agreed to settle $12 billion of lawsuits against Purdue Pharma for costs related to the American Opioid Crisis.
Donations and philanthropy alone cannot save the Amazon from the destructive impact of cattle ranching. Since the motive for eroding protections on the Amazon in Brazil is economic and ideological in nature, political solutions are needed. The French President Emmanuel Macron and Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar have pledged to block the EU-Mercosur trade deal over the Brazilian government’s cavalier attitude towards the world’s largest rainforest. Only time will tell if other countries will join them.
The Amazon rainforest is burning at a rate 84% higher from 1 January to 20 August than over the same period in 2018. The number of fire outbreaks has exceeded 72,000, and all this is happening at a critical point in our battle against the Climate Crisis. The effects of the current crisis in the Amazon are wide ranging, with the potential to disturb international weather patterns and food production and the loss of such a vital carbon sink threatens our ability to meet the goals set out in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.
For the sake of the planet, we cannot afford to do nothing.
If you would like to do your bit to combat the emergency in the Amazon, please consider the following:
Donate to NGOs such as Amazon Frontlines, Rainforest Alliance, WWF, Earth Alliance and Amazon Watch. These organisations work with the indigenous communities who rely on the Amazon for their survival and have their existence threatened by the fires.
Write to your political representatives and urge them to put the Brazilian government under political pressure to act. This is particularly important if you live in the EU, as more countries are needed to state their opposition to the EU-Mercosur trade deal to block it.
Add your name to petitions like those from Greenpeace and share them afterwards. This, and sharing news about the crisis and education yourself and others is the least you could do.
Boycott companies and products which profit from exploiting the Amazon. The online tool Ethical Consumer can quickly identify companies and products to avoid.