The Amazon’s destruction in everyday colour is terrible enough. But a special photographic method reveals the true toll of mining, logging, and other human activities on the world’s largest rainforest.
Artist Richard Mosse used multispectral photography to create large-scale images, which he refers to as “living maps,” that capture the forest in a state of dire decline, one that could lead to irreversible tipping points in just a few decades. They are part of his new Tristes Tropiques exhibition, a body of work that describes the destruction being carried out across what Mosse calls the Amazon’s “arc of fire,” the area of land with the highest number of fires per year in the rainforest. This area is roughly equivalent to the distance between the U.S.’s northern border with Canada and its southern border with Mexico.
Mosse’s photos highlight the horrific situation in the Amazon, which is one of the planet’s most important sources of carbon sequestration, capturing and storing billions of tons of carbon dioxide every year. But if we’re not careful, the rainforest could be lost — and with it, one of our best natural allies to protect the Earth’s climate.
The Technology Used to Protect and Destroy the Amazon
Paradoxically, the technology Mosse used to sound the alarm about the crisis in the Amazon is used by scientists to study changes to the environment and also by those seeking to exploit it for profit. Multispectral photography involves remote sensing camera technology that captures spectral bandwidths of reflected light invisible to the human eye, such as infrared light. The cameras can be used to collect data from large areas of land. The data is then interpreted using GIS software in order to develop maps that provide information on the environment.
Multispectral photography is used by scientists to track deforestation, ecological damage, areas of concentrated carbon dioxide release, toxic pollution, and other damage. It is also used by the agribusiness and mineralogy sectors — which are responsible for almost all of the Amazon’s deforestation — to gain information about the health of crops, drainage patterns, and the locations of rare Earth minerals.
Another Use Appears: Showing the Extent of Human Damage to the Forest
While industry tracks human impacts for profit, Mosse, meanwhile, opted to use multispectral photography to demonstrate the impact humans are having on the rainforest. He acquired a small, 10-band multispectral camera designed to be operated by drone and used by the agribusiness sector to assist farmers in identifying which of their crops are under stress and need attention. With great difficulty, the artist told Buzzfeed News, he learned to fly his drone and camera over sites of environmental crimes in the region.
“Environmental crime and deforestation in the Amazon have been normalized, and my objective is to highlight and communicate these crimes in order to, in the words of Rebecca Solnit, ‘make what has long been accepted unacceptable,’” Mosse said.
Making Climate Change Visible
The artist was drawn to the Amazon after the record-breaking fires there in summer 2019, the same year Brazil’s far-right president Jair Bolsonaro came to office promising to exploit the region. The fires are used to clear land, and deforestation reached an 11-year high that year. Mosse said he decided to undertake the project because he wanted to attempt to make climate change visible. Deforestation, he noted, is a process that occurs over a number of years and its effects are not easy to show.
“The rainforest’s destruction occurs all around, across several countries, wilfully carried out by millions of people,” Mosse said. “It’s certainly visible, but processes that occur to the land itself can be very difficult to describe.”
Reading Mosse’s “Living Maps” of the Amazon
Mosse’s living maps are visually breathtaking, but also evoke an unmistakable sadness when you realise exactly what you’re looking at. Nonetheless, they’re not exactly easy to read at first because the colours can’t be taken literally. Speaking to Fast Company, the artist said the colours in the images have a different meaning depending on which one you’re looking at. They are an aesthetic tool to “disarm the viewer” and push them to consider the destruction in a different way.
In Burnt Pantanal I and Burnt Pantanal II, for instance, the colours violet and red represent the forest’s foliage, while greens, blues, and browns represent decay. Black represents the death of plant life. Taken all together, you can’t help but look at Burnt Pantanal I and think that you’re looking at the last remaining vestiges of life. The colours green, blue, brown, and black overwhelm the image.
The Amazon Is in Trouble
A growing body of research shows the pressures on the Amazon are reaching unprecedented levels. As part of Bolsonaro’s plan to open the region to mining, logging, and farming, he has cut environmental protection budgets and also kicked Indigenous groups off their land. Tribes have long been protectors of the rainforest, and expropriating them from their land has worsened the crisis unfolding in the region while also destroying their culture.
More deforestation is fragmenting the Amazon. That could permanently alter the ecosystem, turning it into less of a rainforest and more of a savanna. Other findings show the Amazon could also be turning into a net carbon emitter, which would be terrible news given that its trees have helped blunt some of the carbon pollution from human activities around the globe. It points to the urgent need to protect the rainforest and the Indigenous groups who rely on it rather than tear it down.
Using Stories to Fight Climate Denial
As an artist, Mosse’s work tells some of this story. He said these stories about the loss of the rainforests are critical to creating meaningful change and challenge climate denial narratives, which are the de facto position of the Republican party in the U.S. as well as an increasing number of right wing governments like Bolsonaro’s abroad. Even politicians putting forward climate plans still aren’t pursuing them with enough ambition to make a dent in global greenhouse gas pollution.
“We must begin to convey these narratives more powerfully — to challenge climate denialism, apathy and inaction in more compelling, urgent and impactful ways — to make people feel something,” Mosse said. “Because that’s our power, as artists and as storytellers: we have the ability to make people feel things in new and original ways.”
The War in the Forest
Environmental crimes and deforestation have been normalized in the Amazon, including even the murder of those trying to defend the forest. Ultimately, all of our fates are tied to the fate of the Amazon. Mosse quoted United Nations Secretary General António Guterres when describing what he saw in the Amazon: “Humanity is waging a war on nature. This is suicidal.”
The artist characterised the area as having some of the most tragic landscapes he has ever seen, akin to a nuclear winter. The colour has left the rainforest, the sounds have grown silent, and the landscape is filled with ash and the dead, burned bodies of primates, sloths, and other animals that tried to escape the fires.
The State of the Amazon Rainforest Today
Although the majority of Tristes Tropiques was shot by Mosse in 2020, the Amazon’s situation has not improved. By April of this year, deforestation in the Amazon rainforest had already cleared an area of land almost the size of Los Angeles, or 446 square miles (1,157 square kilometers). Data show that deforestation has been rising in recent months ahead of the annual burning season in the region.
Brazil faces intense political pressure by the U.S. and others to stop the destruction, but it remains to be seen if something will actually be done under the country’s current leadership. All recent signs are not hopeful, though.
As Mosse said, “the writing is on the wall.” The Amazon rainforest is critical to our fight against climate change, and the actions we take now will shape the Amazon of the future. If we don’t move to save it, the world will lose one of its great allies in the climate crisis, and we will be left to face the dangerous consequences.