Sarah spoke about how deforestation, illegal mining, and mercury poisoning in the Amazon impacts all of us. Learn more about her film River of Gold and how you can add your voice to the project.
BY PAKSY PLACKIS-CHENG
Sarah, you visited a pristine Peruvian Amazon in the summer of 1999. Then you returned to the area ten years later and saw a mercury-filled river. At the current rate of illegal mining and deforestation, what is the Amazon going to look like in another decade?
Some top scientists have said that a snowball effect is being created by continuous deforestation of the Amazon exacerbating the rate of destruction further. Trees in the Amazon create moisture. When you start cutting down trees, you’re bringing drought to the area and the Amazon begins to dry out and become susceptible to fire; fires which have pretty much been unheard of before.
The Amazon needs about 80 percent of the trees standing to continue the hydrological cycle which releases approximately 20 billion tons of moisture daily necessary to seed rain clouds around the world. We are at 81 percent now. That’s 1 percent leeway.
A lot of the scientific data is showing that we’re getting really close to that tipping point. Once that happens, the Amazon could turn into grass-covered plains and that water cycle could stop. In ten years, I would say that the Amazon is going to have a lot more loss, because you need those trees standing for the water cycle to continue.
I’m in California. In your film, you show research on how the weather patterns are changing because of the correlation between the deforestation in the Amazon and the droughts on the West Coast of the United States.
The absence of rain is complicated, but research has shown that part of the change is brought about by the continuing deforestation of the Amazon and global warming. The combination of the two has shown a reduction of the rainforest’s role as a giant “water pump.” You don’t want to lose the Amazon’s ability to release billions of liters of humidity from the trees into the air in the form of vapor. That’s going to exacerbate climate change.
I’m sure there are no easy answers, but broad brush, how do we turn this around?
I have learned a lot about the Amazon, but I’m not a scientist. I’m just a mom, really, of four children. [Laughs.] I consider myself an educator and what I realized was that this information, which I learned from the scientists, wasn’t getting out to the general public.
Amazon Aid was created with the mission of taking complicated scientific information and sharing it with global audiences. If people don’t know what is happening, then they can’t have a voice.
One of the first things that I think is important is to create awareness of the importance of the Amazon and the global implications of its destruction. Then promote solutions. We can keep the trees standing. That’s the most important thing that we can do: keep the forest standing and reforest. A lot more is needed.
Next would be putting more pressure on governments. Being a better consumer, and lending your voice to demand that it is protected.
Speaking about being a better consumer by making choices with our buying power. Is there an alternative metal that people should consider instead of gold?
That is an interesting question. Gold is an important and valuable metal. It’s an amazing conductor for mobile phones and other electronics. It’s used as a commodity in so many different ways and it is unrealistic to try and stop gold mining. River of Gold is about illegal gold mining and the goal is to regulate it. There are safer ways to mine without using mercury. I think it should be legalized, contained, regulated, and kept in areas that cause the least amount of damage to the forests.
This type of artisanal and small scale gold mining (ASGM) is found in approximately 80 countries and it’s the number one release of mercury on the planet. Once you put mercury into the system, it’s really hard to get it out. They recently did research in the San Francisco Bay on mercury toxic levels in fish and wildlife; it will take more than 100 years for the Bay to recover from the mercury found in the bay mud. It is insane to be doing this in the Amazon, which carries 20 percent of the planet’s fresh water to the sea, and houses some of the world’s highest numbers of biodiversity. Approximately 76 percent of all people tested in Madre de Dios have approximately three times above toxic levels of mercury in their system.
We’re talking about a very serious element that’s being released.
I’m thinking we need more policy changes.
Yes, we are pushing for policy changes. There is pressure from other governments, for instance with COP21, Sustainable Innovation Forum. Countries like Norway and Germany are interested in helping and in funding the protection of the Amazon. They are saying, “OK, the Amazon is in Peru. It’s in Brazil and seven other South American nations. What can we do to support you to protect the forest, all the way in Norway?”
We need more of that from governments and we need people like you and me to lend our voices to protect the Amazon. The wonderful thing is that it’s not too late, we can all play our part in helping to keep the trees standing.
Illegal mining is connected with organized crime and corruption. What are the steps there to make inroads to change?
It’s all about governance. The problem in Peru is that you have a physical disconnect between Lima, the seat of the national government, and the states where the illegal gold mining is occurring in the Amazon. You have to fly over the Andes from Lima to the lowlands of the Amazon where the local governments are pro-mining. Since 2001, after 9/11, the prices of gold soared; thousands and thousands of miners have come to this once pristine area to mine for gold. Because it is illegal and unregulated, it breeds major corruption, child slavery, human trafficking, narcotics trafficking, organized crime, and money laundering. The corruption in Madre de Dios, where the illegal mining is occurring is overwhelming. The national Peruvian government does not have the bandwidth to shut that down.
Give me an example of how Amazon Aid made a lasting impact in tackling these issues.
Amazon Aid’s short film “Amazon Gold” was screened in Lima, Peru in 2013. So many people showed up for the screening that a second screen had to be set up. It made the front pages of the newspaper and within a couple weeks, the army started to go in and bomb the illegal mining camps.
We’ve worked very closely with the U.S. government as well as the Peruvian government. It was shown at COP2o. The U.S. government picked three projects to showcase, and ours was one. I’d say the impact that we’ve made with this film has been policy changing.
What has been surprising to learn while making your first film?
How difficult it is!
When you’re looking at the end of a film and see all those credits, you just cannot believe the amount of working parts that it takes to create a film. To me, it’s incredibly complex. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. It was a very steep learning curve.
Give me an example of what was challenging.
One of the hardest parts was to go into a very dangerous, volatile place, and not know if we would come out with anything, or if we would come out alive. We went into places where no one had ever filmed before and you can’t even get into now. It’s impossible.
Then making sure that the science was impeccable and not boring. The film is made for curriculum so if you’re a teacher, you can teach units around it.
The other really difficult part of all this is watching the Amazon go up in flames. That is, to me, the hardest thing. I know way too much about it. I dream about it or I can’t sleep at night because of it.
It is like feeling you’re on a dead run to protect something so critical for the health of our planet. It is a huge responsibility I feel every day. But then to know that we’ve got a film that actually could maybe make a difference makes me feel hopeful.
We always ask our interviewees who’s had an impact on their professional DNA. Now for you I’m sure there’s been many people, but if you would have to name one or two people.
I would say Dr. Thomas Lovejoy, because he’s so inspirational. One time I asked Tom “If we brought together children from around the world to engage in reforesting the Amazon, can you help us do that? Can you show us where we should strategically plant the trees to keep the hydrological cycle intact?” He said, “Absolutely, and Sarah, remember that one of the most important things is to never give up hope. The solutions are there and we need to walk through the door to protect it together. We must never, never give up hope.”
The second person that I would like to say has helped me tremendously is Sissy Spacek, the actress. She is one of the narrators of the film [together with Herbie Hancock]. First of all, she is one of the loveliest individuals I’ve ever met, very generous. She spent a long time talking to me about what I needed for the film. She’s always been rooting me on. She’s like my cheerleader. She kept saying, “Don’t give up. You can do it. You can do it, just have faith.”
How did you even decide that you needed to make a film about the Amazon?
I thought a lot about what I could do to make change? The only thing I came up with is to film it. Make a documentary, so other people can feel like they’re there and that they can witness it with me. That was the only thing that I could think of that could possibly have a global effect.
So no prior filmmaking or videography experience or an art school background?
Totally, totally, totally clueless! [Laughs.]I had no idea! It was really, really, really hard, but I just knew I had to do it. I felt like I had no choice. I felt a huge responsibility to tell the world what was going on.
The theatrical release of your film River of Gold will be launched next fall. What are the next steps?
We are really excited to working with Submarine, the production company that has been involved with many Oscar winning docs. Our goal is secure the next funding and start a huge social impact campaign to create a Blood Diamond scenario [where the film informed the public about conflict diamonds; diamonds funding the civil wars of Angola and Sierra Leone]. The film and accompanying curriculum, already in process, will be given to schools to empower the youth and used as a tool to educate governments, organizations, and global audiences about the Amazon. We push for policy change to not only keep the forests standing, but to ask for a clean mercury-free supply chain for gold. It is a huge task, but we always remain hopeful. If we do that, we will have realized many objectives.
We’re a small organization, which I think is neat — we’re a girl team! We are three women and Celia [Castleman, Amazon Aid’s Executive Director] is a freaking dynamo! [Laughs.]
Celia, how else is Amazon Aid making an impact?
The ultimate goal for Amazon Aid is to create awareness and empower others, especially young people to have a voice.
We are also working with seven computer science students from the University of Virginia that are writing the code for a big, beautiful piece of art. People can hover over the grid and catch a square, which opens up to an individual’s personal account of the Amazon.
We also have incredible videos, audios, and images from National Geographic photographers. It’s a huge library. It’s a way for every single person, wherever they are across the globe, to be a guardian of the rainforest. In doing so, they relay their story as it relates to the film or they can add their stories if they have traveled in the Amazon. They can share why the Amazon is important to them, why they want to protect it.
You tell your story and share it with five of your friends and also invite them to share. By the time it’s circled around, we’ll have created global awareness about the urgency to protect the Amazon and the reasons why. Your voice is huge and very important.
The film River of Gold will be released in 2018.