The Amazon you don’t know

If we let stereotypes guide our thinking, we might think Brazilian ranchers are interested only in their crops or cows. But the truth is more complex.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Owner Mário Wolf talks about land use at Gamada farm in the Amazon on Jan. 30, 2020, near Alta Floresta, Mato Grosso, Brazil.

Human beings can be pretty terrible at recognizing their own misperceptions. Take a political science study from 2016 that asked members of each political party in the United States to guess at the composition of the other. For example, how many Republicans make more than $200,000?

What would you guess? Democrats queried for the study guessed that about 40% of Republicans earned that much a year. The actual figure? About 2%.

And it goes the other way, too. Republicans thought more than 30% of Democrats were lesbian, gay, or bisexual and 40% were union members. The actual figures? About 7% and 11%, respectively.

On some level, we all know this. When we talk about Facebook bubbles and rising segregation, this is really what we’re talking about. In the proportion that people become distant, the potential for misunderstanding and division grows.

What does any of that have to do with Sara Miller Llana's coverage of farming in the Amazon? It means we would be wise not to jump to conclusions about Mário Wolf.

If we were to let stereotypes guide our thinking, like many of those surveyed in 2016, we might think the Brazilian rancher is interested only in his crops or cows. In the effort to preserve the Amazon, after all, ranchers and farmers are the problem, right? Well, yes and no. True, farmers are the ones facing pressures to expand into the rainforest. But farmers like Mr. Wolf are also the ones looking for different solutions.

And that’s what this week’s cover story is about. Viewed from a different focal distance – from the farms themselves – the problem looks very different. From the agricultural heartland of the Mato Grosso state, it looks like the world is asking farmers to take the fall – to curtail their own livelihoods so others in the vague somewhere else will be benefited.

Why should we bear all the burden? Mr. Wolf asks. Why can’t those asking for us to make a sacrifice make some sacrifice themselves – teaching us better techniques, opening new markets, educating about the value of trees? Mr. Wolf’s point is: We can do it, but we need partners.

This is the danger of misperceptions. In our own communities, we help people unlike us every day because we see the value of the investment. When we all are a part of the same community, I win when you are better off. Holding prejudices is unprofitable.

Mr. Wolf is a hemisphere away, but he’s basically thinking the same thing. The real problem is that he feels antagonized by the world’s stereotypes of him and his fellow farmers. “We are the best preservers in the world,” he tells Sara. “We should win a prize.” Why should he make a sacrifice for the very people he sees as judging him?

This story, clearly, is not just about the Brazilian rainforest, but about the price of polarization in all its forms and how essential it is for each of us to challenge all our perceptions, because they might well be misperceptions.

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