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Can a fast food company save the Amazon?

By Lena Aahlby - posted Thursday, 14 May 2009

Tackling the environmental challenges we face today is everybody’s business. And sometimes this becomes, very literally, a business proposition.

Nobody knows this better than McDonald’s who, after coming under attack by Greenpeace for contributing to the deforestation of the Amazon, decided to bite the bullet and work with Greenpeace to find solutions that would protect the Amazon as well as meet the need of global business.

The tale of how Greenpeace and McDonalds came together reflects the complexities of a globalised economy. It also illustrates how once-unthinkable partnerships can become forces for good, addressing environmental and social problems that governments alone cannot solve.


Why the campaign?

The Amazon is the largest remaining tropical forest in the world. It is as large as Western Europe and extends over some 6.5 million square kilometres. It is thought to be the most diverse ecosystem on Earth. It is home to nearly 10 per cent of the world's mammals and a staggering 15 per cent of the world's known land-based plant species, with as many as 300 species of tree in a single hectare.

The Amazon basin is the largest reservoir of fresh water on the planet and about one fifth of all running water flows through the Amazon. Importantly the Amazon plays a vital role in keeping the world's climate stable.

Although the largest part of the Amazon is contained within Brazil, the forest stretches over eight more countries: Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guyana, Guyana, Peru, Surinam and Venezuela.

In Brazil alone the Amazon is home to more than 20 million people, including an estimated 220,000 people from 180 different indigenous nations. These people rely on the forest for their way of life. It provides almost everything from food and shelter to tools and medicines as well as playing a crucial role in people's spiritual and cultural life.

All this is threatened by a demand for cheap supplies of timber and, increasingly, by the large scale growing of cash crops such as soya. Between 60 and 80 per cent of all logging in the Brazilian Amazon is thought to be illegal, and more than one million hectares within the Amazon rainforests are already being used to grow soya, again much of this illegally.

A fifth of the Amazon rainforest has already been destroyed. Since the 1970s, an area twice the size of New Zealand has been lost. During a 12-month period in the early 2000’s the equivalent of 12 soccer pitches per minute disappeared. A significant part of what remains is under direct threat - as are the forest plants, animals and people who depend upon the forest.


The analysis that shaped this particular campaign was that while the ability of the Brazilian government to halt rampant deforestation in remote areas of the Amazon was very limited, the corporate sector could play a role in the protection of the forest.

While commodity traders such as Cargill and Bunge are anonymous to the average person their customers are often household names, making them sensitive to consumer pressure as they cannot afford to be seen to be complicit in the destruction of the environment. This sensitivity was leveraged by Greenpeace in this campaign.

McDonald’s role in the Amazon

In April 2006, Greenpeace published Eating up the Amazon, an investigation into the links between soya in the supply chains of leading international companies and the destruction of the Amazon forest.

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About the Author

Lena Aahlby is the Director and Founder of StrategyforChange, a consultancy that works with the not-for-profit sector on strategy development, campaign design, training and capacity building. Lena has extensive experience of working with NGOs both in Australia and internationally, most recently in her capacity as International Programme Director for Greenpeace at the global HQ in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Please see for more.

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All articles by Lena Aahlby

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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