The reach of a forest extends far beyond what the naked eye can see; beneath the earthen floor is a vast network of intertwining roots much akin to neural pathways that allow the trees to communicate with one another. Author and forester Peter Wohlleben has pointed out that trees use these networks to surmise how other trees are “feeling.” If one tree is ill, another tree—even of a different species—will send it nourishment. They do this because they know that one tree alone cannot survive, but united as a forest, they can thrive.
In many senses, then, forests can be thought of as holobionts—superorganisms made up of a multitude of species, all working towards the same goal. It’s a similar concept to James Lovelock’s #GaiaHypothesis, which theorizes that all living beings are part of one massive, self-regulating organism, each serving their part of the collective whole.
A jungle that sprawls over two million square miles, the Amazon falls prey to a lack of law enforcement, with land that is frequently illegally claimed and cleared. This doesn’t just affect the local wildlife, either—indigenous peoples are forced to defend themselves against miners and loggers whose work threatens their homes, water and food supplies, and traditional ways of life.
Sixty percent of the rainforest falls under the jurisdiction of Brazil, a country that has seen a retrenchment of environmental protection laws and slashed funds for enforcement in recent years. This is only expected to worsen under the watch of newly elected President Jair Bolsonaro. “Where there is indigenous land, there is wealth underneath it,” the climate change skeptic recently said.
Words and Photographs by Daniel Beltrá
Only in the worst cases does my work take a personal toll when I’m out in the field. My mind is very concentrated on getting the shots I need, as they require a lot. I work on projects that are worldwide in scale, from polar ice caps melting to dwindling tropical rainforests, from Antarctica to Indonesia. I can only concentrate on that. I’m trying to create an image to tell a story, a metaphor for what’s happening to our planet. So, emotionally, I would say the toll often comes later. I get post-traumatic stress when I look back, when I realize how many people don’t see things the same way that we do. It's complicated.
There is a lot of beauty in nature, but also so many layers to investigate. When it comes to photographing it, the images I like the most are the really simple ones. It's like peeling an onion. You're removing all the layers that can be a bit confusing, and you find simplicity. I don't think we will ever understand exactly what is happening at the true deepest levels of nature. Discoveries happen—many by the day, when we’re talking about the Amazon—and yet we only know 10 percent of the species. My work is really in documenting the impact we are having on nature. Too many photographers showcase how beautiful the world looks—the beautiful landscape, the beautiful tiger—and not enough are telling the other side to the story. You have to look closer.
Some of the harshest things I've seen happen could only truly be witnessed through careful observation. Take the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. It took a while to realize what was happening, but the spill went on for three months, so we had the chance to see it develop. At the beginning, it was just some oil in the middle of the Gulf, far away from the coast, and you didn't see much impact. Then, once I started to observe it constantly—24/7—it really was horrible to see how the animals and the local populations were affected. I've been in Brazil, in the Amazon, where normally the destruction of the rainforest happens in different stages. First, there are some loggers that go to pick the most expensive hardwoods. Then, there are the loggers that take the other species, and then, the farmers that come in and cut and burn the rest. So, by the time you reach an area that has been cut and burned, you walk through that and you see the animals burned. You see monkeys burned. I have photos of animals burned after the fires, and it’s horrible.
I would hope these images inspire a willingness to act and to demand change—to push politicians in the right direction. Definitely the last year has been complicated, I mean the president we have in the U.S.—you know, what is happening here with all the regulations. Anywhere you look, it's a long term battle that we need to keep fighting. It's very important not to feel too depressed and to not give up. I’ve never understood how the environment became a political issue...Does one side of the spectrum not care about having clean water or clean air for themselves and their kids, but the other one does? No, we should all be in this together. I often joke that the earth is like a fishbowl: We are all in it and everything we produce, everything we consume, stays inside.
What keeps me going is humankind’s ability to solve problems. If we can send someone to the moon, surely our problems here can’t be so insurmountable. Sometimes, people ask me if I am an optimist, and I respond, “Well what’s the other option?” If someone were to drop me in the middle of a lake, far from the shore, what would I do? I would do my best to make it to that shore. So, let's stop fighting and start finding solutions. When people tell me that they don’t believe in climate change, I say come travel with me, see the glaciers in Greenland and Alaska, see the ice melting in the summer like ice cream. There are so many places where you can see that what is happening to our world is real, and there is direct scientific evidence that says it's our fault. So, let's work together towards a common goal, which is really a common benefit, because at the end of the day, the planet is going to be here. It's us that might not be.