Luis: Welcome to this new edition of Sachamama Talks to discuss environmental topics. My name is Luis Pavesio, I’m a journalist working for Sachamama.
Today we have a great guest, Emiliano Ezcurra. He is a prominent figure here in Argentina and an important environmental activist. He currently serves as the director of Banco de Bosques.
Welcome, Emiliano, and thank you very much for accepting this invitation.
Emiliano: No, please, Luis, thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to be here talking with you.
Luis: Emiliano, how did this passion for activism arise?
Emiliano: Well, my passion for activism has its origins in my childhood, at a very early age, around 11 years old. I remember being greatly upset by the abuse and harm inflicted on animals. Personally, I developed a primal connection right from the start. When I saw an animal being harmed, even if it was a domestic animal, it created a bond with something non-human. From that point on, I didn’t want anyone to harm a bird or a frog. I didn’t like what was, perhaps, a typical behavior in neighborhoods where young kids would go out hunting birds or frogs. I started disliking that. Over time, I processed these feelings and professionalized them. It was about seeking justice, preventing harm. I enjoyed understanding and knowing, but I enjoyed taking action even more. That’s when I felt a stronger urge to become an environmental activist, which later expanded not only to animals but also to forests and a more comprehensive focus on ecosystems.
Luis: How do you see society’s commitment to this issue? From the time when you were a child, when Emiliano started developing all that interest, to the present day.
Emiliano: Well, time has shown me with clarity. I am now 51 years old, and for over 30 years, I have been devoted to this passion that seems to never end, and hopefully it never does.
Emiliano: It never ends, and furthermore, it has allowed me to develop professionally. It’s a total dedication, and the truth is that we achieve things, we win battles, we lose others, and new threats also arise. When I was younger, there probably wasn’t as much awareness, and many countries didn’t have environmental secretariats or even environmental ministries like they do today. But, for example, the great packaging revolution hadn’t occurred yet. It was a major regression in recent times. Instead of progressing towards a more sustainable packaging system, humanity regressed significantly by relying heavily on plastic packaging, for instance. That’s just one example of a new threat that emerged, and I witnessed its birth. It wasn’t something that I saw resolved over time through the actions of activists; it became one of the three major monsters that plague ecosystems in the world, alongside climate change and biodiversity loss. So, it’s a dual situation. We have achieved things and made progress in many areas, but we have also regressed and lost ground in others. Therefore, we must always remain alert and active to defend biodiversity on this planet, especially on World Biodiversity Day.
Luis: Emiliano, do you see more awareness in the population or in governments?
Emiliano: Definitely in the population, that is undeniable. There are many signs that the population is becoming increasingly aware. However, when it comes to human beings, there is something fundamental: culture. Changing consumer habits is very difficult. Someone once said, one of those gurus of Public Relations and management, and it’s very true: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” It means that it is very difficult for human beings to change their cultural habits. Washing a yogurt container is something that only a few dedicated environmentalists do. In general, even people with good intentions just throw it away without washing it. They don’t go that far or avoid plastic when they’re at the supermarket and putting two lemons on the scale. They could do without plastic, but they don’t. So, we are surrounded by habits that, like ants, are major destroyers of the planet. However, if there is no support from governments and companies, it will be very difficult to succeed. One cannot go from house to house begging people to separate their garbage because they might do it for a while, but it will be very limited. The people whom you convince one day will have returned to their old habits the next day. Therefore, in purchasing decisions, in the selection of products and services, and in how we behave at home, if this awareness is not connected with the government and companies, it will be very difficult to reverse these situations that are really complicating ecosystems and us as well.
Luis: And what are we lacking? Because you say we convince someone, we lack campaigns, we need to fully convince people. Where would you start?
Emiliano: Well, a central issue is that governments take it seriously, I mean, really seriously. Yes, we have a Ministry of the Environment, but it’s clear that what happens, and I have experienced it from within because I spent four years as a public official, so I had my experience in the government. It was a rich experience that enriched me and taught me a lot, and it also made me change some of my beliefs while confirming others that I suspected.
Both things have happened to me because nothing is black or white, let’s say, things are quite complex. But in order for this to change, Luis, it has to be taken very seriously. Let me give you a simple example that describes how things are not taken seriously. In the city of Buenos Aires, they propose: “Well, let’s eliminate plastic bags.” No one is asking for all porteños to become vegetarians or vegans to reduce the impact or for all houses, apartments, or construction renovations to use responsibly sourced FSC-certified wood and paper. It’s not about going to an extreme. No, it’s just about eliminating plastic bags, something that has a huge impact. Besides, the city could be a pioneer in something. If Buenos Aires can do it, why can’t the rest of Argentina? We were not proposing something disruptive like “no more oil in Argentina” or “let’s not exploit Vaca Muerta” as our contribution to global climate. No, nobody asked for something that disruptive, that would complicate Argentina’s finances so much, like “let’s not touch a gram of gas or oil in Vaca Muerta.” No, it was about the plastic bags, Luis, the plastic bags. But it was enough for the plastic union to raise their voice a little, and the issue got bogged down. We couldn’t win that silly, simple battle of getting rid of plastic bags. It worked for a while in supermarkets, and then it stopped working. In smaller supermarkets, the plastic bags continued, and in many other businesses, which are the worst because they quickly reach the Rio de la Plata, meaning they quickly reach the sea, meaning they quickly end up in the stomach of a turtle, a dolphin, or a shark. Marine biologists are tired of performing necropsies on marine mammals and seabirds filled with plastic. That’s why I say the authorities were not willing to go all the way with this issue. Well, guys, start producing paper bags, produce fabric bags, but this can’t go on. No one is asking for the factory to shut down; they can adapt and we can lend them a hand. If they don’t take it seriously at that level, it becomes extremely difficult to achieve significant changes. That’s why I say that environmental departments in governments are still taken lightly, not in terms of speeches, but when it comes to actions, yes, when it comes to actions.
Luis: Emiliano, you mentioned that one of your passions throughout these years as an environmentalist is forests, and for quite a few years now, you have been directing the NGO Banco de Bosques. How did this idea come about and how does it work?
Emiliano: Well, the idea of Banco de Bosques emerged because of the era we live in, meaning we have the possibility, from a cellphone, from that little piece of glass, which when we were kids, we never imagined we would be able to have free video calls from one country to another, looking at each other face to face. We come from the era of postcards and handwritten letters, look where we are today. Now, we can buy land using a cellphone, meaning we can donate square meters of land from the other side of the world using a cellphone. Electronic payment systems and geolocation systems allow this. I have worked for many years with great philanthropists like Tompkins, Butler, Wyss, who are admired by millions of people and applauded by governments that are recipients of their large land donations, which they make to create national parks. Often, the lands they buy are lands that could have fallen into the wrong hands. Essentially, Banco de Bosques brings this logic to the everyday person who doesn’t need to be a millionaire. Today, we can be like a Santiago Maratea of biodiversity and contribute square meters among thousands of people to save a piece of native forest that was within a property that went up for sale in the real estate market, where they would bulldoze over it. It’s as simple as that. You just need to look at the classified ads in the newspapers, especially on Saturdays when rural properties are published, especially in northern Argentina. That’s where the truth lies. Santiago del Estero, 5,000 hectares, Taboada department, 3,000 cleared, 2,000 to be developed. What does that mean? 3,000 cleared means the bulldozer has already passed, and 2,000 to be developed means the bulldozer is coming. Those types of classified ads are replicated over and over again in Salta, Formosa, Chaco, and other regions of Argentina. Even in Córdoba, with the few forests that remain, and Entre Ríos still has deforestation situations.
Banco de Bosques stands up against that. It asks you to be a Robin Hood, to join that army of small gadflies that will annoy the giant who can simply buy that property that was advertised and bulldoze over it. Well, among many Davids, we can stand up against that Goliath and cleanly take the property away by buying it in the market, without having to chain ourselves to a bulldozer, which I have done, chaining myself to a bulldozer. But I see that today this tool is extremely effective and is an ideal complement to activism.
Luis: And how many square meters have you managed to protect or purchase through Banco de Bosques all these years?
Emiliano: Well, imagine that 10,000 square meters fit in one hectare. In just one hectare, there are 10,000 square meters. And through our actions with small, medium, and large donors, we have now surpassed 140,000 hectares. So, if we multiply 140,000 by 10,000, we get a huge number of millions of square meters. And we need to realize that this is just the beginning. We have achieved a very significant impact, creating Protected Natural Areas and national parks, such as El Impenetrable, which is the greatest trophy we have in our 15 years of existence. But there has also been an expansion of natural areas, protected areas in the province of Misiones, which fall under provincial jurisdiction. We work with both national and provincial authorities. The great challenge that lies ahead of us in the future is not necessarily creating protected natural areas, but starting to buy forests that will become producers of honey, tourism, certified meat. We need to start changing the businesses that are destroying the forests, like the firewood and charcoal business, which is terrifying. When you analyze the social and ecological footprint of the charcoal and firewood we use for Sunday barbecues, it’s mind-boggling.
Well, we need to go there and think about transforming the base production by implementing forest engineering instead of forest mining, which has been happening in Argentina with native forests for decades.
That is our great challenge. We love protected areas, national parks, and provincial parks. You know me, it’s my downfall. But in between, there are still many forests that serve as biological corridors, and they are also at risk of being destroyed by bulldozers. It’s important to tell the bulldozer operator: “Are you doing this for money? Well, with this alternative, you can also make money, and it’s sustainable, and it’s much safer because it doesn’t depend on whether it rains or not.” Businesses based on standing forests may have a more modest short-term income, but in the long run, they are extremely secure. That’s the entry into the world of sustainable business, and that’s why we have the word “Banco” (Bank) in our name. It’s the great challenge we have to face, and we cannot back down from it because we can’t create a large national park in the middle of the country. We can’t expect the entire country to become a national park. In places where there are no protected areas, there must be truly sustainable production in the 21st century—virtuous, purposeful production where companies strive not only to be the best company in the world but to be the best company for the world. Economic, social, and environmental aspects go hand in hand. If we can’t win this battle… Well, we are not alone in this, but I believe that whoever wins this battle, they must do it with a team because it’s a key battle.
Luis: What is happening that deforestation continues to occur worldwide despite the tremendous impact of climate change and the accelerating pace at which it is happening?
Emiliano: Well, because there are highly profitable businesses involved, and it’s always a matter of money that complicates changing large investment projects that are known to be successful. The case of soybean is a clear example. It’s the dietary shift in Asia, where there’s an increase in meat consumption in a massive population of the world. Every time a new McDonald’s or Kentucky Fried Chicken opens in China, there’s a huge demand for soybean. People may wonder, what does it have to do with selling hamburgers or chicken pieces? The thing is, those chicken pieces and hamburgers require a lot of feed, and they need to be fed quickly. Soybean provides the vegetable protein for them.
The increase in the use of diapers, feminine hygiene products, facial tissues like Carilina or Rolisec, replacing traditional cloth towels in households of families moving into the middle class in Asia, creates a significant demand. Previously, they used cloth towels instead of disposable tissues, and babies didn’t use disposable diapers. All of these products involve millions and millions of tons of cellulose. Cellulose is the soybean of the kitchen and the living room.
The major conflicts that arose from the installation of pulp mills, inaccurately called “paper mills,” in Uruguay, like the famous Botnia case in Gualeguaychú. Why did they emerge? Why are there still plans for large pulp mills in Brazil and Paraguay? Just as the dietary shift in Asia drives the demand for soybean, the shift in habits in Asia also drives the demand for pulp, as pulp is the essential raw material for tissue paper, diapers, feminine hygiene products, toilet paper, and the household products like Rolisec. It’s interesting how something seemingly trivial and close to us plays a significant role. This is where we find the answer to your question of why deforestation continues. Processed foods that require palm oil, which is a major commodity, also contribute to deforestation. Behind these commodities, we find a substantial part, or even a significant part, of the answer to your question of why deforestation persists.
Luis: The truth is that we have a long way to go to be able to modify everything that is happening on the planet, right? So, well, let’s hope that measures can be taken quickly. People need to become aware because I think everyone is experiencing the consequences. In places where it used to rain regularly, there are now severe droughts, and in places where it didn’t rain much, there are floods. The number of environmental refugees around the world is increasing, and we have the impending issue of people having to relocate due to rising sea levels. I believe we need the commitment of everyone. It’s not just up to governments or the state or laws; we as consumers have great decision-making power. If we all act consciously and responsibly, we could achieve a significant change. What do you think?
Emiliano: Yes, without a doubt, it’s the pressure from the people that makes governments and companies move. There are also many examples of that in Argentina, even with all the economic crisis and unemployment. When Mendoza and Chubut said, “We don’t want a law that changes the rules of the game,” regarding the mining case, they didn’t expect it, but they had to reverse their decision.
Emiliano: There are wake-up calls there. When people organize, they become unstoppable. It’s also good to have political leaders with vision and creative business leaders. I believe in that too, in the power of people, as you said, in becoming increasingly aware and responsible. Because it’s a collective effort and also appeals to the creativity of entrepreneurs. A creative entrepreneur who brings a product to the market that generates solutions is making a huge contribution to humanity, and I hope they become wealthy. A politician with vision who can solve these problems without leaving people behind, but by changing, restructuring, and collaborating with the creativity of the business world. That’s the type of politician the world needs today, the one we need. It’s the three pillars working together that will pull us out of the pit. I’m always very optimistic that we will achieve it because we have won significant battles before. We managed to halt the destruction of the ozone layer, the most serious global threat we have faced in our history as humans on this planet. Why? Because the private sector provided technological solutions, governments around the world reached agreements, and consumers reacted.
The same must happen with biodiversity loss and climate change, which are the other two major calamities along with plastic, which is also on the rise as one of the top three environmental destroyers. So, that’s my opinion, my stance on this issue, and I thank you very much, Luis.
Luis: No, thank you, Emiliano. It has been a pleasure. Thank you for accepting this invitation. I’m sure we’ll have more talks because time is always too short when talking with you. One could spend hours talking with you, and the truth is that your experience, knowledge, and vision are admirable. We have worked together extensively, traveled the country, and been in many places working and carrying out actions, campaigns, showing both the good and the bad realities and the problems we face, but also how we are working to find solutions. We will meet again in another Sachamama Talks session, so Emiliano, thank you very much for accepting this invitation, and we tell our audience that we will meet again in the next installment of Sachamama Talks.
Emiliano: Thank you very much, thanks, Luis. A big hug. I hope to see you soon. Thank you, until next time. Goodbye.
SUMMARY: We had an interesting conversation with Emiliano Ezcurra, a tireless defender of our ecosystems. He told us how his passion for the environment began when he was a child, and we discussed the importance of being responsible consumers. We talked about the threats that forests face and how we can protect them.
Emiliano shared how anyone in the world can save square meters of native forests in perpetuity by visiting the Banco de Bosques website.
If you are a conservation enthusiast, you can’t miss this interview.
BIOGRAPHY: Emiliano Ezcurra is a renowned environmental activist. In 1985, he joined Greenpeace and was part of the organization for 20 years. He later founded the NGO Banco de Bosques, which has been active for 15 years. From 2015 to 2019, he served as Vice President of National Parks in Argentina.