Twenty years ago, while on tour with Sting in South America, I found myself in a frighteningly small and ramshackle aeroplane flying over the stunning green canopy of the Amazonian rainforest. The sheer vastness of the emerald carpet beneath us was hard to comprehend, but flying over it for several hours gave us some understanding of its scale. However, any niggling fears about aircraft safety were overshadowed by something much more disturbing: the sight of huge expanses of charred, smoking wasteland where the forest had been systematically burnt down.
Of course, we'd heard statistics about how much rainforest was being destroyed but until we saw the decimated land below us that day, stretching for mile upon mile, hour after hour, we had not fully grasped the truth: one of the Earth's most precious resources -- and with it the planet itself -- is being systematically and ruthlessly destroyed.
Observing the destruction from a distance of several thousand feet was bad enough. The global consequences were plain to see from our bird's eye view. But what was even more heart wrenching was landing the plane and meeting some of the indigenous people whose land was being ruined. We found ourselves up close and personal with real loss and suffering so complete and so devastating that it is hard for us in the developed world even to imagine. It was an experience that had a huge impact on our lives, and one from which we could not walk away untouched.
Some of the communities we stayed in were entirely remote from the modern world. The people lived simply: off the land. They relied on their natural environment for support and survival. In those unspoilt villages we experienced for the first time how right it felt to have a proper place within the natural order of the world.
The villagers we met said that miners were inexorably diminishing their ancestral lands and loggers who had bought permits to exploit supposedly protected areas of land. They explained to us that their demarcated but undefended homelands were being gobbled up by ruthless multinationals -- for mining, drilling, and cattle-grazing. In some cases, community leaders had been bribed with money and gifts to betray their people.
We saw for ourselves the dire consequences of disrupting the delicate balance between man and nature. Invading industry had simply swallowed up whole villages. The people were no longer able to live off the land, because it had been destroyed. What was left was scorched and polluted. Originally living as isolated communities, the indigenous people had no resistance to common ailments, and so colds and flu were making many of the children and older people seriously ill.
In the Kayapó region of the Amazon, Sting and I met an extraordinary man called Chief Raoni, a revered and respected leader of the Kayapó Indians who had watched his own family and many of his community succumb to their first exposure to influenza. He wanted the world to know what was really going on in the Amazon, so he pleaded with us to tell everyone what was happening to his people and his home. We felt compelled to help him. Having witnessed for ourselves the destruction of the rainforests, it was no longer an abstract concern that could be put to the back of our minds. We had seen the air thick with smoke and children coughing, their faces dirty with soot and ash. People we had come to know and love were struggling for their very survival.
That's why we set up the Rainforest Foundation Fund. At the start, it had little infrastructure, but it did have an urgent task. Chief Raoni's message needed to be heard, so we took him on a world tour in order that he could tell his story to all those willing to listen. Initially, we were accused of being cranks, of taking ourselves too seriously. Sting was criticized for daring to be a rock star who wanted to change the world. But it certainly got people's attention and we were helped by the fact that Raoni was a moving and powerful spokesperson for his homeland and his people. His message was simple, but profound. He said: "There is a lot of smoke. My people are very sick. But whatever happens in the rainforest today, will affect all of you, in your homes, tomorrow."
How right he was. Today, everyone knows the rainforests of the world are shrinking at an alarming rate as a result of exploitation by big business. Not only are indigenous peoples being displaced, but also the planet and human life are under threat because of our shortsighted destruction of the earth's natural resources.
Twenty years ago, many people did not regard global warming as a serious threat and even those who did never imagined it would be upon us so soon. In those days it was hard to accept that depleting rainforests in far-away countries could have such a massive impact on the whole world. Now the truth is plain to see but, even today, there is resistance to accepting the fact of global warming, and continuing speculation as to its causes. But science is clear: the authoritative Stern Review of 2007, entitled The Economics of Climate Change, concludes: "The loss of natural forests around the world contributes more emissions each year than the transport sector. Curbing deforestation is a highly cost-effective way to reduce emissions."
This key fact is frequently overlooked amid legitimate concerns over carbon emissions from cars and aeroplanes. In our anxiety to reduce our carbon footprints we are in danger of forgetting that deforestation accounts for 18% of global greenhouse-gas emissions. That's more than transport, agriculture or industry, each of which accounts for approximately 14%. Burning the world's forests produces almost one-fifth of greenhouses gases. It doesn't just affect Brazil or Indonesia, the countries that account for the biggest proportion of deforestation. It affects the entire planet. Exactly as Raoni said it would.
2008 marks the Rainforest Foundation's 20th anniversary. Over the years our work has grown and expanded into 18 countries across three continents. The Foundation has protected over 115,000 sq km of rainforest, including the demarcation of an area the size of Switzerland (41,000 sq km) in Brazil in 1994, preserving it by law from any incursions. Our current projects aim to save nearly one million square kilometers of rainforest -- that's an area the combined size of the United Kingdom, Ireland and France.
On a human level, the Rainforest Foundation provides financial support for people living in and around the world's rainforests, helping them to preserve their environment and protect their rights to land, life and livelihood. We help indigenous groups become more independent and self-sustaining, and as a priority we support them to gain legal rights to the lands they live on. For nine years we ran a special education program for the children of the Xingu National Park in the Amazon, an area that is home to 17 different indigenous groups and represents a large portion of the remaining forest. This education program became a model later adopted by Unicef and it continues to this day. We are currently working alongside Unicef in Ecuador, providing clean drinking water to the indigenous rainforest people whose land and traditional water sources have been contaminated by oil pollution for more than thirty years.
The current rate of rainforest destruction is the equivalent of two football fields every second. That adds up to 33.8 million acres a year. Official Brazilian government data shows that 3,500 sq km of forest were lost between August and December last year, but it is thought that the real figure might be double that. Rising prices for cattle, soy and other commodities are increasing the value of deforested land, so we can expect deforestation rates to increase accordingly.
Twenty years on, the work of the Rainforest Foundation is even more vital than when we started. With a growing world population and increasing demand for power and other resources, there has to be a voice speaking out in defense of this vital but undervalued resource - for the sake of the planet itself and the people whose homes and cultures lie within the forests.