The question is: what do we want from a programme about Planet Earth, whether it is to do with wildlife or human life? Do we want to be impressed by the beauty of the natural world, even, perhaps, reassured that we – as superior beings – hold dominion over all we survey and that somehow the human race can cure the ills of a world that we have already damaged to a frightening degree? Maybe to inspire and to urge us to action is more to the point today.
Simon Reeve's South America
in five episodes, which is currently on BBC Two, engages the viewer immediately with the impact being made on the planet by the carelessness of its human inhabitants. It is colourful and lively, with a serious subtext of concern, and the message at its heart is that only by cooperation with the natural world – a partnership – and with those who have a life-long understanding of it, shall we succeed in making headway in attempts to repair it.
While it may seem sacrilege to state that it is far more revealing and informative than David Attenborough's Frozen Planet II
, also currently being shown, it is fair to say that Reeve is straight in with his message about protecting the environment, for people as well as other animals. Attenborough, indeed, does show polar bears floating on what remains of their Arctic ice, and the devastation to wildlife which finds fewer and fewer hunting grounds, but Reeve personalises his approach, by focusing on the threat to human inhabitants, grabbing you by metaphorical lapels and shaking you (nicely) with his presentation.
What Reeve achieves is a balance, one which singles out the damage to the land by mining, logging and deforestation for animal crops and raising cattle, and at the same time he seeks out those who live and work in these contested areas to show that they too are at risk. He travels 4,000 miles, from top to bottom of South America. The scenery is staggeringly beautiful, whether of distant views or the close-ups of birds and flowers.
He begins with an area called the Guiana Shield, in Venezuela, a kind of 'lost world', where climate change already affects plant growth. An unspoilt area of tropical rainforest holds 20% of the world's fresh water. Yet, drilling for oil and mining for gold, where, as Reeve is told, the 'politicians are completely corrupt', this resource is a kind of curse, as the money is snaffled by the leaders and the people are impoverished. The land, of course, is destroyed.
The loss of land through erosion brings to mind a recent book, Sixty Harvests Left
, by the CEO of Compassion in World Farming, Philip Lymbery. He echoes Reeve's findings, that the terrible circular loop of cutting forest, growing crops for animals, then expanding cattle farming into the previously pristine forest only results in the washing away of the soil and the degradation of the land, which clogs and pollutes the rivers.
Another book that criticises what he calls 'rentier capitalism' is The Blue Commons
by the economist Guy Standing. Whether it is on land or in the seas, when large conglomerates are allowed to prevail, the loss is ours.
What can be done? Simon Reeve talks with individuals and groups who are exemplars of human conscience, even, or perhaps especially, in places where life is a continual financial struggle. In the favelas of Rio, he meets a teacher who is the moving force behind planting large areas of trees and greenery to protect against landslides. Reeve discovers very determined indigenous groups who consider themselves guardians of the rainforest, battling to preserve their way of life, at great danger to themselves. One has only to read of yet another campaigner meeting a mysterious end, an investigative journalist killed, and indigenous people threatened to understand their bravery.
These are true narratives that are perhaps less entertaining than watching adorable cubs frolic to anthropomorphic-suggestive music in the Attenborough programmes, but they are more directly engaging nonetheless, because we can identify with the loss of homes and fear for family life while those in powerful positions enrich themselves.
As Reeve says, this loss of land is at a 'terrible price to the environment'. Perhaps it is the deforestation that is most alarming, as it is irreplaceable. The forests are areas of high biodiversity, where there is much to be learned, especially in terms of what he calls the 'forest pharmacy'. So much we do not know, and so much we need to recognise of its potential value to human life. While speaking to scientists and others he meets along his journey, Reeve is captivated by wildlife of many kinds, from tiny toads to bats to the golden lion tamarin, which are being vaccinated to protect them from yellow fever. The crossover of disease – zoonotic viruses – from human to animal and in reverse is a highly charged topic right now during the Covid epidemic.
The past 15 years have seen the fastest rate of destruction of forest in the Amazon basin, as roadways into the jungle open up more logging and bring human beings in closer proximity to nature in the wild, disadvantageous to both. Of the Atlantic Forest, 85% of the original is now gone. One scheme, a positive one, is to build bridges over highways, planted with forest vegetation, to enable animals to pass along a 'corridor' of protected jungle so that they have the ability to roam (rather like hedgehog tunnels in the UK).
Simon Reeve makes his programmes up close and personal; he focuses with every individual, he listens, and he puts himself at risk. While filming the journey through South America, which was interrupted by Covid, he caught a virus in Peru and became seriously ill. Previous work investigating terrorism stands him in good stead, as he takes a plane trip with a host who is heavily armed.
His understanding of the plight of those who feel angry and determined to fight for their rights comes across in his presentation, drawing the viewer in. When Reeve talks about 'forest economics', he is talking about how we should live with the resources of the planet, not strip or extract every last money-making element that exists. This look at the people, the continent of South America and the impact of human existence is meant for everyone, to consider and to see what positive part we can all play in preserving the planet, whether it is joining campaigns or taking personal steps.
Simon Reeve is a member of the Council of Ambassadors for the World Wildlife Fund. However, his strength is to show us that, in truth, we are all endangered species, and as such we must all be custodians of our world.