As a 22-year-old student, Professor Kurt Sartorius first set out to South America with an Indiana Jones mindset paddling down the Amazon’s Madeira River. He left describing the experience as one that ‘nearly broke me’. But in July 2022, 50 years later and at the age of 73 years, he found himself returning to paddle the giant river but with his son, Benn Sartorius, Professor Wayne van Zijl CA(SA) and a local Amazonian – and this time with a serious agenda in mind: to fight climate change.
As a youngster still in boarding school, Professor Kurt was completely intrigued with the story of Colonel Percy Fawcett, a famous South American archaeologist and explorer who mysteriously disappeared in 1925 during an expedition to find ‘Z’ − the name he had assigned to an ancient lost city which he believed existed somewhere in the vast Amazon jungle of Brazil. Kurt’s grandfather was also involved in a tin-mining operation in Bolivia, in South America, and had some experience of the continent’s early frontier days.
‘The dream started a long, long time ago. I just imagined myself in this great, green jungle on an adventure,’ describes Kurt, adding, ‘I think I was destined to do this!’
He dryly describes his first expedition on the monstrous river as a ‘completely uninformed adventure’.
‘To be honest with you, we were really city boys, and for a city boy to undertake something like this was not advisable. There’s piranha (one of the most dangerous fish in the world), wild Indians, and there were a million reasons why we shouldn’t have done it. And of course, my dad was a doctor and quite up to date on tropical diseases, and he invented every kind of reason why I would get sick.’
‘But we thought if we listened to all this, we’d never do it. We decided to just dive in and learn − if you survive you learn, and if you don’t survive, you don’t learn very much. But you need to be an outdoor person with some experience behind your back for it to be pleasant.’
After an experience that he said almost broke him, never did he dream he would be padding 1100 kilometres down the very same river 50 years later at the age of 73.
‘You can ask Wayne: he did it this time in the way I did it the first time – there’s nothing pleasant about it, except that you’re proud of yourself that you actually saw it out, because 90% of people would not see it out. I think we were just damn lucky, but then you’ve got to get to the end otherwise you’re stranded,’ says Kurt candidly.
Except for Kurt’s normal training, which is mostly walking and weights, he did not train much. ‘Paddling for eight hours a day is like sort of walking in the mountains. You brace yourself that it’s going to be terribly difficult for the first week and gradually you get eased into it. My best preparation was mental; I knew I was not going to enjoy this thing. And that turned out to be completely true,’ says Kurt.
The real reason behind the big adventure
But this time round the adventure would be for a greater cause close to Kurt, Wayne and Benn’s hearts – to raise awareness of the drastic impact of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest on climate change and to raise funds in support for reforestation initiatives and related scientific and business research.
‘The reason we did it is to raise awareness among the accounting industry of the importance of the role that the profession has to play when it comes to climate change,’ says Kurt. ‘Accountants have the tools, skills and responsibility to report, not only on financial profits and losses but also on the environmental impact of the businesses they operate in, so they have immense power to make a crucial contribution when it comes to fighting climate change.’
The Amazon is often referred to as Earth’s ‘lungs’ because its vast forests release oxygen and store carbon dioxide, a heat-trapping gas that is a major cause of global warming. The Amazon Basin occupies about seven million square kilometres and contains about 20% of the world’s freshwater. Burning the rainforest will exacerbate the marked change in global rainfall patterns. Although the Amazon Basin is referred to as the world’s lungs, its destruction will have a greater impact on rainfall distribution than on the world’s supply of oxygen, which comes mainly from our oceans. The ‘world’s lungs’ may sound dramatic, but the Amazon Basin acts as a carbon sink that stores CO2, and for the first time ever this forest is emitting more CO2 than it traps because of the forest fires, which are estimated to release a billion tonnes of CO2 per year.
‘I fully support combatting climate change, specifically the aspect of it being a borderless fight. Many developed countries got that way from taking advantage of their own natural resources. But now that they are developed, they want all the developing countries to protect their resources. But if we want Brazil to maintain the Amazon as we know it today, and as it has been in the past, everyone needs to support it and other developing countries with important natural environments,’ says Wayne.
Chartered accountants are perfectly placed to make those systemic changes within business,’ says Wayne. ‘They play a huge role in that they they can accelerate the process of companies becoming more environmentally responsible and sustainable.’ One of the first things they can do is to ensure that companies are taking the environment into account in a value creation story, as opposed to prioritising profits at all costs.
The second part is reporting: ‘If you report on something, it’s easy to be held accountable for your actions. At the moment we don’t have tools that are sophisticated enough to truly capture, report and hold companies accountable for their environmental impact. And that’s where our research will come in,’ says Wayne.
As an accounting student at Wits university, Wayne was taught by Professor Kurt Sartorius, and heard first-hand all the stories of what he describes as Kurt’s ‘Indiana Jones’ expeditions.
‘We grew up with Kurt being this adventurer, which was quite different and unique, especially in the modern context. There was always this thought that it would be amazing to do one of these expeditions with Kurt,’ says Wayne.
Wayne is an associate professor in the School of Accountancy at Wits University who is predominately a qualitative researcher in corporate reporting, with a focus on technical accounting. He is also busy with his PhD, where he is investigating the evolution of accounting drawing on concepts of biological evolution and dynamic systems.
When Wayne heard that the professor and his son, Ben Sartorius, were initiating a long-term climate change project that involved a 1 100-kilometre paddle down the Rio Madeira, a southern tributary of the Amazon River, to highlight the changes in the 50 years, he immediately reached out to Kurt and said he hoped it went well and started dropping a couple of hints that he wouldn’t mind joining the expedition, until Kurt eventually asked him if he wanted to come along. Of course, he was all in.
A dangerous feat with unforeseen challenges
The trio found out when they landed that their Brazilian guide who had been communicating with them in perfect English before the time had been using Google translate and could not understand a word of English. But they took that in their stride because Kurt could communicate with him in basic Portuguese. But even that proved to have it challenges.
Reports of pirates were another scenario.
’I was probably the most scared out of everyone paddling down the river, especially for the first week, ’says Wayne. ‘When we got there, we had received some news that there had been pirate attacks and saw first-hand hundreds of floating illegal gold mining dredges, and for the first 4−5 days every time a speedboat of any kind came at us, you kind of worried, are they going to do something. I would quickly hide the Go Pro cameras so that they wouldn’t think we were trying to document and follow them.’
The team had planned on stringing up tree hammocks to sleep in the jungle on the banks of the river at night, but because the river drops 50 feet in the dry season it was not possible to string up hammocks at night and they had to sleep on exposed sandbanks in the river. However, on one occasion after one of the canoes overturned at sunset the team of four had to paddle through the night tying the two boats together with one person paddling in the dark. The team narrowly escaped hair-raising and dangerous situations. Wayne recalled how at 2am one night he narrowly missed hitting a moving gold miner’s floating dredge in the dark. Another one time locals even quickly warned them to get out of the water they has been cooling down in because of stingrays and candiru (small barbed fish) that cannot be dislodged. Was it all in vain?
Although the climate change issue has been a much talked about subject at summits, conferences and even declarations being made that the carbon footprint will be reduced by a certain date, and despite their efforts to bring awareness, Kurt says people are still very apathetic and they did not receive the support they expected, even from well-established organisations who are supposed to be passionate about biodiversity.
‘Despite the very best efforts of Wits and the very best efforts of SAICA and all the programmes that we have launched, we have been largely unsuccessful in raising funds for the reforestation project. It’s enlightenment in terms of corporate South Africa. It’s what we saw amongst our CPA colleagues in Canada and Australia, that although it is a number one identified risk, people are still apathetic about doing anything about it,’ says Kurt.
Sartorius’ challenge makes up part of Wits’ centenary campaign. All funds raised by the expedition will go towards reforestation and research projects.
All donations will be administered by a panel of relevant experts on behalf of the Wits Foundation. Both scientific and business-related researchers can submit proposals for grants. Business-related research that accelerates developing the tools for companies to identify, measure and assure environmental impacts will be prioritised.
POINTS TO PONDER ON CLIMATE CHANGE:
- Climate fundamentally affects business risk
- Climate change is an integral component of ESG
- All responsible companies should support climate change programs not only for the future of the planet but to ensure their own survival
- Companies should support climate change because they cannot relocate their business to planet B.
- If companies think the environment is unimportant they should try and hold their breath while counting their money.
- If companies don’t show some compassion for the future of the planet no politician or even a magician can save it.
- Companies should not use lofty climate change statements as their contribution to climate change but rather put their money where their mouths are.
- Corporate responsibility is doing something for climate change not talking about it.
- Saving our planet, lifting people out of poverty, advancing economic growth… these are one and the same fight and it is the duty of all companies to take up the challenge.