The lungs of the Earth are on fire, and experts say time is running out to protect the Amazon forest.
Currently, massive fires are raging across the Amazon and threatening indigenous populations, wildlife, and the forest itself. A large amount of carbon dioxide produced as a result of these fires is also noticeably choking Brazilian cities and contributing to global carbon emissions.
The Amazon river basin is a massive tract of land located in South America, drained by the Amazon River and its tributaries. Most of this basin is covered by the Amazon rainforest, which spans over nine countries. Brazil has the lion’s share of 60% of the forest, with Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana (territory of France) sharing the rest.
More than 80,000 fires have been detected in Brazil since the beginning of this year by the country’s space research center (INPE) and more than half of those were in the Amazon rainforest. That’s an 80% increase of forest fires since 2018. Satellites capable of picking up infrared radiation confirm that large areas are burning.
Why is this happening?
The Amazon isn’t dry and doesn’t naturally catch on fire.
Farmers in Brazil deliberately start these fires to clear away forest land to make room for agricultural farming and pastures for cattle.
Farmers and ranchers usually cut down trees during the earlier part of the year and then wait for the Amazonian dry season (June – December) to clear them away via fires. This slash-and-burn method of farming temporarily enriches the soil for the growth of agricultural products (like soy) that can be exported. Several cycles of agricultural growth deplete the soil of its nutrients and huge swaths of barren land are then abandoned as agribusiness farmers move on to look for new areas.
Starting fires during the dry season also means that there is a greater risk of fires spreading. We know for certain that most of the current fires are related to farming; they originate at the edges of new agricultural development.
Mining operations in the Amazon basin also contribute to deforestation via burning.
So, this happens every year?
Yes, but it is usually not so bad.
Co-ordinated international pressure from environmental groups and climate activists led to the Brazilian government curbing unchecked deforestation around 2008 via new laws and policies. Agribusiness companies and mining interests were devastating the Amazon prior to these legislative changes, but protectionist forces were successful after the mid-2000s.
As National Geographic points out: “By 2012, the annual deforestation rate bottomed out at about 80 percent lower than the average rate between 1995 and 2006.”
The rates of deforestation have sharply increased again under right-wing Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro who came to power in January 2019 and campaigned on a pro-business platform. Sometimes called ‘Trump of the Tropics’, Bolsonaro is a climate skeptic and is determined to open up even more tracts of Amazonian land to large agribusiness corporations.
His rhetoric and actions have emboldened farmers in the Amazon. Andrew Miller of AmazonWatch told DemocracyNow! that the current massive forest fires are “directly related to the signals that Jair Bolsonaro is sending to the agribusiness industry”.
Why is this so important?
More than 40% of the Earth’s remaining rainforest is found in the Amazon. Without the Amazon, we stand almost no chance of preventing catastrophic global warming.
Here’s how that works: trees that are alive absorb carbon, while dead trees release carbon through decay. Forests serve carbon ‘sinks’ and help reduce the planet’s greenhouse gas levels. The Amazon absorbs nearly a quarter of the carbon dioxide released via fossil fuel burning each year and contains around 120 billion metric tons of carbon currently, which could devastate the environment if released.
Scientists are warning that if the current rate of destruction continues, the Amazon will reach a tipping point after which it will dry up into a savannah.
The Amazon rainforests are a haven for biodiversity. Many Amazonian plants are used to make the medicines we consume, and scientists propose that less than 1% of flowering plants in the Amazon have been studied for their medicinal potential. The loss of plant species deprives us of harnessing these healing properties. The Amazon rainforest is also home to several million species of insects, animals, and birds, many of which are still unknown to science. Habitat destruction can drive numerous species to extinction.
What can I do?
You can raise awareness. The media attention around the forest fires may fizzle out in a couple of days but the Amazon dry season won’t end till December. This makes it likely that the burning will continue.
Make sure you’re keeping abreast with what is happening and organizing with like-minded individuals in your communities to push your elected representatives to block trade deals with countries are destroying the Amazon for profit. You should also push companies to stop benefitting from the exploitation of rainforests directly or indirectly through their supply chains.
The most effective response in this situation is one that is collective and swift.