Burning the Lungs of the Planet

Nearly three weeks after fires began burning through the Amazon rainforest, the media has finally seen the smoke and begun reporting and sharing the horrors of the burning Amazon. Celebrities and leading politicians have come out and condemned the burning, the lack of action to put the fires out and discouraged farmers and cattle ranchers from setting them in the first place.

There have been so many fires burning that the smoke can be seen from space. The smoke has become so thick that Sao Paolo, around 2000km away from the region seeing the most fires, was plunged into darkness in the middle of the day. The cover of smoke also created a dramatic increase in respiratory issues in Brazil’s urban areas.

 

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Smoke blocked out the sun in Sao Paulo in the middle of the day

 

The reason there has been so much uproar over the burning of the Amazon is because of the international importance of its protection. The Amazon rainforest produces 20% of the oxygen we breathe, absorbs around a quarter of the carbon dioxide absorbed by the land, and is the most ecologically diverse region on the planet. The Amazon is also home to an estimated 900,000 indigenous people who rely on the rainforest and its diversity for their survival.

Is this Climate Change?

For once this probably has very little to do with climate change. So many forest fires around the world are linked to extended dry periods, but according to Brazilian scientists, there has been no extreme heat, reduction of rainfall or drought that would typically cause fires to naturally start.

In Brazil, rainforest fires are a regular occurrence at this time of year as the dry season begins and farmers and logging companies make the most of the dry weather and burn away rainforest cover.

What makes this year worse, however, is that there has been an 84% increase in fires started in the Amazon compared to 2018. Over 74,000 fires have been started this year – almost double the number recorded last year – and we still have four months of the year left!

So why has there been so many more fires this compared to previous years?

The Emboldened Cattle Ranchers and Loggers

The agricultural lobby is the largest lobby in government and was at the centre of the recent corruption scandal that rocked Brazilian politics. For years they have been putting pressure on politicians to open up the Amazon rainforest to cattle farming and food production. Deforestation and fires had steadily increased in recent years but not to this level.

Under Bolsonaro, however, environmental regulations have been cut, the environment ministry has been weakened, the demarcation of indigenous land has been halted and huge areas of the Amazon have been opened up to agriculture. Everything cattle ranchers and loggers could want has been done for them and now they feel they have the freedom to burn away the rainforest with no repercussions.

Before the fires were even noticed rates of deforestation had hit record levels. 870 square miles had been destroyed to make way for grassland or crop farming in July alone, making it very likely that more than 10,000 square kilometres of rainforest will be lost for the first time in over a decade. That’s a 20-30% increase in Amazon deforestation just a couple of years after record levels of tree cover were lost around the world.

 

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Huge areas of the Amazon are ablaze

 

There is no longer any fear that those that start the fires will be held to account. In a disturbing message to the world, thousands of farmers and ranchers declared the 12th of August a ‘day of fire’ in order to claim more land for agriculture and the Bolsonaro administration has done nothing to stop it.

Condemning International Condemnation

Pictures and video of the fires have gone viral across social media with a number of high profile celebrities and politicians tweeting support and putting pressure on the Brazilian government to act and put the fires out. Brazil has repeatedly said that they have the fires under control but they still burn and very little has been done or said to put others off from starting new fires.

Despite the growing evidence that the Bolsonaro administration has done nothing to discourage and stop the burning of the Amazon, the President took the bizarre stance of blaming NGOs and environmental activists for setting the fires in order to make him look bad. Given that this comes from a man who has continually spoken of his hatred of the indigenous population living in the Amazon and his desire to open the Amazon up to economic development, I’m not sure anyone but his die-hard supporters will believe him at all.

International Efforts to Protect the Amazon

During the recent G7 meetings in Paris, $20million was pledged to help Brazil put the fires out. For the seven richest countries in the world, that’s a relatively small amount and it does nothing to tackle the cause of the fires. The UK has pledged another £10million although there has been no comment on whether that has been accepted by Brazil.

For a time, however, Brazil refused to accept that money due to what Bolsonaro interpreted as insults from the French President. Macron questioned the Brazilian President’s commitment to protecting biodiversity given the lack of action on putting out the fires and discouraging others from doing the same.

Groups like Leonardo Di Caprio’s Earth Alliance has sent $5million to indigenous groups to help combat the fires and protect them from future blazes. Other millionaires have bought huge areas of the Amazon for the sole purpose of protecting the land from agriculture and logging. It’s not Notre Dame-level of monetary donations but it’s a start. People are beginning to recognise the global importance of rainforest protection and starting to do something about it.

The Amazon isn’t Alone

Whilst everyone has been focused on the fires raging in the Amazon, the Congo rainforest in central, sub-Saharan Africa has recorded a much greater number of fires. The same NASA Fire Information for Resource Management System that has been monitoring the Amazon fires counted at least 6,902 fires in Angola and 3,395 in the Democratic Republic of Congo – it only counted 2,127 in Brazil…

Like in Brazil, some of the fires are set in order to burn away leftover grasses and scrub on farmland and help maintain rich and fertile soils for crop planting. However, farmers and the agriculture industry are turning to slash and burn techniques to remove parts of the rainforest and make way for farming.

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The final great rainforest located in south-east Asia is also under threat. Fires and deforestation are a regular issue for forested areas on Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and other countries as locals look to cash crops to lead them out of poverty. The growth of palm oil is just one example. The cheap, hardy plants can be grown easily and people can make a good living growing the crop. Unfortunately, however, a lot of this comes at the expense of rainforest.

The burning of rainforests around the world will have a huge impact on climate change. As it burns, huge volumes of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere and the ability of carbon dioxide to be absorbed is lost. What we need is to start truly protecting the rainforests of the world and recognising just how important they are. The damage we are doing to some of the most ecologically diverse areas of this planet is incredibly unsustainable and must be stopped!

 

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