It’s been a short while since the Amazon last made the prime time, and for many in today’s world of fleeting moments and flashes of life, the story of the cooking canopies is just that – a story. But the cold, hard truth is that it’s a very real and urgent catastrophe that needs far more attention than it’s gotten, not to mention a solution. Even worse is how much of the world seems to be blissfully ignorant or apathetic in regards to the crisis.
For the uninitiated, the Amazon Rainforest is the world’s largest tropical rainforest, covering around 5.5 million square kilometres of area in Brazil and a few other South American nations. Home to several millions of species of various insects, plants, birds and other forms of life, it is famed for its rich biodiversity.
During the 20th century, rampant deforestation by the settlers in Brazil reduced the forested area immensely, for farmland and lumber. However, in the 1990s the Brazilian government and other international bodies started taking steps to protect the rainforest from exploitation and deforestation, and the rate of decline reduced for 0.4% per year to a 0.1-0.2%. But over the last year, the spread of fires has increased by around 85%, and with huge chunks of the forest vulnerable, it’s clear that the Amazon rainforest is truly in danger of burning up.
Why is it such a big issue?
There are multiple reasons why the issue of fires in the Amazon is so severe. Firstly, the rainforest serves as a big sink for CO2 (carbon dioxide) and other greenhouse gases, and losing this much foliage will only speed up the process of climate change and global warming. Also, vast amounts of CO2 are being released into the air as a result of burning of flora, which were acting as storages of carbon and greenhouse gases.
Secondly, the indigenous people of the Amazon are the ones who are mainly affected, as their homes and means of living are being destroyed despite being protective reserves. They will have nowhere to go and no resources to survive on. Moreover, these fires are harming the vast diversity of fauna in the forest, as the animals’ habitats are directly hit and most of them face no chance of survival. These disturbances in the ecological balance of the forest will hit these animals hard, and could lead to dying out of a lot of habitats.
The coverage of the media in this issue has been extremely lukewarm, with initial coverage starting only after 3 weeks– in fact, it was through social media that the issue received worldwide attention. Although by now the news has spread quite like the literal wildfires, the slow start to coverage means there has already been extensive damage done. We must now do our best to spread awareness about this fiery crisis and curb further deforestation before it gets past the tipping point.
The story so far…
Though the swiftly spreading flames of the forest have only recently hit the headlines, the problem is not a new one: it is the alarming surge in the number of wildfires that has grabbed attention worldwide.
The issue began in the 1960s – before that, the Amazon was largely intact due to highly restricted access to the forest interior. When farmers began trying to clear forest land to make space for agricultural activities, they found that the soil of the Amazon wasn’t optimal for their purposes, as it was low in fertility and therefore couldn’t be used for long. For this reason, farmers often had to set out and clear more forest area, using “slash-and-burn” methods that would occasionally cause wildfires. Their inability to manage the soil they were using eventually lead to rampant deforestation.
Brazil, which houses more than half of the Amazon, took measures to reduce deforestation due to wildfires (and other hazards, like construction projects), and for decades the rate of deforestation fell. But by 2015, deforestation rates had begun increasing again, much to the alarm of the global community.
The increase was mostly a result of rising consumer demand for products that come from crops grown by farmers on the soil of the Amazon. This demand-fuelled deforestation proved difficult to rein in, and over the next few years the slow burn that the forest had been experiencing sped up. There was an urgent need for radical change, lest the Amazon be consumed by flames. That radical change occurred on the very first day of 2019, when Jair Bolsanaro was elected as the 38th President of Brazil—but it was not a change for the better.
Instead, Bolsanaro signed an executive order that allowed the agriculture ministry to oversee parts of the Brazilian Amazon—essentially promoting uninhibited slash-and-burn, while also encouraging mining companies to use forest land for their purposes. As a result of the executive order and consumer-driven slash-and-burn, an unprecedented number of wildfires occurred in 2019—and when the forest’s dry season arrived, the situation worsened further. Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research reported in June and July that satellite monitoring systems were capturing the horrific magnitude of the incident, and the word finally reached the world when NASA, too reported in August that the catastrophe was visible from space.
The thought of the Amazon rainforest, which represents more than half of the world’s remaining rainforests, going up in flames was enough to frighten the world, and the global response made it clear that a solution was needed as soon as possible. So at the most recent G7 summit, a meeting between 7 of the world’s most powerful nations that took place between the 24th and 26th of August, a $22 million aid package to help desk with the diminishing forest was proposed and agreed upon by most nations present, with France even offering military support.
It appeared an adequate beginning to a solution, at the very least—and thus it was absolutely astonishing to most that Bolsonaro and his government rejected the proposal, stating that the money would be put to better use elsewhere. Indeed, the fires are perhaps only the massive problem they now are because of Bolsonaro…
It’s more than just the fires, though!
So the fires in Brazil are obviously a huge environmental issue, but the bigger problem is not the fire itself but its cause. Fires in Brazil aren’t uncommon this time of the year, what’s different is the Why. We are currently in ‘queimada’, the season when farmers clear land for commercial use by setting fires. Though dangerous, they are usually smaller in scale and don’t endanger the forest in quite the way that is happening now, thanks to government restrictions and regulations, though things have changed since Bolsonaro took office.
The Bolsonaro government has rolled back many policies to control deforestation and has shifted its focus. The priority now is development over conservation. The new cabinet now is filled with climate change deniers and people rallying in support of deforestation. All of this incentivises citizens to clear up large swathes of land. People are burning down forested land and areas belonging to indigenous populations for personal exploitation.
Disenfranchisement is rampant, just a month after the local tribes won a landmark historical case against the government to preserve their heritage. It doesn’t take an expert to see why the state is backing these cases of arson, having lost the ability to reclaim the land themselves.
It is important at this point to recognise that we aren’t innocent in this. Most of us have been complicit in past developmental efforts to clear forest land for commercial use. The worst offender might be the United States which itself has completely wiped out its forests over the past century. However, it is essential that we do not let our past mistakes be repeated.
The Brazillian government remains unfettered by this threat to the global climate. While the G7 conference leaders discussed the Amazon issue on the 22nd of August last week, the President was out enjoying a stand-up comedy routine. Bolsonaro has stated that the country doesn’t have the resources to combat this problem only to later reject all foreign aid offered to Brazil to help control the situation, including a $22 million grant by the G7 leaders. There is constant denial of even the existence of a problem, let alone addressing it. We need to stop being complicit and hold the Presidency accountable.