A few days ago social media and mainstream media finally latched onto the story out of Brazil that has been unfolding for a long time now. The reactions from many implied media distrust, questioning why it wasn’t reported on sooner, and individual onus on those contributing to the beef industry, but the issue is deeper than that. Here’s everything you need to know about the fire in the Amazon, what led up to it, how it is affecting the various stakeholder within Brazil and what you can do about it (written by a non-expert on Brazil using unbiased media sources).
The Amazon has been raging with fire for three weeks now and you are just hearing about it because this plight is nothing new.
Over the past 100 years of industrial agriculture, the rainforest, which covers most of northwestern Brazil, has been cleared by at least 20 percent. according to WWF. In fact, Brazil used to hold the title for the highest deforestation rate in the world. The rate dwindled down by 70 percent from 2005 to 2011, but as the country entered a more turbulent political period, it revved right back up again, aligning with the right-wing agenda currently in power in Brazil.
The first thing you need to understand is that the fires in the Amazon are nothing new: the worrisome element here is the severity. This is directly linked to the spike in deforestation, as well as direct encouragement from the Brazilian federal government to actually start these fires. Say what?
The fire is the mere tip of the iceberg. It’s safe to say this story has been breaking, and re-breaking, and building up for a very long time now. Let’s take it back a little bit.
Politics and corruption: a background you need to know
Nicknamed a ‘second Trump’, newly elected Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has quickly made a dire impression almost overnight with most of the world. We’re finally catching up with what Brazil already knows… so who is this guy and what’s the story?
Well, let’s start with a bit of background. Brazil has a long history of flirting with corruption. The economy has been shrinking since 2014, the unemployment rate sits at over 13 million people, and crime rates are peaking, with the homicide count sitting at about 30 times the rate in Europe. According to Carlos Souza, a Senior Researcher at nonprofit Imazon, healthcare quality is also very low, and education funds have drastically declined. It’s no wonder then, that the Brazilian people latched onto Bolsonaro’s promises to vanish corruption and rebuild the economy, despite being very public with his plans to develop the Amazon.
Bolsonaro was elected in January on a similar premise to Trump: a desperate cry from just over half of the valid voters (55%) signaling a ‘dissatisfaction for the status quo in Brazil’, as eloquently put by Popular Science. His election continues an era of environmental negligence enacted by Brazil’s government, which has been ongoing since 2015 according to Souza.
So now you’re caught up with a very brief summary of Brazil’s political climate. What has this got to do with the fire?
Bolsonaro is Captain Chainsaw
Since Bolsonaro took office, the rate of deforestation has absolutely boomed. According to a report by Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) July saw an all-time record clearing of 2,254 sq km. To give you some context, in early June, The Guardian reported that Amazon deforestation rates had hit a record high of 739 sq km for the month of May this year. Considering it’s only a two-month difference, it’s a hell of a leap.
Fires have surged under Bolsonaro, too. From January to August this year, there were a reported 72,843 fires, compared to just over 39,795 for the whole of 2018. This is expected, however – deforestation is a catalyst for fire. When there are no trees to retain moisture, the rainforest’s underlying vegetation dries out and is vulnerable to burning.
Intentional fires, politically encouraged
Brazil’s environmental minister tweeted that the fires were caused by dry weather, wind and heat, an obvious attempt at deflecting responsibility. Environmentalists have hit back, saying that it’s impossible for fires of this scale to have started naturally. Adrian Muelbert, an ecologist who studies Amazon deforestation, said that “in previous years, (wildfires) were very much related to the lack of rain, but it has been quite moist this year.”
Interestingly enough, the Amazon is technically too wet and humid to catch fire naturally- so it’s quite literally human doing that created this catastrophe (catalyzed by deforestation as mentioned above).
Alberto Setzer, a senior scientist at INPE who was lucky enough to keep his job under Bolsonaro, said that 99 percent of the fires resulted from human actions ‘either on purpose or by accident’.
The increase in fires is yet another issue entwined closely with Bolsonaro. According to Carlos Nobre, a Senior researcher with the Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of Sao Paolo, the fires are actively encouraged by the government. In an interview with Deutsche Welle, he says Bolsonaro is making almost daily statements encouraging ranchers and others to brazen their development of the Amazon.
Fire is already a traditional part of tropical agriculture in the Amazonian region. Farmers light fires seasonally, waiting until the dry season to clear the area for their cattle graze in. The ashes from the burnt trees are used as fertilizer for the soil. When the rainy season returns, there’s grass for the cattle, left by the nutrients in the ashes.
Ane Alencar, the scientific director of Brazilian NGO IPAM (Institute of Environmental Research in Amazonia) said: “These are not wildfires, but rather fires set by people seeking to create cattle ranches, intentionally ignited during the dry season each year.”
Some regions are also organizing ‘fire days’ to take advantage of the weaker enforcement by authorities, according to a local newspaper. Poirer said that compared to previous years, the destruction this year is ‘unprecedented’.
Bolsonaro has a huge problem with indigenous people
Since he took office, Bolsonaro has made a number of racist and offensive remarks towards the Amazonian indigenous people.
“Bolsonaro’s no good. He wants to destroy the lot of us, bomb our villages. That’s the news I heard.” Indigenous leader Raimundo Kanamari told The Guardian in late July.
Campaigners for indigenous rights think that under Bolsonaro, indigenous communities face their biggest threat since five decades ago when military rulers bulldozed highways through the region.
The stakes are particularly high for Javari Valley, a ‘balloon-shaped sweep of rainforests and rivers thought to house 16 lost tribes living in voluntary isolation, according to The Guardian. Ewerton Marubo, a leader from the Javari Valley indigenous community, said that its 6000 inhabitants were ‘bracing for a new era of ruin’. The tribes are currently holding emergency summits to discuss how to defend their territory.
Marubo said “All he (Bolsonaro) thinks about is money. All he thinks about is deforestation..the forest isn’t just for us indigenous. It’s for everyone.”
In July Bolsonaro met with foreign journalists proclaiming he was a ‘champion of indigenous people who no longer wanted to “live like prehistoric men with no access to technology, science, information, and the wonders of modernity.” He defended his desire to develop indigenous reserves and warned the international community to not get involved. What a charmer.
What’s the story in Brazil?
President Bolsonaro’s reaction to the fires paints a stark picture for Brazil. Get ready for this rollercoaster.
First, he claimed the data provided by the INPE was full of ‘lies’. He subsequently fired the chief of the space agency, citing claims that the INPE were trying to undermine the government. He also denied having responsibility for the fires or deforestation spike, saying he is not ‘Captain Chainsaw’.
Later he speculated, with no evidence, that the fires were likely caused by NGO organisations, to ‘generate negative attention’ because they were ‘suffering from a lack of funding’. When asked who was responsible, he responded “The Indians, do you want me to blame the Indians? Do you want me to blame the Martians?… Everyone is a suspect, but the biggest suspects are NGOs.”
What a creep.
The situation is worrying for a lot of Brazilians. In a time of national crisis, their President is denying anything is amiss at all. The government also seems hell-bent on replacing the INPE with a privatised government deforestation tracking agency in the near future, signaling Brazil is far from Bolsanaro’s much-anticipated promises to escape corruption.
What does this mean for climate change?
Well, A LOT. The Amazon is often referred to as the lungs of the planet. It’s widely misquoted that the rainforest accounts for 20% of the earth’s oxygen. Professor Malhi from the Environmental Change Institute says that actually, of the oxygen produced by land-based plants, only about 16% comes from the Amazon. Regardless, the Amazon is a vital eco-system that we can’t stand to lose.
It’s often stated that one of the most effective ways of halting climate change is to protect the Amazon – as the largest rainforest, it’s also an integral carbon emission absorption tool. The Amazon absorbs the millions of tons of carbon emissions that we create each year.
Ecologist Thomas Lovejoy told National Geographic that if deforestation and fires continued at the current rate, wildfires of this scale will continue – contributing to a massive loss in forest which would be felt on a global scale.
Adriane Muelbert, another ecologist said that while it was too early yet to calculate how much carbon might be emitted by the wildfire, the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) is of the opinion that the world doesn’t have forest to spare if it wants to avoid catastrophic effects of climate change.
But it’s not just the Amazon that’s ablaze. Catastrophic fires signaling the tide of climate change are burning all over the world right now. Russia has seen its worst year on record for wildfires – over 21,000 square miles of Siberia have gone up in flames this month. According to Vox, the smoke from these blazes reached the United States.
The Canary Islands also battled a wildfire on Monday, forcing 8000 people to flee. New fires also started in Alaska over the weekend, extending an already longer than usual fire season. Finally, in Greenland officials are worried a wildfire could burn through winter if not controlled promptly, amplifying concerns over the speed of the melting ice. OH MAN.
What can you do?
It’s important to understand what you’re up against, but this is the integral part. You have a voice in this, so how can you use it? When it comes to this part, I’m not an expert. Instead, I rallied up my expert sources for you who have recently kindly publicly shared the actions you can take to protect the Amazon, support the indigenous people of the region, support Brazilians and fight climate change.
- Donate to @amazonfrontlines
- Declare yourself an #earthprotector with @ecocidelaw who are working to make #ecocide an international crime
- Eat local. #seasonalfood produced through #regenerativeagriculture. Amazon deforestation is a result of our consumption
- Vote for leaders who understand the urgency of our #climatecrisis
- Pledge to cancel/just cancel Amazon prime and redirect that to @amazonfrontlines
This is the link to Holly’s website – she is amazing, go see for yourself.
The Rainforest Alliance also shared some great tips on their Instagram feed:
- Consider becoming a regular supporter of the Rainforest Alliance’s community forestry initiatives across the world’s most vulnerable tropical forests, including the Amazon. This approach is by far one of the most effective defences against deforestation and natural forest fires, but it requires deep, long-term collaboration between communities and the public and private sectors. You can find more information in their bio.
- Stay on top of this story and keep sharing posts, tagging news agencies and influencers
- Be a conscious consumer, taking care to support companies committed to responsible supply chains. Limit or reduce consumption of beef, as cattle ranching is a primary driver of deforestation
- When election time comes, vote for leaders who understand the urgency of our climate crisis and are willing to take bold action
Here are a few more ways you can help:
- Donate to Rainforest Action Network to protect an acre of the Amazonian rainforest.
- Donate to the Rainforest Trust to help buy land in the rainforest. Since 1988, the organization has saved over 23 million acres.
- Reduce your paper and wood consumption and double-check that what you do consume is rainforest safe on Rainforest Alliance
- Contact your elected officials and tell them you are NOT okay with this
- Sign Greenpeace’s petition telling the Brazilian government to save the Amazon rainforest and protect the lands of indigenous and traditional communities.
- Donate to Amazon Watch, a nonprofit organization that partners with indigenous people in the Amazon basin. They campaign for human and indigenous rights, corporate accountability and preservation of the Amazon.
- Reduce your beef consumption, or at least fast food and processed beef. Typically, fast food beef is rainforest beef.
- Get to know where your food comes from. Did you know that cattle farming isn’t the only industry killing the Amazon?
Do you have any more tips on what the average person can do to help the cause? Let me know in the comments below!
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