By Aimee Welch
The Amazon rainforest is almost four times the size of Alaska, spanning 2.2 million square miles across nine South American countries. If it was its own country, the world’s largest tropical rainforest would rank ninth in size. The Amazon is rich with vegetation that takes carbon dioxide out of the air and releases oxygen into the atmosphere—between 6% and 9% of the world’s oxygen. An estimated 500 indigenous Amerindian tribes, 400 billion trees, 40,000 plant species, 1,300 bird species, 3,000 different types of fish, 373 reptile species, 400 amphibian species, 430 species of mammals and 2.5 million insect species call the Amazon rainforest home. Over the last 50 years, about 17% of the Amazon rainforest has been destroyed and, today, millions of acres in the forest are on fire.
So, should we all be freaking out? That depends on who you ask. Is there anything positive about devastating fires burning in the Amazon rainforest? No. Are these fires going to cause a catastrophic oxygen-depleting, humanity-ending situation in our lifetime? Also no. But the destruction of the rainforest would undeniably have a devastating, immediate impact on the countless species that live in it; it would change weather patterns around the world, including the U.S.; and it would release its vast carbon stores, further hindering humankind’s ability to slow down global warming. For these reasons and more, yes… many people are freaking out, and the international community has united to find answers and solutions to protect one of the world’s richest and most diverse ecosystems.
What is the current situation?
Global Forest Watch says 2019 marks the highest number of fires in the Amazon since 2010. Since the beginning of this year, according to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE), more than 220,000 fires have been detected in the Amazon (as of September 10), including 108,931 in Brazil. That’s an increase over 2018 of 20% across the entire rainforest, and 45% in Brazil.
Natural fires during the dry season are common, but most experts agree that the intensity and frequency of fires is increasing because these are not natural fires, which reach only a few inches and generally burn dry leaf litter and small seedlings, having no impact on the forest’s canopy. So, what’s going on?
Ane Alencar, director of science at the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM), told National Geographic, “The majority of the fires we’re seeing now are because of deforestation. It’s crazy. We reduced deforestation by almost 65% in the past. We proved that we could do that. And now we’re going backwards.”
August begins the dry season in the Amazon, which correlates with an increase in slash-and-burn agricultural practices used by farmers and cattle ranchers to clear (or deforest) the land for cultivation. They cut down trees during the wet season and make giant piles. Then, in the dry season, they burn them. Deforestation often leads to fires, and recent satellite photos show fires clustered around roads and areas where forests have been cleared by humans.
Historically, the rainforest has been protected by a thick canopy that easily maintains enough natural moisture and humidity to make it fire-resistant. Today, however, destructive human activities and more frequent droughts have thinned the canopy and reduced humidity within the forest, creating a drier environment that is more prone to forest fires.
The impact of deforestation
This isn’t a new problem, by the way. The INPE reports that between 2002 and 2005, and in 2007, the number of fires in the Amazon was higher than in 2019, prompting international efforts to drastically reduce runaway deforestation. Brazil took action, elevating forest conservation efforts and promoting sustainable development. For the next decade, deforestation rates, and consequently, C02 emissions, dropped significantly.
But in January 2019, President Jair Bolsonaro took office and that progress came to an abrupt halt. Bolsonaro pledged to improve Brazil’s struggling economy, in part, by exploiting the country’s greatest resource—the Amazon rainforest. According to INPE, development is to blame for more than 1,330 square miles of deforestation since January—a 39% increase over 2018. With Bolsonaro in charge, cattle grazers, soybean growers, mining, timber and development firms feel more empowered to exploit the rainforest due to lax enforcement and regulations.
Fires are also burning in Bolivia, Paraguay and Peru, but because 60% of the forest is in Brazil, the world is looking to them to be part of the solution. The problem is, Bolsonaro’s administration isn’t freaking out.
David Manuel-Navarrete, senior sustainability scientist in the Arizona State University Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability, said in an August 29 interview with Arizona PBS, “The fires are just the tip of the iceberg. The actual iceberg is a political shift that is causing an increase in the deforestation rates.”
Manuel-Navarrete says the number of fires isn’t the real problem right now; it’s the fact that they’re burning out of control. Brazil’s government has rejected international aid offered to help put out the fires, but have sent military troops and aircraft in to fight the blazes, and enacted a 60-day ban on land-clearing fires. How much of the forest will burn before people, and more importantly the rainy season, come to the rescue is unknown.
These fires will eventually be extinguished, but that won’t solve the bigger problem. Brazil’s commitment to conserve the Amazon rainforest has been replaced with economic-development plans that will exploit it. Manuel-Navarrete and indigenous leaders believe finding ways other than deforestation to create wealth using the forest may be part of the solution. Medical research advances using the Amazon’s unique biodiversity, ecotourism, and sustainable food crops like fruit, Brazilian nuts and açai are some of those proposed solutions. Building relationships with the indigenous tribes to work together on solutions is another.
Solutions to global issues are rarely black-and-white. The forest is in Brazil and has the resources to help meet the rising needs of a growing population. But the health of the forest is fundamental to its inhabitants and the long-term health and stability of the planet. So who should call the shots? It’s a gray area. But one thing is indisputable—the consequences of the Amazon thriving or dying will ultimately impact us all.
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Aimee Welch is a writer and editor based in Chandler, Arizona.