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Amazon burns

  • Published at 04:49 pm September 1st, 2019
Photo : Courtesy

The unprecedented scale raises question who set the world’s largest rainforest on fire

Devastating fires across the Amazon has created alarm worldwide. 

As the fire rages on, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has dispatched the military, which has been dropping water from warplanes. 

Even though some fires in the vast rainforest is not uncommon, the current incident prompted multiple sources, including Amazonian tribesmen, celebrities, political leaders and scientists to claim that the fires are intentional. 

For many people it is tough to digest that destruction of this magnitude would be intentional, yet there are many signs that point that way.

The ‘Earth’s lungs’

The Amazon rainforest covers 5,500,000 km2 out of the 7,000,000 km2 of the Amazon basin of South America. 60% of the forest lies in Brazil with smaller percentages held by neighbouring nations such as Peru and Colombia. It is the largest tract of tropical rainforest in the world and is known as the Earth’s ‘lungs’ because it produces a large amount of oxygen and stores carbon dioxide. 

People have been living in the Amazon for thousands of years. According to the World Wildlife Fund, people began settling in the Amazon from an estimated 32,000 to 39,000 years ago. 

Today, most of the tribe people live in indigenous reserves and practice a lifestyle that has both modern and traditional elements. Very few live in complete seclusion from the world.

Many of these people are farmers. They take part in slash and burn agriculture which means that human induced fires in the Amazon are actually quite commonplace. It is normal for agriculturalists to slash trees and burn large swathes of forest to grow cash crops such as rice, oil palms, coffee and soybeans. The clearing of land is possibly the main reason behind the recent fires.                    

Bolsonaro criticized

The recent media frenzy about the Amazon fires have brought a lot of different claims to the table. Some have been plain misleading while others gave light to a serious issue. But most of the conversation has veered towards a similar direction: Bolsonaro, the Brazilian president is to blame for the fires.

Scientists have made it clear that there is no possible way that these fires are not human induced. The rainforests of the Amazon, unlike the dry forests of Australia and California, are damp and natural fires are not common. Regardless of how hot or dry it might get, rainforests are unlikely to have forest fires.

Jair Bolsonaro has faced great criticism from the international community for his callous response to the fires. In the beginning he would not even acknowledge it as a problem, saying that it was an internal issue for Brazil. He even made scalding remarks such as “They should reforest Europe” rather than address the main problem. 

The human activity that scientists are blaming for the fires are encouraged by policies made by Bolsonaro and his government. He came into power earlier this year and it is not a coincidence that the fire frequency increased by 70% from the previous year. 

Bolsonaro is a very business-minded president who wants to make use of his land for economic activities even if that requires deforestation. The people who are illegally causing fires to clear land are likely emboldened by his values. 

Bolsonaro is also a staunch climate change denier. So, it probably makes no difference to him the effect that the deforestation of the Amazon will have on the climate. 

This has emerged as a common theme in most nationalist leaders who favours a neoliberal development over conserving the environment. The US president Donald Trump, who also made unscientific remarks on climate change, has recently praised Bolsonaro as the Brazillian president faces criticism from environmentalists.

Environmental implications

Trees act as a buffer against climate change by absorbing carbon dioxide, which is a strong greenhouse gas. They also produce oxygen, the vital life-fuel for humans and other animals. 

The fires that are burning in the Amazon are releasing millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The forest is also rich in biodiversity for both plant and animal species and many of these species are losing their habitats due to the fires.

There is a lot of ongoing legal and illegal deforestation in the world. If this trend continues the effects will be disastrous and irreversible. In most cases, land is being cleared for farming or ranching through slash and burn practices.

A worrying increase

The whole world is rushing to the aid the firefight in the Amazon, which Bolsonaro at first rejected. 

Now he is saying that he will accept the aid but in the condition that Brazil gets to decide how to spend the money. To concerned activists, it is quite obvious that he does not intend to use aid money in the way it should be spent, or he would not have added this clause. 

Brazil has had 78,383 forest fires so far this year, with roughly half of those in August alone, according to Brazil's space research agency INPE. This is the  highest level since at least 2013 and are up 84% this year compared to the same period a year ago. 

Eight out of nine Amazon states have experienced an increase in fires with the largest state of Amazonas seeing a 146% rise. People in Rondonia and Amazonas states said while there are fires every year they have never seen such severity, with clouds of smoke blanketing the region.