The Amazon fires: What can we do?

September 25th, 2019

Fire facts

On August 20, Brazil’s satellite agency reported an 84% increase in the number of fires in the Amazon compared with the same period in 2018, according to BBC News. The agency counted 74,000 fires between January 1 and August 20. Because many of the fires are still burning, it’s difficult to gauge the full extent of the damage. The best way to estimate the scale of the fires is to measure the amount of carbon dioxide that the fires are releasing. According to the European Union’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service, in 2019 nearly 228 megatons of carbon dioxide have been released, the highest amount since 2010.

Not only has there been a tremendous increase in fires in the Amazon, there’s also been an increase in deforestation. Since January, more than 1,330 square miles of rainforest have disappeared, a 39% increase over the amount lost during the same time period in 2018, The New York Times reported in August.

The Amazon basin is home to the largest tropical rainforest in the world, covering an area approximately the same size as the entire lower 48 United States, according to the Global Forest Atlas. The six to eight million square kilometers of forest contain approximately one-sixth of the world’s freshwater and one out of every ten species on the planet. Nearly two-thirds of the Amazon basin lies in Brazil, while the rest of the rainforest is shared by Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana, an overseas French territory.

Causes of the fires

In some forests, fires help clear the forest of dead trees and other debris, thus giving other trees space to thrive and grow stronger, but this isn’t the case in the Amazon. Yadvinder Malhi, professor of ecosystem science at the University of Oxford, told BBC News that the Amazon’s humid forests don’t adapt to fire but rather are greatly damaged by it. He says that in humid forests, most fires are caused by people.

Writing in The Atlantic, Robinson Meyer makes the point more directly that these fires aren’t wildfires: “They were ignited. And while they largely affect land already cleared for ranching and farming, they can and do spread into old-growth forest.”

World Wildlife Fund has issued the following statement about the causes leading to this rise in fires: “The fires are a direct result of soaring deforestation rates to illegally claim land and clear land for cattle ranching and agriculture. We’ve seen a massive increase in the number of fires in 2019. . . . While fires are not unusual at this time of the year, the sheer scale and intensity of these fires is exceptional, and the direct result of increases in deforestation rates by farmers going largely unchecked by Brazilian government.”

As reported by The Atlantic on September 4, the nonprofit organization Amazon Watch recently published an analysis showing that “foreign investors have enormous influence over what happens in the Brazilian Amazon. . . . Big banks and large investment companies play a critical role, providing billions of dollars in lending, underwriting and equity investment.”

Many have claimed these foreign investors are profiting from decisions made by the government under new president Jair Bolsonaro. Prior to the presidency of Bolsonaro, Brazil was widely recognized for advances, noted by the Global Forest Atlas, in environmental policy, protected area management and forest monitoring. However, Bolsonaro has taken a number of anti-environment stances that are proving to be major threats to the rainforest.

Effects of the fires

Gordon Bonan, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado, tells that the Amazon is vitally important “because of the area’s rich biodiversity, its vast stores of carbon and the way the forest influences the local and global climate.”

Malhi tells BBC News that the most immediate effect of the fires will be reduced rainfall in South America, which will lead to a more intensive dry season. As for the long term, he explains that “the carbon emission could contribute to global warming,” but the other effects are “more difficult to pin down.” Along that vein, BBC News says that according to scientists, “the fires could make the Paris climate target more difficult to achieve. The global treaty aims to limit average temperature rise to well below two degrees Celsius to avoid dangerous climate change.”

The rainforest plays a critical role in combating climate change because of its ability to store carbon and thus regulate the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. According to the Rainforest Trust blog, the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies reports that “all tropical forests combined contain about 25 percent of the world’s carbon” and that the Amazon basin alone stores up to 140 billion tons.

These fires also threaten the earth’s most biodiverse region, which has immeasurable ecological and biological value. The rainforest is currently home to about 390 billion trees, over 16,000 plant species and millions of animal species. “This is the richest place on our planet, from the billions of years of evolution of life before humans were around. It’s one of the great libraries of nature on Earth,” Malhi explains in a September 9 NBC News article.

What can we do?

The Amazon rainforest may lie thousands of miles away from where we spend our daily lives, but there are still ways to get involved in limiting further damage. Some options, including several from Public Radio International (PRI):

1. Donating to the emergency appeals of organizations that work to preserve rainforests. These include World Wildlife Fund, the Rainforest Action Network, and Greenpeace.

2. Signing petitions and educating friends and family about the importance of the Amazon. Voicing your concern to legislators can also be helpful.

3. Eating sustainably. Cattle require large tracts of land for grazing, and forests around the world are being cleared to raise livestock for meat and dairy.

4. Purchasing sustainably. Fires are set not only to clear land for agribusiness but also to extract timber. By reducing the amount of wood and paper that we use, we’re helping to reduce commercial pressure on the Amazon and other forests. When it’s necessary to buy wood and paper products, choose ones that are grown sustainably. Look for the Rainforest Alliance Certified seal.

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