Forest fires are not exceptional in the Amazon. Flames are used routinely to clear overgrown pastures, crop residues, and roadside vegetation. But this year, fires in the rainforests have assumed alarming proportions. Brazil’s National Institute of Space Research (INPE) has reported nearly 72,000 fires in the Amazon this year, more than 9,000 of them over the past 10 days.
Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, an outspoken sceptic of environmental concerns, initially dismissed the severity of the outbreak: He called the INPE data a “big lie”, sacked the agency’s head, and claimed that “NGOs had started the fires in order to discredit his government”. However, faced with international criticism, Bolsonaro has deployed the army to contain the blaze.
Stretching across 5.5 million sq km, the Amazon is home to more than 30 million people, about two million of them belong to the region’s 400-odd indigenous communities. The rainforests contain more than 10 per cent of the Earth’s biodiversity. They produce nearly 20 per cent of the oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere and play a major role in many of the processes that make the planet habitable. The forests are a buffer against climate change.
According to a paper published in 2007 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, the Amazon can absorb 9-14 decades of human-induced carbon dioxide emissions. Deforestation will put all these ecosystem services of the rainforests in peril.
Brazil, which controls a lion’s share of the Amazon, is the world’s largest exporter of beef — last year, the country exported a record 1.64 million tonnes. Brazil also exported a record 83.3 million tonnes of soya in 2018, up 22.2 per cent from 2017.
The US-China trade war has led to Beijing increasing its soya imports from Brazil. Environmental groups allege that the surge in Brazil’s beef and soya exports has come at the cost of the Amazon. Such links could be tendentious. But there is no doubt that Bolsonaro’s government has thrown its weight behind the commercial exploitation of the rainforest.
He has cut the budget of the country’s environmental protection agency, IBAMA, by 24 per cent and made FUNAI, the agency responsible for supporting indigenous people, subordinate to the country’s agriculture ministry. Brazil has lost nearly 3,000 sq km of forest cover since Bolsonaro assumed office in January, according to INPE data. The Amazon fires should be a warning the president must heed.
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