Environmentalists and governments worldwide have shown deep concern over the state of Amazon rainforest, which has been ravaged by multiple forest fires in the past several days. The largest tropical rainforest in the world, Amazon produces approximately 20 per cent of the oxygen in the earth’s atmosphere and is called the “lungs of the planet”. The massive fire is alarming as it not only threatens the rich biodiversity of the forest but also threatens the atmosphere due to the release of massive amounts of carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide.
Amid a global chorus of concern and condemnation, Brazil’s right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro is under pressure for his anti-environment policies. Here’s all you need to know:
Where is it happening?
The fires engulfed across a range of states in Brazil’s section of the Amazonian rainforest. The fires have impacted populated areas in the north, such as the states of Rondônia and Acre, blocking sunlight and enveloping the region in smoke. The smoke has spread thousands of miles to the Atlantic coast and Sao Paulo, according to the World Meteorological Organisation.
Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) has reported more than 9,500 fires since Thursday while registering 72,843 cases of fire from January this year. The institute notes that cases of forest fires in the region have doubled since 2013, and increased by 84 per cent compared to the same period last year.
When did the fire start?
Since the Amazon rainforests are very dense, it could not be ascertained when did the fire begin exactly. But the fires were so huge that they were visible from space as NASA released images on August 11 showing the spread of fires and reported that its satellites had detected heightened fire activity in July and August.
However, reports suggest that some farmers and small scale traders, emboldened by the Bolsonaro’s anti-environment rhetoric, organised a “fire day” along BR-163, a highway that runs through the heart of the rainforest. The weekly Brasil de fato reported that local farmers had set fire to sections of the rainforest a few days ago to get the government’s attention. “We need to show the President that we want to work and the only way is to knock it down. And to form and clear our pastures, it is with fire,” Folha do Progresso quoted one farmer as saying.
What’s causing the fire in Amazon?
Forest fire is not an exceptional phenomenon in Amazon. The rainforest experiences regular and widespread fires at this time of the year due to dry season. But environmentalists across the world believe that this disaster is indeed man-made and President Bolsonaro’s anti-environment approach is leading to large scale deforestation in Amazon for mining and agricultural activities. Alberto Setzer, a researcher at INPE, told Reuters that this year, the region did not experience extreme dry weather. “The dry season creates the favourable conditions for the use and spread of fire, but starting a fire is the work of humans, either deliberately or by accident.”
Explained: Why Amazon fires are worrying
Quoting a report by Amazon Environmental Research Institute, BBC reported that the rate of forest destruction soared more than 278 percent in July compared with the same month a year ago. In June, INPE had pegged the rate of deforestation in June at 88 percent higher than during the corresponding month in 2018.
President Bolsonaro has ascribed the blame on non-governmental organisations, saying that they are trying to tarnish the image of his administration by manipulating the data. The head of the country’s space research institute was forced to leave his position after standing up to the President’s accusations on ‘data manipulation’.
This year, Amazon has not suffered from serious dryness, Moutinho said. “We’re lucky. If we had had droughts like in the past four years, this would be even worse.”
Why is it a cause for concern?
Besides being the lungs of the planet, the Amazon rainforest is also home to indigenous communities whose lives and homelands are under threat due to encroachment by the Brazil government, foreign corporations and governments with economic interests in the resource-rich region, and local farmers.
In a 2017 study, the University of Leeds found that carbon intake by the Amazon basin matches the emissions released by nations in the basin. The burning of forests, therefore, implies additional carbon emissions. Research by scientists Carlos Nobre and Thomas E Lovejoy suggests that further deforestation could lead to Amazon’s transformation from the world’s largest rainforest to a savanna, which would reverse the region’s ecology.
A National Geographic report said the Amazon rainforest influences the water cycle not only on a regional scale, but also on a global scale. The rain produced by the Amazon travels through the region and even reaches the Andes mountain range. Moisture from the Atlantic falls on the rainforest, and eventually evaporates back into the atmosphere. The report said the Amazon rainforest has the ability to produce at least half of the rain it receives. This cycle is a delicate balance.
President Bolsonaro and Environment Minister Ricardo Salles are both close to the powerful rural caucus in Congress and have been urging more development and economic opportunities in the Amazon region, which they consider overly protected by current environment protection laws.
Under Brazil’s Forest Code of 1965, farmers could purchase Amazon land but could farm only 20 per cent of it. Following the collapse of the military dictatorship in 1988, a new constitution gave indigenous populations legal ownership of their land and the right to reject development of their land. In 2012, the Forest Code was revised to reduce the area of deforested land required to be restored, and to reduce penalties for illegal deforesting. In 2018, Brazil’s Supreme Court upheld these changes.
Bolsonaro believes that these laws hinder his quest to develop the country’s full economic potential, including in protected areas. Thus when he took the office in January 2019, he aimed to fulfill his election promise of opening the Amazon region for business.
Bolsonaro has dismissed the INPE findings and said it was the time of the year when farmers burn the land for farming. In July, he fired INPE scientist Ricardo Galvao for publishing agency data that showed the accelerated rate of deforestation, calling the figures a lie and the images manipulated. Al Jazeera English quoted Bolsonaro as saying that “a report like this one that does not match the truth can cause great damage to the image of Brazil”. INPE has defended its data.
Along with aggressive policies of promoting agribusiness, Bolsonaro has opposed protections for indigenous tribal land. After his election victory, he was quoted as saying: “Brazil should not sit on its natural reserves because a handful of Indians want to conserve it.”
He had threatened to leave the Paris climate accord as well.
How the international community has reacted
The European Union has reacted sharply to this development. French President Emmanuel Macron called for G7 leaders to discuss the environmental crisis in Brazil at a summit this weekend in the French coastal resort of Biarritz. Both France and Ireland threatened to oppose an EU trade deal struck in June with a regional South American bloc following Brazil’s response. The French president’s office accused Bolsonaro of lying when he downplayed concerns over climate change at the G20 summit in June.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeted that the fires were “not only heartbreaking, they are an international crisis,” while a spokeswoman said Johnson would use the summit to call for a renewed focus on protecting nature.
France and Ireland said on Friday they would now oppose the EU-Mercosur farming deal struck in June between the European Union and the Mercosur countries of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay.
Norway has also suspended donations of $1.2 billion supporting projects to curb deforestation in Brazil. Germany has also suspended 35 million euros ($39 million) in funding of Amazon preservation in Brazil due to increasing deforestation.
Pope Francis added his voice to the chorus of concern, warning that the “lung of forest is vital for our planet”.
Due to the mounting pressure, Bolsonaro has pledged in an address to the nation to mobilise the army to help combat the blazes. On Sunday, the Ministry of Defense said that 44,000 troops were available in the northern Amazon region but did not provide further operational details as to where they would be deployed and what they would do. On Monday, a video posted by Ministry of Defense showed C-130 Hercules planes dumping water over the smoke-covered rainforest canopy near Porto Velho in the northwestern state of Rondonia.