Amazon on Fire. What's happening, why, and what can we do?
If you’ve been paying attention to the news recently, it’s finally catching on about the Amazon. All over social media we’ve been seeing images of the jungle burning, which has been going on for over three weeks now. So how big are these fires, why is this happening, how big is the impact, and what can we all do to help?
Every year during the dry season, July through October, forest fires are common. This year there has been more than 75,000 forest fires recorded, 8 months into the year and only two months into the dry season. To compare, last year only had 40,000 fires total, and overall this year’s fires are the worst in the decade. The northern states in Brazil have been hit the worst and yet the smoke from the fire is far reaching enough that São Paola in all the way in the southeast of Brazil experienced a midday blackout because of it.
The vast majority of these fires are started by people deliberately. While during the dry season some fires happen naturally from lightning strikes, they’re generally pretty rare given the high humidity of the forest all year round. Instead, most of these fires are started by cattle ranchers and other similar industries who are using fires to illegally clear out the land for development. This has been a perennial problem throughout Brazil’s history, and the early 2000s were particularly bad for this, but the recent spike can be seen as an extension of the newly elected Jair Bolsonaro’s presidency, who campaigned on cutting the environmental red tape, proposed aggressive redevelopment of the Amazon, and campaigned against indigenous land protection rights.
The Amazon produces 20% of the world’s oxygen, earning the nickname “the lungs of the world” and it is officially the source to 10% to 30% of the world’s biodiversity. The forests is also known for holding an estimated 40,000 plant species, a countless number of which are potentially useful for medical purposes. 20% of the world’s freshwater comes from the Amazon river basin, and so the development that these fires were created for will also have a major impact on the world’s freshwater as well.
The region is also home to around one million indigenous people in 400 tribes, which includes 100 uncontacted or isolated tribal groups according to the National Indian Foundation of Brazil (many of which are the descendants of people who survived previous colonial attacks on indigenous tribes). This makes the Amazon home to the largest group of uncontacted and isolated people in the world. These people’s lives and livelihoods are directly threatened by the fires and the cattle ranchers who light them, meaning that the Amazon fires make for a dark example of how human rights and environmental rights are so intertwined.
For global climate change concerns, the Amazon also acts as one of the world’s largest carbon sinks, and so preserving the Amazon is vital to fighting global warming. The attacks on the Amazon make for a double blow in the fight against climate change, as burning the forest releases the carbon from the trees, negating the Amazon’s role as a carbon sink, while also clearing the way for the greenhouse gas heavy cattle industry. A “worst case scenario” for the Amazon would be a forest dieback situation, where rising temperatures and continued deforestation reaches a tipping point and causes mass forest death. While unlikely, the more forests that are burned the more concerned we should all be about this situation.
What can we do?
Thankfully these fires have sparked global outrage. Finland is urging the EU to consider banning imports of Brazillian beef. The Prime MInister of Ireland and the President of France have both pledged to vote down the upcoming Mercosur free trade deal if Brazil doesn’t step up its protections for the Amazon. And Bolivia has ordered the massive 747 Supertanker plane to help them combat the fires, which will be the 5th time ever the massive tanker as been used. But you don’t need to be a powerful politician to help save the Amazon, here are some tips you can do right now:
- Donate to the Rainforest Action Network, Amazon Watch, Survival, and other groups dedicated to protecting the Amazon Rainforest and Indigenous land rights.
- Make sure all of your paper products, coffee, tea, bananas and other products that can affect the Amazon are Rainforest Alliance Approved products.
- Find political groups like the Extinction Rebellion or the Sunrise Movement to help make your voice heard.
- Skip the beef. Choose vegan replacements like the Impossible Burger or Beyond Burger over beef to reduce the demand driving the deforestation. Even if you don’t want to go full vegan, at the very least look up the source of your beef consumption so you can avoid Brazillian beef.
- Sign petitions such as this Change.org petition with over 3.5 million signatures as of this article post.
- Spread the word far and wide. Share all the information you can and get everyone to know about what’s going on.
- Vote for leaders who make climate change a top priority. Stay informed on the issues, your candidates, and vote for the leaders who represent your concerns about the environment.