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Planet in Crisis: The Burning Amazon

Aerial picture showing a fire in a piece of land in the Amazon rainforest, about 65 km from Porto Velho, in the state of Rondonia, in northern Brazil, on August 23, 2019. - Bolsonaro said Friday he is considering deploying the army to help combat fires raging in the Amazon rainforest, after news about the fires have sparked protests around the world. The latest official figures show 76,720 forest fires were recorded in Brazil so far this year -- the highest number for any year since 2013. More than half are in the Amazon. (Photo by CARL DE SOUZA / AFP) (Photo credit should read CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images)

The Amazon is the “lungs of the planet” so why does humankind unscrupulously try to smoke it out of existence?

The Amazon is the world’s largest tropical forest in the world. The five-million-square-kilometer-and-more rainforest spans across nine South American countries: Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela. With such a large volume of trees and animal life in its area, the Amazon holds a crucial role in the planetary equilibrium and ecosystem. The rainforest functions as a climate stabilizer, storing hundreds of years’ worth of carbon emissions and creating one-fifth of the oxygen we breathe. It also holds twenty percent of Earth’s fresh flowing water in the Amazon River.

Over 400 indigenous tribes call the Amazon home. According to Survival International, an indigenous rights group, indigenous populations number by a million. They try to preserve this tropical forest that their ancestors have lived in since 11,000 years ago. They painstakingly take care of the forest from which they depend on their daily needs for millennia. But they share the land with thirty million or so people, most of which live in cities deliberately created out of the forest borders. Because of this, they suffer from fires that engulf their homes, lands, and livelihoods. They also fight against displacement, human rights abuses to the point where the forest turns crimson with their leaders’ lifeblood. Alas, this is the fate they share with other native peoples all over the world who respect the Earth and do their outmost as stewards of creation.

Infographic about the Amazon Rainforest - Statistics

For weeks, wildfires engulfed the rainforest and killed many endemic flora and fauna. The flames rage across the Amazon with such furor that it could be seen from outer space. Mainly, Brazil’s section of the Amazon suffers from the fires. The fires go from Roraima down through Amazonas, Acre, Rondonia and Mato Grosso do Sul. Ten thousand forest fires blaze along Brazil since August 15. The smoke from the flames turned Sao Paulo into nighttime. Amazonas declared a state of emergency and evacuated citizens from the affected areas. Medical professionals and firefighters double down on treating affected civilians and stopping the fire. But the two tasks prove to be a struggle with few personnel and the impossibility of getting everywhere in the line of fire at the same time.

Why is the Amazon burning?

History of wildfires within the Amazon

Fifty years ago, the Amazon was pristine and rich. Now almost a fifth of the rainforest disappeared. This alarmed scientists as deforestation this level can lead to the demise of the forest within a matter of decades. More than 70,000 wildfires devastated this tropical paradise in 2019 alone. This number ranks the highest since Brazil’s space research center INPE recorded wildfires in 2013, and a 84% increase from the same period in 2018. The rainforest section in Brazil lost over 1,130 square miles since January 2019.

Environmental experts say that human activities such as clearing for agriculture cause the Amazon fires. The wildfires surged with the rise of the right-wing capitalist Jair Bolsonaro into the highest position in the Brazilian government. He is wildly criticized over speeding up deforestation rates by encouraging the spread of commercial agriculture into the Amazon.

Bolsonaro’s presidency and its environmental abuses

The nationalist former army captain Jair Bolsonaro won on a populist vote in January with a wave of promises for economic progress in a country trying to climb up from a bad recession. He worked to ease access to protected areas in the Amazon, especially for the mining and agriculture industry. He aims to use the increased development of the Amazon land as a springboard for economic growth for Brazil. This speaks of how he prioritizes capitalistic gains over environmental protection.

Many of Brazil’s environmental protections eroded on President Bolsonaro’s green light. His government, according to former environment ministers and local officials, encouraged exploitation of protected areas and violation of environmental laws in the name of economic gains. Even before the Amazon fire became prominent in international news, he denied anything was wrong and even fired physicist Ricardo Galvão from his directorship of the INPE.

Then social media exploded with images of a burning rainforest suffering for weeks already. Bolsonaro, ever controversial, originally threw off concerns for the Amazon’s integrity. He infamously said in an interview, “quote”

But over global backlash and outrage, he ordered the Brazilian armed forces to help contain the record-breaking blaze. This order came with the promise of “zero tolerance” towards environmental crimes. Amidst a chorus of condemnation over the burning Amazon, Brazil braced for possible punitive measures such as boycotts of Brazilian products and cancelled trade deals. This could severely cripple its economy that still heals from a brutal recession. Still, Bolsonaro emphasizes his pledge to provide Brazilian citizens living in states that cover some parts of the Amazon with broader livelihood opportunities.

Activists mobbed Brazil’s embassies over Bolsonaro’s leadership following the news of the Amazon burning to alarming degrees. Most chanted “out Bolsonaro!” to drumbreats. These protests carry a sense of existential urgency. Many millenials, in particular, feel pained and grief-stricken over humankind killing the environment and other species with impunity.

The nationalist former army captain Jair Bolsonaro won on a populist vote in January with a wave of promises for economic progress in a country trying to climb up from a bad recession. He worked to ease access to protected areas in the Amazon, especially for the mining and agriculture industry. He aims to use the increased development of the Amazon land as a springboard for economic growth for Brazil. This speaks of how he prioritizes capitalistic gains over environmental protection.

Many of Brazil’s environmental protections eroded on President Bolsonaro’s green light. His government, according to former environment ministers and local officials, encouraged exploitation of protected areas and violation of environmental laws in the name of economic gains. Even before the Amazon fire became prominent in international news, he denied anything was wrong and even fired physicist Ricardo Galvão from his directorship of the INPE.

Then social media exploded with images of a burning rainforest suffering for weeks already. Bolsonaro, ever controversial, originally threw off concerns for the Amazon’s integrity. He infamously said in an interview, “quote”

But over global backlash and outrage, he ordered the Brazilian armed forces to help contain the record-breaking blaze. This order came with the promise of “zero tolerance” towards environmental crimes. Amidst a chorus of condemnation over the burning Amazon, Brazil braced for possible punitive measures such as boycotts of Brazilian products and cancelled trade deals. This could severely cripple its economy that still heals from a brutal recession. Still, Bolsonaro emphasizes his pledge to provide Brazilian citizens living in states that cover some parts of the Amazon with broader livelihood opportunities.

Activists mobbed Brazil’s embassies over Bolsonaro’s leadership following the news of the Amazon burning to alarming degrees. Most chanted “out Bolsonaro!” to drumbreats. These protests carry a sense of existential urgency. Many millenials, in particular, feel pained and grief-stricken over humankind killing the environment and other species with impunity.

Since the nationalist former army captain took office in January, deforestation has increased sharply across Brazil, including in indigenous territories. Mr. Bolsonaro has pledged to make it easier for industries to gain access to protected areas, arguing that native communities are in control of unreasonably vast areas that contain enormous wealth. This speaks of how he prioritizes capitalistic gains over environmental protection.

Activists mobbed Brazil’s embassies over Bolsonaro’s leadership. Most chanted “out Bolsonaro!” to drumbreats. These protests carry a sense of existential urgency. Many millenials feel pained and grief-stricken over humankind killing the environment and other species with impunity.

Causes of wildfires

Dry seasons caused fires naturally in the Amazon and other forests around the world. But more often than not, farmers, loggers, and miners set the fires to clear land for pasture, wood, and mineral extractions. President Bolsonaro, in particular, cut funding on IBAMA, Brazil’s environmental agency and loosened restrictions to facilitate development of the forest. This emboldened illegal loggers and other people who take from the forest with impunity. Worse, natural conditions such as strong winds and dry forest floors spread the fires beyond areas intended by such sectors.

Brazilian agriculture, which its President seeks to bolster, builds upon clearing land for crops and cattle. Farmers and ranchers burn trees and other areas to make room for their grazing farm animals and growing soybeans. Worse, most of these burning activities are illegal.

The burning Amazon caused worldwide uproar, especially among netizens, due to the fact that Brazil has been a pioneer on environment. It had always operated economic development hand in hand with environmental protection – until Bolsonaro.

What could this mean for everyone?

The Amazon burns at a rate that could lead to the complete destruction of the rain forest. It needs to stop burning because the more it burns, the greater the consequences it will be for not only Brazilians, but for the entire world. These include loss of wild life that will threaten the global food chain; loss of trees and other vegetation that threaten food supply; and accelerated climate change due to increased carbon dioxide emissions and less natural absorption of carbon.

a)     Animal species lost forever, threatening the balance of ecosystem 

The Amazon rainforest houses ten percent of animals in the planet. They are the main victims of the long widespread fires that raged from Brazil into Bolivia, Paraguay, and Peru. The thousands of mammal, reptile, amphibian, and bird species that live in the Amazon suffer from both immediate and long-term consequences. Many wildlife species lost against the flames that engulf the trees and landscape they live in. Unfortunately, unlike other forest dwellers, Amazon animals cannot adapt to fire. The rainforest boasts a rich diversity because it hasn’t burnt in millennia. But in just a few decades, this unique system is lost because of human-induced wildfires in levels unseen before. Surviving in a fundamentally transformed ecosystem would be a struggle for many species.

Animals have few choices of survival in wildfires. They can try to hide underground or underwater. But this displaces them from their natural habitat. Worse, most of them perish from the flames and smoke inhalation. Animal scientists from the National Geographic theorize that large, fast animals such as jaguars, pumas and birds are more likely to escape the blaze. But their small and slow neighbors such as sloths, anteaters, frogs and lizards, may die as they fail to escape. Worse, above all, most of the Amazon wildlife is uncountable and unstudied so scientists cannot properly quantify the range of damage by the fires.

Diverse animal populations in small rivers or creeks are in trouble from fires burning right over the water. This threatens water-dwelling amphibians, which need to stay partially above water in order to breathe. Fire could also change water chemistry to the point that it isn’t sustainable for life in the short term. Scientists concur that the widespread fires killed species we might not have yet known of and damaged the structure of the Amazon forever.

b)    Trees and plant species lost, leading to a threatened food and water supply

Next in the devastating damages from the fires is the loss of tree and plant lives. The Amazon contains almost half of the world’s tropical forests. So there are a lot of trees and vegetation to account for. Many species are still unstudied but all are important in the planetary climate balance. Given the abundance, the Amazon functions as a carbon sink for the entire world. It absorbs carbon to slow down global warming.

Trees also help stabilize water supply levels in both the atmosphere and land. They help regulate the water cycle by holding on to water after rains. Without trees, there is a danger that Brazil could become a savannah – have fewer crops and more frequent flooding.

c)   Accelerated climate change due to increased carbon emissions

Scientists describe the Amazon’s carbon sink function as storing billions of tons of carbon emissions. Every time a tree burns down, some of these carbon shoots up in the atmosphere. These increase the already problematic global carbon emissions. In fact, the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service noted that the fires released heightened levels of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides and non-methane organic compounds through the course of weeks.

These carbon emissions are visible in the form of smoky fog. This smoky fog enveloped many different regions in South America such as the Atlantic coast and Sao Paulo, Brazil’s largest city. In fact, Sao Paulo fell into night-time darkness since August 19. Residents there, who live thousands of kilometers away from the burning Amazon, complained of black pungent rainfall.

These damaging effects and more concern the whole world. However, even as the World Wide Web exploded with news of the burning Amazon, it may seem that many are too far or too small to be able to do something about the problem. But you can help. Everyone can help in the effort to save the environment – in one’s own little way.

What could we do about this?

a)     Go zero waste.

Everything we use comes from natural resources. And when we waste things such as food, paper and clothing, the natural resources which were extracted in the process of such production is also wasted. The more you waste, the greater the effects of such activities to the environment. The best way to help save the Amazon and other forests in danger is to practice a lifestyle that will be conscious of one’s consumption. You need to live more sustainably and less wasteful.

Going zero waste will enable to look at everything you do in the way/s they affect the environment. That could mean avoiding plastic. Or shopping in bulk bins. Or simply getting creative with food so you throw little or none of it to the bin.

b)    Go paperless.

If you can’t fully commit to a zero waste lifestyle yet, try going paperless. Instead of paper receipts, ask for digital versions. Use your bank’s online banking facilities. Ditch paper towels for cloth ones. And above all, recycle paper. So you won’t create more demand for paper that will come from cutting trees all over the world.

c)   Boycott palm oil and other products that come from destroying rainforests.

Global outrage over the fires has spurred calls to boycott Brazilian products and led European leaders to threaten to walk away from a trade agreement that the European Union struck with Brazil and a handful of neighboring countries in June.

d)   Support NGOs and IPs protecting Amazon and other forests.

Money and human efforts are the key to stopping the fires and helping with the aftermath of the devastation. If you can, donate and volunteer for non-government organizations and charities that fight for the welfare of the Amazon and the rest of the forests and the indigenous peoples who have lived there since time immemorial. Here are some of such organizations who are in the forefront of helping save the Amazon:

  • Ecosia – Shift to Ecosia and help a tree with each search! They publish financial reports that show where they spent their revenue, mostly on supporting communities that preserve forests and planting trees. In particular, this eco-friendly search engine has pledged to plant more than two million trees after the Amazon fire news broke.
  • Amazon Conservation Team aims to combat climate change by protecting the integrity of the Amazon rain forest and empowering the natives of the land.
  • Amazon Conservation Association seeks to fund through donations activities that help in preserving the forest area – from planting trees, sponsoring education, buying a solar panel to preserving indigenous lands.
  • The Rainforest Foundation operates in the same way as the ACA.
  • Want to up protecting the Amazon? Donate to the Rainforest Trust, an organization that buys land in the rainforest. This fund has helped save over 23 million acres and counting since 1988. 

e)     Spread awareness about this.

Concerned citizens first raised the alarm of the burning Amazon on social media, particularly Twitter and Facebook. They compared the lack of media coverage to the devastating wildfires to the overwhelming media discussion about the fire that burned France’s Notre Dame Cathedral. Soon #PrayForAmazonas and #ActForAmazonas went trending worldwide. This proves that spreading awareness of a certain environmental issue brings it into greater focus towards those who can push for change in the system.

Even if you cannot donate or volunteer in NGOs and environmental charities, ensure that it stays relevant by talking about the Amazon’s burning disaster. In fact, the trending hashtags for the Amazon rainforest’s welfare triggered the European Union and major world leaders to change their foreign policies towards Brazil. President Emmanuel Macron of France, Prime Minister Leo Varadkar of Ireland, and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany pledged to veto trade deals with the South American bloc Mercosur unless Brazil strengthens the protection of the Amazon. The G7 summit will also focus on the Amazon fires as an international crisis.

Conclusion:

Grief cannot do anything on its own. Rather, we need to harness this emotion into action. We are responsible for the Amazon. We are responsible for the whole world. We need to care and spread awareness of environmental concerns to safeguard the interests of future generations and to other beings on this planet.

Our planet is in such severe turmoil that we cannot and should not bear to ignore its suffering any longer. I will be covering more environmental issues in this Planet in Crisis blog series. Stay tuned. If there are some issues you think needs to be talked about here, comment and engage the world with your opinions.  Like, share, and subscribe to keep abreast with the Zero Waste Lifestyle System.

What do you think?

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