New fires are searing through the Amazon forest at an alarming rate which is a cause for global concern. While fires in the Amazon are not a new phenomenon – fires occur every dry season between July and October – the current number of fires burning is troublesome since the Brazilian government has introduced a ban on burning on Thursday (29th August). Since then, 3589 new fires have been started, where roughly 2,000 were within the Amazon. This information was taken from the satellite data published by The Brazilian National Space Research Institute (INPE).
Image credit: Giorgos Moutafis
However, while NASA’s satellite pictures illustrate that throughout the middle of August the fire activity observed in the Amazon was below average compared with figures over the previous 15 years, some states have seen a dramatic increase in activity. Couple this rise with the latest data from the INPE as well as their reports that of 88,816 fires started in Brazil over 50% occurred in the rainforest and we have an 84% increase on 2018’s statistics. These are figures that harbor the potential for catastrophe with regards to the biodiversity of the forest as well as the indigenous people that live there.
Typically, most of the wildfires are started by those who wish to use the land for cattle ranching and other agriculture to meet the global demand of the food industry such as for meat and soy produce. Often, this land is also owned and inhabited by indigenous people and these fires are currently placing over a million of their lives in danger.
Dr. Sandy Knapp, head of the Natural History Museum's Algae, Fungi and Plants Division, explains, “These fires are heartbreaking and terrifying. Deliberate deforestation is usually how fuel is made so that fires start in this otherwise wet habitat. This year the forest seems to have been particularly dry and fires that were started to clear a small patch have gone out of control and into the forest.”
As people chop down the trees and other vegetation during the wet season they wait for the dry season for the wood and land to dry out again. However, if the summer has been especially dry when it comes to burning the land the fires can get out of control rather quickly, which leads to nothing short of a climate disaster.
This year has seen record high temperatures all over the world and it seems to me that it is no coincidence those warm temperatures have triggered fires in dry and vulnerable forests all over South America.
Dr. Sandy Knapp, head of the Natural History Museum's Algae, Fungi and Plants Division
These wildfires can not only damage the trees of the forest itself but also the understory of plant life and biodiversity contained within it.
Dr. Knapp explains that, “The Amazon is far more than just trees. The understory (shrubs and herbs) contains half of the species diversity in the forest, and that really gets damaged in a fire, especially if the heat builds to very high levels.”
The Amazon rainforest is particularly at risk because it consists of mostly lowland, wetland forests, which are ill-equipped to deal with fire.
Amongst the millions of animals that rely on the Amazon, mammals such as jaguars, sloths and freshwater dolphins are jeopardized as their lives become endangered. Therefore, what we are also witnessing is not just the destruction of one of nature’s wonders but the destruction of the lives of the people and animals that inhabit this environment.
It is of no surprise then that the recent spate of Amazonian fires have led to an outpouring of outrage all over the world with protests in major cities led by groups such as Extinction Rebellion and its sister movement Animal Rebellion. Recent protests took place outside the Brazilian Embassy in London with most of fury directed at Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro for refusing help from other countries and encouraging deforestation. The Brazilian government denies these claims and labelled stories appearing in the global media as “sensationalist”. Bolsonaro has claimed Brazil would be willing to accept 20 million US$ from the G7 on the condition French President Macron apologizes for his previous expression branding the Brazilian President as rude.
So, as the Amazon continues to burn, we must face up to the facts this is a global problem. Deforestation on this scale occurs all over the world – in Indonesia an equivalent amount of forest is taken each year with similar mass deforestation having already occurred in Europe. As previously mentioned, one of the key reasons for this is farmers and the agricultural industry attempting to meet the demands of consumers all over the world.
This tragedy has been caused by choices we have made. Cheap beef comes from farms in the Amazon, and so does soymilk. It is easy to blame Brazilian farmers but the rest of us provide the demand.
Dr. Sandy Knapp
If this rate of deforestation is allowed to continue, the other ramifications include the balance of weather systems being upset as forests often create their own patterns. If the Amazon is unable to regulate its own rainfall and weather patterns, then they become more prone to fires. This can also have an impact on the water cycle and oxygen supply of the entire planet – meaning this disaster could put the lives of everyone in the world at risk.
However, all is not lost if we are able to motivate and implement change sooner rather than later and get governments to act and the people responsible for deforestation practices to make changes to their practices.
The good news is that forests can and will recover because life finds a way. The evidence is there, they do come back if we let them. The plants may not all be the same, but the diversity of life will eventually be restored, and that is what is truly important.
Dr. Sandy Knapp