Since 1970, over 700,000 square kilometres of the Amazon rainforest has been destroyed. Home to three million species of plants and animals, the Amazon basin is crucial in regulating global warming. It absorbs millions of tons of carbon emissions every year and reportedly produces 20% of oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere.
Due to all-round efforts, between 2006 and 2012, the rate of deforestation had decreased by 80%. However, successive governments have relaxed protections norms and created regulations supporting the continued exploitation of the region. It is estimated by the World Wildlife Fund that if deforestation continues at the current rate, more than a quarter of the Amazon rainforest would be without trees by 2030.
The Amazon plays a critical role in maintaining climate function regionally and globally. Its canopy cover helps regulate temperature and humidity and it is intricately linked to regional climate patterns through hydrological cycles. The Amazon contains 90-140 billion metric tons of carbon which has the potential to alter global climate, if not properly stewarded. The release of even a small percentage of this carbon would accelerate global warming significantly.
In the last 50 years, the Amazon has lost at least 17% of its forest cover. This year, Brazil’s space research centre INPE has detected a record 72,843 fires raging in the Amazon rainforest, compared to 39,759 in 2018. INPE’s Director, Ricardo Galvão was ousted from his job earlier this month after his agency reported an 88 per cent rise in the deforestation rate in the Amazon.
Amazonas State declared an emergency in the South and in its capital Manaus on August 9. Wildfires have increased in Mato Grosso and Para, two states where Brazil’s agricultural frontier has pushed into the Amazon basin and spurred deforestation. Sao Paulo - a city more than 2,000 miles (3,200 kilometers) away was darkened due to the smoke plumes from the state of Amazonas. As per the EU's Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service, the smoke has travelled as far as the Atlantic Ocean and has released large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere - about 228 megatonnes - the highest since 2010.
Ricardo Mello, head of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Amazon Programme, said the fires were "a consequence of the increase in deforestation seen in recent figures". Wildfires are common in the dry season, blazes can spark from natural sources like lightning strikes. But forests fires are also deliberately set by farmers and loggers to clear land in the Amazon for industrial or agricultural use.
“It’s normal to see fires at the end of the dry season,” Celso Oliveira, a meteorologist from Somar Meteorologia in Sao Paulo, said, adding that many parts of the country had gone for three to six months without rain. Countering this, international experts state that Amazon forests have a very high rate of humidity and do not catch fire spontaneously like the ones in Northern America. They say large conflagrations are mostly intentionally triggered.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, elected in Jan 2019, is facing criticism because he has indicated that protecting the rainforest is not one of its top priorities. His election promises included opening of Amazon region for business and he has been quoted as “ Brazil should not sit on its natural reserves because of a handful of Indians who want to conserve it”. Bolsonaro's government lowered the number of fines levied for illegal deforestation and mining and decreased its monitoring of illegal activity in the rainforest. Bolsonaro has openly blamed the fires on NGOs as retaliation for scaling back of Brazil’s usual funding support for them. He also stated that it is the time of the year of “queimada” or burn when farmers light fires to clear land.
Other countries of the Amazon basin are also affected by fires - with Venezuela reporting 26000 fires, followed by Bolivia with 17000 fires.
The international community has been highly critical of how Brazil is handling the fires. French President Emmanuel Macron warned he would not sign the EU-Mercosur trade treaty if Bolsonaro pulled Brazil out of the Paris accord. Norway and Germany suspended funding for projects to curb deforestation in Brazil. At the G7 summit, although the member states pledged $20m as aid to pay for firefighting planes, Brazil has rejected it.
- Between 2006 and 2012, due to international pressure, countries sharing the Amazon forest cover had significantly put the brakes on deforestation. It is apparent that in their search for economic revival amidst an overall downtrend in growth rates, domestic compulsions are driving upwards the pace of deforestation. For the survival of planet Earth, international commitment to preserve these forests has to be invoked once again.
- Nowhere is this more apparent than in Brazil where loggers, farmers and other commercial exploiters of the rainforest resources are clearly encouraged by the anti-environment rhetoric of the current political dispensation. Unless defaulting governments are faced with punitive actions and widespread condemnations, the situation will not improve.
- Another reason is that that current economic recession is leading to hunger and food insecurity among the poor. In a bid to increase food production, more and more of the forest cover is being destroyed through “ natural occurring” fires.
- Agri societies blessed with large tracts of forest cover, are habituated to cultivating food through the unsustainable ‘slash and burn’ farming technique – which works by encroaching into the soil fertility of a newly cleared patch of forest. Ashes of trees and undergrowth act as rich nutrients, resulting in plentiful crops for a short time. This practice needs to be curbed.
- While there is no denying that Brazil and other countries must duly harvest the riches of the Amazon forests for the economic upliftment of their people, this has to be done in a systematic, planned and sustainable manner. The international community should be sensitive to this and assist these countries through funds, technological expertise and training.
- As an immediate response, there is a need to pool firefighting resources like heavy fire fighting air-tankers and provide technical expertise to the affected countries on a war footing. Brazil and other countries should be encouraged to seek and accept this international assistance.
- The exploitation of the Amazon forests is fuelled by the international demand for paper, lumber and meat products produced by the creation of vast ranches from forest cover. A responsible world needs to rein in this extravagance and learn to manage more frugally and not lay the entire blame on the Amazon Basin countries.
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