Amazon on fire: ‘All you can see is death’

Hellscape: The fires have destroyed an area larger than London in a month.

Who is to blame for the destruction of the Amazon? Man-made fires are raging across the world’s largest rainforest, burning down areas the size of five football pitches every minute.

The Amazon rainforest is home to 390 billion trees and one in 10 of the Earth’s known animal species. Its dense canopy and winding rivers cover 5.5 million sq km of South America, sprawling into eight countries. And today, the Amazon is burning.

Satellites have observed more than 40,000 individual fires in the Amazon this year — a steep rise of 85% on the same period in 2018. Roughly half of these blazes were recorded in the last three weeks.

Many in the international community blame Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, nicknamed “Captain Chainsaw”, whose government stands accused of undoing years of work to protect the rainforest.

Since Bolsonaro came to power at the start of 2019, Brazil’s agricultural lobby has grown more powerful, and penalties for illegal deforestation are vanishing. In recent weeks, emboldened groups of farmers, who want to use the land to graze cattle, have deliberately started blazes on so-called “fire days”.

The damage to the planet’s most diverse ecosystem has been devastating. Five football pitches of rainforest are being destroyed each minute. On Monday, thick smoke from the fires turned the skies above São Paulo black.

French President Emmanuel Macron has declared the fires an “international crisis” and has criticised Bolsonaro’s response.

On Monday, he hosted a G7 summit in Biarritz, France, where world leaders agreed to release $20 million (£18 million) to help Brazil tackle the fires.

Yesterday, however, Bolsonaro accused Macron of calling him a liar and treating Brazil like “a colony or no man’s land”. He will only consider the aid package if Macron withdraws the “insults”.

Meanwhile, concern escalates about the impact the fires could have on global greenhouse gas levels. Often called the “lungs of the planet”, the Amazon rainforest absorbs millions of tons of carbon dioxide every year and produces around 6% of the oxygen we breathe.

Trees in a humid forest like the Amazon have not evolved to cope with fires. Once they have burned, the forests hold 25% less carbon even after three decades of regrowth.

Who is to blame for the destruction?

Our house is on fire

The Brazilian government, say some. Bolsonaro (often compared to the US’s own climate-denying president) has reversed years of work that saw Brazil reduce deforestation rates by 80%. Now, this wondrous ecosystem is on the brink of a tipping point towards destruction, while the rest of the world looks on in horror.

But is it that simple? Leaders of the G7 released statements condemning deforestation, but their respective countries spend little on conservation while spending billions on trade in Brazilian beef, soy and timber — some of the leading causes of the Amazon’s destruction. Our governments — and each one of us — need to make real changes every day, aligned to our beliefs.

You Decide

  1. What changes could you make in your daily life to help the Amazon?
  2. Who is most to blame for deforestation?

Activities

  1. Research one animal species that is unique to the Amazon forest. Create a poster, including a drawing, to teach the class about this animal.
  2. Design a one-page leaflet for the Rainforest Alliance with information about the leading causes of deforestation, and its effect on the rainforest environment.

Some People Say...

“Destroying rainforest for economic gain is like burning a Renaissance painting to cook a meal.”

Edward Wilson, US biologist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
In the Amazon rainforest, there are around 40,000 plant species, 1,300 varieties of bird, 3,000 types of fish, 430 mammals and 2.5 million different insects. Many of these species are not found anywhere else on earth. Rare and unique creatures include electric eels, flesh-eating piranhas and poison dart frogs.
What do we not know?
The full extent of the fires. This will not be clear until the burn scars can be assessed by satellite. There are different types of fire that cause different levels of destruction. Some of the Amazon’s isolated tribes need to create small fires for survival. These are necessary and not generally harmful to the environment — unlike the larger, agricultural blazes.

Word Watch

Canopy
The top layer of trees in a forest.
Agricultural
Farming.
Emboldened
When someone is given the confidence to do something.
Ecosystem
A complex network of living things that rely on each other to survive.
São Paulo
In southeast Brazil. It is one of the world’s most populous cities with over 12 million people.
G7
An international organisation made up of the leaders of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and the US.
Colony
When a country or region is politically controlled by another country. “Wherever they went, they left a trail of destruction, chaos and misery. They shouldn’t be giving anyone advice,” a Brazilian official said of France yesterday. Former French colonies include Tunisia, Mauritius and Haiti.
Greenhouse gas
When these gases (like carbon dioxide) are released, they heat up the atmosphere, contributing to the climate crisis.

Subjects

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