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. Now, once again, fires in the Amazon are raging and could be more devastating and difficult to fight during a pandemic in which Brazil ranks second-worst hit country affected by Covid-19.

Over the past month, satellites have observed more than 20,473 individual fires in the Amazon – 15,000 of these were recorded during the first two weeks of August.

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.

More than 1,000 fires were registered on 30 July, the highest number for a single day in over a decade. But Bolsonaro has insisted that there were no fires in the rainforest, calling evidence showing thousands of blazes a “lie”.

The damage to the planet’s most diverse ecosystem has been devastating. Five football pitches of rainforest are being destroyed each minute. On Sunday, footage taken by Greenpeace revealed the extent of the fire damage and the choking clouds of smoke rising into the atmosphere. This is catastrophic for the Amazon’s indigenous communities that are already more vulnerable to Covid-19, with a mortality rate from the coronavirus 150% higher than the Brazilian average.

In July, the Brazilian government instituted a three-month moratorium on fires in the Amazon. However, the moves appear to have been ineffective – in the past four weeks, fires have dropped by just 8% compared to the same period last year despite the regulations.

Greenpeace campaigner Cristiane Mazzetti thinks more monitoring needs to be in place: “Banning fires alone doesn’t work,” she says. “But Bolsonaro’s administration has continued to systematically dismantle environmental protection.”

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 around the world condemn 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.
Ecosystem
A complex network of living things that rely on each other to survive.
Moratorium
A temporary prohibition of an activity. Fires were banned ahead of the traditional “fire burning” season that usually takes place in August and September.
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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