The Lungs of the Planet Are Burning – How Has It Come To This?

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It’s no secret that the Amazon Rainforest is in a fragile state.  Stretching over nine South American nations and encompassing over 2 million square miles, the rainforest is responsible for over 20% of the oxygen in the atmosphere and is vital to our survival as a species. Yet the ‘lungs of the planet’ have been on fire for the last three weeks and people are only just starting to talk about it.

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According to Brazil’s INPE (National Institute for Space Research), over 72,000 wildfires have broken out in the Amazon Rainforest this year, a staggering 80% increase on the same statistic in 2018. 9,000 of these fires have broken out in the last week.

The effect of this series of wildfires is more than noticeable. NASA’s Aqua satellite took photos on August 11th, showing fires across four Amazonian states from space. Perhaps more shocking is the fact that the plumes of smoke caused by the forest fires were so immense that they were carried over 1,500 miles from the rainforest to the south-eastern city of São Paulo, the largest in Brazil, submerging the city into night-time at 3 PM for an hour.

It is not unusual that there are wildfires at this time of year in the Amazon. A growing number of South American farmers start fires on their land as part of a practice called stubble burning, in order to clear away waste and weeds before a new crop is sown. Stubble burning is highly unsustainable, involving the release of large amounts of carbon, whilst also reducing the soil fertility. These fires often get out of control and spread to the rainforest due to a lack of restrictions on the practice on the continent.

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Fires are also started at this time of year in order to clear land for commercial farming.  Like the stubble burning, deforestation also pollutes the air by releasing carbon stored in trees, as well as causing long term damage by reducing the number of organisms that can turn carbon dioxide back into oxygen.

Having reduced deforestation by 80% over a six year period between 2006 and 2012, logging in Brazil is on the up once again due to increasingly lax legislation, with an increase of 13% in 2018, heading back towards the catastrophic rates seen in the late 90s and early 00s.

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Brazil’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, has frequently come under fire throughout his presidency for his lack of action on protecting the Amazon rainforest. In July, deforestation sky-rocketed to over 2000 km2, over a third higher than the previous record and 278% greater than in July 2018, with rates in June eclipsing those in 2018 by 88%, according to the INPE. For comparison, Greater London measures at around 1500 km2. However President Bolsonaro branded these statistics as “lies” and subsequently sacked the INPE director, Ricardo Galvão. Many came out in support of Galvão, including Greenpeace Brazil’s public policy coordinator, Márcio Astrini, who released a statement saying “Sacking the director of INPE is just an act of vengeance against someone who showed the truth”. Bolsonaro followed on from this sacking by suggesting that future statistics should be shown to him before they are publicly released so he wouldn’t be, in his words “caught with his pants down”, which has led to worries among conservationists that such data has the potential to be vetted in the future.

This is not the first time his environmental policies have raised eyebrows. Elected on New Year’s Day 2019, Jair Bolsonaro was supported throughout his election campaign by the mining and agriculture industries so it came as no surprise that one of his first moves as president was to weaken the environment agency by placing it under the leadership of a farming lobby with an interest in deforesting the rainforest for more farmland. Bolsonaro has also criticised Ibama, the forest monitoring agency, for fining illegal loggers, as well as reducing the protection of nature reserves and indigenous territories.  Foreign minister, Ernesto Araújo, even went so far as to call climate change as a “global Marxist plot”. These actions have encouraged those who want to commercially exploit the rainforest, with illegal loggers targeting Ibama enforcement operations in two attacks in early July. There have also been reports that loggers started fires in Pataxó native reservations using petrol bombs. Carlos Rittl, executive secretary of Climate Observatory, an NGO, stated recently that operations combatting environmental crimes had decreased by 70% when comparing January to April 2019 to the same period in 2018.

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Bolsonaro’s attitude towards climate change could also come at a cost to his country’s economy. Brazil’s largest ever trade deal with the EU could be under threat if the country continues to show a lack of commitment to their side of the deal which involves slowing deforestation rates to stay in line with the Paris Climate Agreement. On August 10th, German Environment Minister, Svenja Schulze, announced plans that Germany would be withdrawing €35 million of funding for Brazil, also due to their lack of commitment to conservation in the Amazon. This could potentially lead to other nations withdrawing funding in a similar fashion and may put the Amazon Fund under threat; a €78 million pool sent to Brazil annually to help combat deforestation.

On August 22nd, Bolsonaro falsely claimed that environmental groups had started the fires in the Amazon so as to show his government in a bad light before quickly backtracking after receiving widespread backlash. He later claimed that  “The Ministry of Justice can send 40 men to combat the fight. Forty men. There are not enough resources. We are in chaos.” This is outrageous given the scale of the wildfires and it seems that if Bolsonaro weren’t calling for more development across the Amazon region, then maybe he could find more than 40 men.

If Brazil continues to travel down the path it appears to be taking, the resulting effect could be disastrous for biodiversity and global warming. The scale of deforestation in Brazil is only going to increase due to Jair Bolsonaro’s rash environmental policies and the wildfires over the last three weeks may only be a small warning of something greater to come.

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