The Amazon—a major rainforest that covers nine countries, namely Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, French Guyana, and Ecuador—is still burning.
This puts thousands of species in danger, reducing a diverse and substantial number of plants into ash, and forcing animals to either flee from their natural habitat or suffocate due to the smoke. Furthermore, the large loss of flora and fauna within the area can consequently alter the natural flow of the ecosystem, as explained by Ohio State University’s School of Environment and Natural Resources Associate Professor Mazeika Sullivan in an interview with the Daily Express.
São Paulo, a city nearly 3,000 kilometers away from the forest, was covered in smoke, comparable with the spread of ash fall from the Mt. Pinatubo eruption in 1991. The smoke has even reached beyond the borders of Brazil, creeping over to other neighboring countries such as Peru, Bolivia, and Paraguay.
What sets the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo apart from the fires of the Amazon is that the former was a natural process, while the latter proved to be the result of man-made actions, where lands are cleared through the use of fire. With this, The LaSallian looks into the environmental concern that initiated conversations worldwide.
A ‘seasonal’ trend
With satellite images provided by Brazil’s National Institute of Space Research (INPE) and the United States’ National Aeronautics and Space Administration revealing that the immensity of the fire could even be seen from outer space, the 2019 Brazilian wildfires proved to be an unusual phenomenon.
According to INPE’s reports, fires have skyrocketed the past few months, with nearly 74,000 fires detected by the agency since January—nearly thrice of what the country has experienced in the last three years combined.
Yet, the country is all too familiar with the fires.
Queimada, also known as the Day of Fire, is an annual clearing of farmlands involving the cutting of plants in forests and woodlands and setting them ablaze. Leaving the area to rest for a certain amount of time, the vast empty fields become known as swidden—a by-product of burned heaps of organic matter called biomass—resulting in a nutrient-rich layer of ash that makes the soil fertile.
Also labeled as the slash-and-burn farming technique, Brazil’s farmers are not the only ones who commit these illegal acts of deforestation. Nations such as the Philippines continue to practice kaingin—the country’s counterpart to queimada—due to industries such as logging and farming seeking potential profit, which in turn affects wildlife.
Playing with fire
Albeit the burning of the Amazon rainforest has always been considered a “seasonal” trend for farmers at the start of the dry season to prepare for the next harvest, the spontaneity and sheer number of these fires, compared to the previous years, are beyond the usual. The burning has consequently caused the Brazilian state of Amazonas to declare a state of emergency last August 11, with Acre, another state of Brazil, subsequently being on environmental alert six days later.
Scientists cautioned that, if the fires continue, the rainforest may be approaching an alarming and irreversible “tipping point”, with lasting effects already being felt by its surrounding areas. Ricardo Mello, the head of the Amazon program of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), explained that while forest fires are techniques that individuals can use to clear out lands, there is still a possibility of it spreading beyond the intended area.
“This endangers wildlife and jeopardizes the livelihoods of millions,” he warned in an interview with Newsweek.
A recent WWF study reported that humanity has already seen a 53 percent decline of forest species populations in the past 40 years.
Research done by the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S) also reported that the fires have led to an increase in carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide emissions, which contribute to global warming and can lead to prolonged droughts or floods. C3S theorized that the health of people in nearby areas may also be endangered.
Environmentalists considered the rampant deforestation and grazing of lands to have been due to the lenient regard of Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro toward environmental safeguarding. Bolsonaro, who assumed office at the start of the year, pledged for the rollback on the ecological protection of the rainforest, which contributed to the increase in land clearing activities. Additionally, with the President of Brazil’s regression on safeguarding lands and indigenous rights, deforestation and illegal mining activities have also intensified, with the people caught in the crosshairs.
Stopping the spread
Amid pressure from the international community, such as from President of Finland Sauli Niinistö demanding Brazil address their rainforest’s fires, Bolsonaro ordered the Brazilian military to execute operations in containing and extinguishing the spread in hopes of preventing the breaking of the free trade agreement between the European Union and Mercosur—the trade bloc of South America—covering issues such as tariffs and intellectual property.
Military aircraft and about 44,000 troops were deployed across six Brazilian states struggling with the fires, with troops stationed in at least six federal states that have requested for assistance.
Alongside this, several countries such as the United Kingdom and France gathered last August 24 to 26 at the Group of Seven summit—a meeting of the seven largest economies in the world. Discussing global challenges such as social inequality and climate change, they also pledged USD20-million in the fight against Brazil’s wildfires. Bolsonaro’s chief of staff Onyx Lorenzoni, on the other hand, disclosed that while they appreciate the offer, the country had to decline.