Last week social media platforms, including Twitter and Instagram, were flooded with the hashtag #PrayforAmazonas messages about and images of a burning Amazon—some of which were not even the Amazon. This latest social media frenzy was sparked by a lack of international media coverage on the fires currently engulfing the Amazon rainforest. The fires have been going on for weeks, even on August 9 the state of Amazonas declared a state of emergency over the fires.
Recent reports show that wildfires in the Amazon have drastically increased. According to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE), wildfires in the Amazon have increased by 83 percent compared to the same period last year with 72,843 fires detected so far–the highest rate since the INPE began tracking them in 2013.
Immediately after the story caught international attention, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro was quick to note it was the season of the “queimada,” a technique used by farmers where fire is used to clear land, and one that is often used for illegal deforestation and is illegal during this time due to the high risk of spreading. A map created by The New York Times using historical data from NASA satellites Terra and Aqua, which can detect the infrared radiation emitted by fires, confirms the increase of fires every August to October which coincides with the seasons farmers begin planting soybean and corn. The map also shows that during the early 2000s, detected fires during the “queimada” were worse.
But the effects of continued deforestation and of Bolsonaro’s policies to prevent its worsening (or lack of) will only make the fate of the Amazon more dire.
During his campaign, Bolsonaro vowed to open up the Amazon for farming and mining, promising to end the Environment Ministry and saying “where there is indigenous land, there is wealth underneath it.” Since taking office, Bolsonaro has tried to loosen environmental regulations—enforcement measures to protect against deforestation fell by 20 percent in the first six months of 2019, compared to 2018—and replaced or fired top officials in the government’s environmental agencies. This includes the appointment of Ricardo Salles as Environment Minister. Salles, who previously served as Secretary of the Environment for the state of São Paulo allegedly received illegal payments from mining companies during his tenure. Bolsonaro also fired the highly respected head of Brazil’s Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources, Luciano Evaristo, and more recently dismissed the head of INPE, Ricardo Galvão, over the preliminary statistics from INPE which showed an 88 percent jump in Amazon deforestation for June compared to the same month last year.
These policies, along with Bolsonaro’s combative and defensive rhetoric aren’t helping him keep allies willing to work with him on environmental issues, being that the Amazon produces between 6 percent and 20 percent of the oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere. After French President Emmanuel Macron announced G7 countries would commit $20 million to help fight the fires in the Amazon last weekend (other pledges have included an $11 million offer by LVMH group and a $5 million donation by Leonardo DiCaprio’s Earth Alliance), Bolsonaro’s chief of Staff Onyx Lorenzoni rejected the funds and said “we appreciate [the offer], but maybe those resources are more relevant to reforest Europe.” On Tuesday Bolsonaro clarified that he was open to discussing the G7 funding, but only if Macron “withdraws insults” made against him. Meanwhile, Bolsonaro and Macron have continued to throw jabs at each other, with Macron accusing Bolsonaro of lying about his commitments to fighting climate change, and Bolsonaro accusing Macron of having a “colonialist mind-set.” Macron, along with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, have gone as far as to say they would vote against a trade deal between the EU and MERCOSUR until Brazil takes the proper action to protect the Amazon.
Bolsonaro has also had spats with Germany and Norway who both froze a combined $72 million in aid to combat deforestation after Brazil’s Environmental Ministry said it would shut down the Amazon Fund, a committee that selects projects to fight deforestation, and instead redirect the money to compensate farmers whose land had been expropriated. Bolsonaro reacted by suggesting neither Norway nor Germany had a right to lecture his administration, saying “isn’t Norway that country that kills whales up there in the north pole?… Take that money and help Angela Merkel reforest Germany.”
While the Amazon rainforest isn’t technically the “lungs of the earth,” it is one of the most ecologically significant places on earth. The Amazon is home to half of the world’s tropical forests, approximately 500 indigenous tribes, and some three million species of plants and animals. It also sucks up about a quarter of the approximately 2.4 billion metric tons of carbon that global forests absorb each year. A carbon sink, the Amazon has the ability to absorb more carbon than it releases into the atmosphere, and according to Paulo Moutinho, a senior fellow at the Woods Hole Research Center, the Amazon currently stores a cumulative total of about a decade’s worth of carbon when using current global annual emissions rates. Moutinho points out that if deforestation continues, the huge release of carbon currently held within the Amazon will further accelerate the effects of climate change.
Although Brazil holds 60 percent of the Amazon, as President Macron puts it, “The Amazon forest is a subject for the whole planet. We can help you reforest. We can find the means for your economic development that respects the natural balance. But we cannot allow you to destroy everything.” Bolsonaro should reconsider and take all the help he can, the Amazon is an issue that concerns us all.