The Amazon rainforests in Brazil are being ravaged by fire for over three weeks, making it a burning issue worldwide. With more than 72,000 fires this year, an 84 per cent surge since 2018, states the country's National Institute for Space Research, setting a shameful new record. While more than half of these fires were in the Amazon alone, thereby spelling disaster for the local environment and ecology, what's alarming is the fact Amazon is a rich ecosystem that produces 20 percent of Earth's oxygen, often referred to as the planet's lungs, and vital in slowing global warming.
Satellite images show rainforests in the Brazilian states of Amazonas, Rondonia, Para and Mato Grosso are still aflame. The state of Amazonas is most affected, according to Euronews. The heavy smoke had caused a daytime blackout more than 1,700 miles away in Brazil’s largest city São Paulo on Monday, August 19, 2019 a local newspaper Folha de S Paulo reported.
Eric Holthaus, a meteorologist, tweeted data showing smoke covering about half of Brazil. "We are in a climate emergency," reads his post.
"Although it is not unusual to see fires in Brazil at this time of year due to high temperatures and low humidity, it seems this year the number of fires may be record setting," NASA said on Wednesday, 21 August 2019. This was enough to catch the attention of environmentalists. "The vast majority of these fires are human-lit," Amazon Watch's (a rainforest protection group) Christian Poirier told CNN, adding that even during dry seasons, the Amazon-a humid rainforest-doesn't catch on fire easily, unlike the dry bushland in California or Australia.
There was a sharp rise in deforestation during July, which has been followed by extensive burning in August. "And 99% percent of the fires result from human actions, either on purpose or by accident, Alberto Setzer, a senior scientist at INPE told CNN. He further added that the burning can range from a small-scale agricultural practice, to new deforestation for a mechanized and modern agribusiness project.
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Fingers are squarely being pointed at Brazil's president, Jair Bolsonaro, who is known for his pro- and radical development stance. It is suspected that the fires were set by cattle ranchers and loggers who want to clear and utilise the land for commercial agri-businesses and animal husbandry.
Amnesty International, a London-based non-governmental organisation, said that responsibility for the fires "lies squarely with President Bolsonaro and his government," adding that his government's "disastrous policy of opening up the rainforest for destruction (is) what has paved the way for this current crisis."
However, in an attempt to clear his name, in a Facebook Live video, Bolsonaro hinted at multiple parties—including ranchers, NGOs and indigenous communities—suggesting they could possibly be blamed. "Who carries this out? I don't know. Farmers, NGOs, whoever it may be, Indians, whoever it may be," Bolsonaro said. He also added that there are "suspicions" that ranchers are behind the forest fires, appealed to his people to help combat the blazes.
Why does it matter?
France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, has said the fires in the Amazon are an “international crisis” and called for them to be top of the agenda at the G7 summit. “Our house is burning. Literally,” Macron tweeted, adding that the Amazon produced 20% of the world’s oxygen.
Celebrities, including Madonna, also stepped in urging fans to #PrayForAmazonia. “The Fires Are Raging and The Amazonia continues to burn,” she tweeted.
Nikita Gill, a world-renowned poet and writer of Indian origin penned a poem requesting people to "do something." Other Indian celebrities among the likes of Alia Bhatt, Anushka Sharma, Arjun Kapoor and Ayushmann Khurrana have expressed concern, sending their prayers for Amazon.
Responsible for sucking up a great deal of greenhouse gas emissions, the Amazon rainforest is estimated at burning for about three weeks, and here's why it spells bad news for the planet:
Sanctuary of biodiversity
The Amazon basin, spanning 7.4 million square kilometres, covers nearly 40 per cent of Latin America and is spread across nine countries: Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela. About 60 per cent of it is in Brazil. The Amazon forest, of which 2.1 million sq km are protected zones, is home to a biodiversity sanctuary that is unique in the world. A quarter of the Earth's species are found there, namely 30,000 types of plants, 2,500 fish, 1,500 birds, 500 mammals, 550 reptiles and 2.5 million insects, according to the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization (ACTO). In the past 20 years, 2,200 new species of plants and vertebrates have been discovered there.
'Lungs of the earth'
The Amazon is the world's largest river and—by some accounts since new research was carried out in 2007—the longest, running for up to 6,900 kilometres (4,287 miles). The forest acts as a carbon sink, absorbing more CO2 than it emits, while releasing oxygen, and stocking 90 to 140 billion tonnes of CO2, which helps regulate worldwide global warming, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). But deforestation is reducing this capacity for absorbing CO2.
Home to 420 tribes
The Amazon has been inhabited for at least 11,000 years and today counts 34 million people, of whom two-thirds live in cities. Nearly three million are Indians who are members of some 420 different tribes, around 60 of which live in total isolation, according to ACTO. Amazon's Indians speak 86 languages and 650 dialects.
The largest Amazon tribe is the Tikuna, counting some 40,000 members who live in Brazil, Peru and Colombia, according to Survival International. Brazilian Indian chief from the Kayapo tribe, Raoni Metuktire, is the leading campaigner in the campaign against deforestation in the Amazon and has travelled the world for three decades calling for the preservation of the forest and its indigenous population.
Manaus, the Amazon 'capital'
Manaus is the capital of Amazonas state, the largest in Brazil and spanning 1.5 million sq km. Founded by the Portuguese in 1669 on the banks of the Rio Negro, near its confluence with the Amazon River, Manaus has a population of 1.8 million. After fast expansion at the end of the 19th century due to the rubber trade, the city went into major decline until the creation of a free trade zone in 1967. Manaus now lives mainly off its industrial sector, importing spare parts and exporting end products, notably electronic equipment. After Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, Manaus is Brazil's third main economic hub.
Almost 20 per cent of the Amazon forest has disappeared in the last half-century, according to the WWF, and this is accelerating. Since President Bolsonaro took power in at the start of 2019, the rate of deforestation by July was nearly four times higher than a year earlier, according to a satellite system known as DETER, which is used by the National Institute for Space Research (INPE).
According to the INPE, which tracks clear-cutting of the rainforest, around 2,254 sq km of the Amazon forest were cleared in July 2019, a spike of 278 per cent from a year ago. The main causes of deforestation are soya and livestock farming, the construction of hydroelectric dams and roads, the mining industry and forest fires. As well as its rich biodiversity, the Amazon is rich in minerals resources including gold, copper, tantalum, iron ore, nickel and manganese. Sections of the forest are now being devoured by fires. INPE figures show nearly 73,000 forest fires were recorded in Brazil between January and August— the highest number for any year since 2013. Most of them were in the Amazon. That compares with 39,759 in all of 2018.
With inputs from Annabelle D'Costa
Image Courtesy: Pexels
Image used for representational purpose only.