Over the past two months, an area of the Amazon rainforest the size of New Jersey has burned down.
A series of 76,000 fires have ravaged 7,200 square miles of the Amazon’s perimeter since July, causing mass air pollution, continued loss of biodiversity, and sparking an international examination of Brazil’s responsibility to protect such a vital national resource.
While fires are nothing new to the Amazon, often created by lightning strikes during the dry season that lasts roughly from August to November, this August saw an 80 percent increase in fires from this time last year. This follows an increase of nearly 90 percent in deforestation since last year. Besides acting as a sink for massive amounts of carbon that could continue to destabilize the world’s climate if released from the forest, the Amazon acts as a home for 10 percent of all species on Earth as well as nearly 306,000 indigenous people.
While researchers have not come to a consensus on a singular cause for the fires, a significant portion of the fires can be traced back to mass forest clearing by loggers and cattle ranchers. While some fires do naturally occur during the Brazilian dry season, according to Christian Poirier, program director of Amazon Watch, the rainforest is too humid for this unprecedented number of fires to happen naturally. Poirier, along with other environmentalists and climatologists, attributes the rise in fires to Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro’s economic policy, which he claims encourages these loggers and ranchers to burn swathes of forest down to make room for large cattle plantations. This, among other policies designed to relax restrictions on illegal logging and exploitation of the Amazon has earned Bolsonaro the somewhat self-endowed nickname, “Captain Chainsaw.” Elected last year on a wave of far-right nationalism, Bolsonaro has consistently dismissed climate change as a plot by “cultural Marxists” and has enacted policies to continue feeding Brazil’s massive beef export industry, which supplied nearly 20 percent of the world’s beef in 2018.
With over 10,000 species going extinct every year and carbon emissions steadily climbing, losing the Amazon could mean losing a significant portion of the world along with it.
The administration of President Bolsonaro was also quick to dismiss or downplay the destruction caused by fires earlier this August. Brazilian environmental minister, Ricardo Salles, attributed the fires completely to natural causes, contradicting scientists around the world. Bolsonaro himself openly mocked environmental organizations and accused the INEP, Brazil’s institute for space research, of faking climate data.
As it has frequently done throughout the short span of Bolsonaro’s presidency, the Trump administration sided with the Brazilian leader, rejecting a recent $22 million aid package that G-7 members proposed to help fight the fires. After a heated summit meeting which saw Bolsonaro at odds with French president Emmanuel Macron, Bolsonaro rejected the aid, but relented to sending 43,000 troops to fight the fire. “Macron cannot even avoid a foreseeable fire in a church that is a world heritage site. What does he intend to teach our country?” said Bolsonaro’s chief of staff, Onyx Lorensoni, in reference to the fire that destroyed the Notre Dame cathedral in April.
In the weeks since the meeting, the Brazilian leader has agreed to accept some foreign aid, but only with significant control over how it is spent. While an imminent meeting is planned between the countries that comprise the Amazon Rainforest, many still claim that relevant parties are not moving fast enough to protect such a valuable natural resource.
With over 10,000 species going extinct every year and carbon emissions steadily climbing, losing the Amazon could mean losing a significant portion of the world along with it. Aside from the absence of the Amazon, the process of destroying the forest would spell disaster as well. Brazil’s carbon emissions rank consistently high, and 47 percent of these emissions are from the slash-and-burn process that loggers and ranchers use to clear land to raise cattle.
Whether the action comes from Jair Bolsonaro, the members of the G-7 and other international aid, or a worldwide move away from beef, lessening the incentive to destroy the forest for land, the need for a change is evident. As Brazil’s dry season reaches its peak, the way the fires are managed could be a model for how we can expect to see climate collapse handled in the coming decades.
Brendan Lordan is a third-year student majoring in English writing. BL895080@wcupa.edu