Earlier in August, the state of Amazonas declared a state of emergency over the rising number of fires in the region, making it the fourth-most affected area in Brazil this summer. NASA satellite images show the extent of smoke over swaths of Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay.
This fire is not natural and is largely due to deforestation. Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) has already detected 73,000 fires this year – an 83% increase from 2018 and the highest since 2013. The Amazon rainforest has now been burning for three weeks. On the evening of August 19, the skies over São Paulo darkened for about an hour after strong winds and a cold front brought smoke from forest fires in Amazonas and Rondonia states, more than 2,700 km away.
This devastating tragedy, the panic it has precipitated among conservationists, has not been accorded the mainstream media attention it deserves. However, social media didn’t stay away: by August 20, #prayforamazonia began to trend on Facebook and Twitter worldwide. But praying for the Amazon is not going to help; the forest needs the world to hold all decision-makers and themselves accountable.
It has been INPE’s stand that since President Jair Bolsonaro assumed office, he has allowed business interests to deforest the Amazon at an accelerated pace, recklessly prioritising development agendas over conservation initiatives. Bolsonaro and his ministers have overseen a dramatic fall in the confiscation of timber as well as in the number of convictions for environmental crimes.
Experts also believe a part of the blame lies with Bolsonaro’s efforts to evict tribal communities living in the forest. While the Amazon is no stranger to natural fires, this unnatural fire is set to be much worse in the absence of these people and their traditional fire-management techniques.
However, Bolsanaro has only appeared apathetic, even callous. “I used to be called Captain Chainsaw. Now I am Nero, setting the Amazon aflame. But it is the season of the queimada,” he told Reuters, referring to the annual agricultural land-clearing season. More recently, he claimed NGOs could be setting fire to the trees to bring shame to his government, without any evidence to back his claim.
The Amazon is the largest rainforest in the world. It provides 20% of the world’s oxygen and stores a substantial amount of carbon, acting like a buffer against the pace of global heating. According to one estimate, the rainforest’s trees absorbed almost as much carbon dioxide as in the fossil fuel emissions of the nine countries that own or border the forest between 1980 and 2010. The forest is also extremely biodiverse and houses about a tenth of all species of plants and animals, as well as nearly a million indigenous people.
The deforestation is a part of Bolsonaro’s pledge to end “ecological activism” and fulfil his campaign promise to pro-development loggers, miners and farmers. If the current pace of destruction continues, the World Wildlife Fund has estimated that over a quarter of the Amazon will be without trees by 2030.
It’s probably easier to disengage from the news the farther away it is happening. However, we still need to educate ourselves and spread the message – especially to erase the line between ‘us’ and ‘them’. The Amazon rainforest is a global resource, too precious for Bolsonaro and his cavalcade of businessmen alone to decide what to do with.
Unless you’re one of those people who can literally put the fire out, you could donate to various trusts and organisations working to protect the rainforest (CNet has a useful list), be more mindful of how much wood you consume, and – as mentioned – hold environmental neocolonialists more accountable.
Veera Mahuli graduated from NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad. She is a practising lawyer and is passionate about environmental issues.