Amazon's Wildfires and its Deforestation

Photo source: Business Insider

By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe UpFront



2019 Amazon wildfires, that lit up in August, led to an international concern about the fate of the rainforests, responsible for world’s twenty percent oxygen, often called as the ‘lungs of the world’. 

Some 1,202 square kilometers (464 square miles) of forest — an area more than twenty times the size of Manhattan — was destroyed from January 2020 to April 2020, according to Brazil's National Space Research Institute. It’s the highest figure for the first four months of the year since 2015.

The same agency reported that there were more than eighty thousand fires in 2019, the most that it had ever recorded. It was nearly an eighty percent jump with what the country had experienced in 2018: the sky over Sao Paulo, Brasil’s largest city, went dark with smoke clouds that blocked out the sun. After bowing to pressure, president Jair Bolsonaro announced a 60-day ban on setting fires to clear land. The environmentalists didn’t blame the dry weather, but rather attributed it to a man-made disaster, set by loggers, cattle ranchers, who use a ‘slash and burn’ method to clear land. However, Brasil’s environmental minister, Ricardo Salles, believed that the forest fires were caused by dry weather.

Environmentalists further state that farming of soybeans and corn, big infrastructure projects, and roads drive the deforestation that’s gradually killing the Amazon. That’s the reason why twelve percent of once Amazonian forest – about ninety three million acres - is now a farmland.

In times like today, the road-choked streams crisscross the Amazon. The informal bridges built on the waterways hugely impact it. They are causing shore erosion, and slit buildup in fresh streams. This is worsening water quality, hurting the fish that thrive in this delicately balanced habitat. The ill designed road crossing prevents fish from finding places to feed, breed and take shelter.

It is widely believed that deforestation in Amazon spiked since the election of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, in 2018, as he went on to slash Brasil’s strict environment regulations. Brasil’s National Institute for Space Research found the country has lost more than one thousand three hundred thirty square miles of forest cover to development, since President Jair Bolsonaro took office. That is a thirty nine percent increase over the same period, in 2018.

In the first eight months of 2019, the number of fires in the Amazon had climbed to one hundred fifty six thousand, the highest number since 2010, according to the Global Forest Watch.

However, some years have been worse than 2019. The Global Forest Watch’s records go back to 2001, and the number of fires was greater in 2002-05 and 2007. That is why international efforts, led by Norway and Germany, pressured Brasil to change its environmental policies.

Brasil’s government took action in 2004, and again in 2012, to discourage runaway deforestation — and it mostly succeeded. It strengthened law enforcement, protected more lands and penalised provinces that did not reduce deforestation rates. Private companies had also vowed to eliminate agricultural products, raised on deforested lands, from their supply chain.

From 2005 to 2014 deforestation rates dropped by seventy five percent, according to Carlos Nobre, a senior researcher at the University of Sao Paulo. That was, according to him, the greatest reduction in CO2 emissions on the planet.

In 2015, then-President Dilma Rousseff promised to restore forty six thousand three hundred thirty two square miles of Brasil’s forests — an area about the size of England — by 2030, while it also pursues policies aimed at eliminating illegal deforestation. But, emissions actually are increasing instead, unfortunately.

Bolsonaro is now pushing forward an ambitious infrastructure development plan that would turn the Amazon’s many waterways into electricity generators. The Brasilian government has long been attracted to build a series of big new hydroelectric dams, including on the Tapajós River, the Amazon’s only remaining undammed river. But, the indigenous Munduruku people, who live near the Tapajós River, have sternly opposed this idea. These plans are part of Bolsonaro’s broader South American project, that was conceived in 2000, to build a continental infrastructure that provides electricity for industrialisation, and facilitate trade across the region. If Bolsonaro’s plan moves forward, he estimates that around forty percent of the Amazon could be deforested.

Bolsonaro’s predecessor, Michel Temer, had somewhat followed the same policies. For example, he reorganised the budget, and downgraded a ministry that forced on sustainable family farms, and decreased funds for environmental protections and science. Temer cut the federal science budget by forty four percent, and took nearly the same amount from the discretionary budget of IBAMA, Brasil’s environmental agency.

When Brasilian space agency, known as INPE, released new satellite data showing a two hundred seventy eight percent increase in deforestation, in July 2019, Bolsonaro fired the agency head, hinting that the data was gathered to tarnish the country’s image.

Brasil strong agriculture sector has induced pressure on its forests. The US-China trade war has positioned Brasil well to replace US, as the global leader in soybeans exports. The demand for soybeans created pressure to rapidly clear Amazon forests. Jair Bolsonaro’s eldest son, Flavio Bolsonaro, a senator, introduced a bill that would eliminate a requirement that rural properties in the Amazon maintain eighty percent of their vegetation.

According to Folha do Progresso, a publication from the southern part of Amazonian state of Para, farmers and ranchers in the region had organised what they called as ‘a day of fire’, in August 2019, where they could set forests aflame, and clear the land for pasture and planting. Their goal, according to the publication, was to show Bolsonaro that they wanted to work, and burning down trees was a way to do that. In the following forty-eight hours, it was believed that forest fires spread rapidly in the region. The New York Times reported that farmers set most of these fires, but they targeted land already cleared for agriculture, not virgin forests. Similarly, the environment secretary for the state of Amazonas, Eduardo Taveira told Time, that forest fires in the Amazon are almost never the result of natural causes.

On August 23, 2019, Bolsonaro made a televised speech to announce ‘zero tolerance’ for environmental crimes, and said Brasil would deploy its armed forces to cope with the forest fires. In the same speech, however, he reaffirmed the need to provide economic opportunity to Amazon’s region’s population, and there is no indication that Bolsonaro will quit his support for expanding mining operations, and large scale farming in the region.

It was early 2019, when Bolsonaro’s transferred the agency responsible for  supporting indigenous people, FUNAI, under the Ministry of Agriculture, thereby weakening the agency’s ability to protect indigenous communities, suggesting that indigenous territory could be opened up for mining, and also threatened to halt the certification of any new indigenous settlements.

Around £18million was pledged by G7 leaders to help stop the Amazon fires, but Brasilian President Jair Bolsonaro refused to accept any offer of funding, amid a growing tussle with French President Emmanuel Macron, accusing him of treating Brasil as a colony. However, Bolsonaro accepted $12.2 million in aid from the UK. After weeks of international and internal pressure, Bolsonaro deployed the military to help battle the fires on August 24, 2019, sending forty four thousand troops to six states. Reuters reported that warplanes were dousing flames.

“The Amazon forest holds something like ninety billion tons of carbon, and if that ends up in the atmosphere it’s not a good thing. The world’s atmosphere is currently holding about four hundred fifteen parts per million of carbon, and the destruction of the Amazon would add roughly thirty eight parts per million, ” according to Thomas Lovejoy, senior fellow at the United Nations Foundation, and professor of environmental science at George Mason University. Paulo Moutinho, senior fellow at the Woods Hole Research Center believes the figure would equal a decade’s worth of global carbon emissions at current rates.

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