What went down?
At mid-afternoon of the 20th of August, the skies of São Paulo, a city 1700 miles away from the forest, randomly turned pitch-black. The sun was completely obscured by ash and smoke. As giant plumes of smoke arose from the greenery, a harsh truth slowly took shape.
More than 70,000 forest fires have broken out throughout the rainforest so far this year, the largest number in at least five years and a more than 80% increase over the same period last year, according to the National Institute for Space Research (INPE).
The European Union’s satellite program, Copernicus, released a map showing smoke from the fires spreading all along Brazil to the east Atlantic coast. The smoke from the fires, coupled with clouds and a powerful cold front, had covered nearly half of the country and was even spilling over into neighbouring Peru, Bolivia and Paraguay.
Between January and August 20, the number of fires in the Amazon increased by 145% compared to the same period in 2018.
To fight the #climatecrisis, we can’t allow more forest destruction.#ForestsAreLife
— Greenpeace (@Greenpeace) August 21, 2019
An area of rain forest roughly the size of a football pitch disappears every minute.
Why does it matter?
The Amazon forest, is one of the world’s largest carbon sinks, spanning nine nations. It is almost half the size of the United States. It accounts for around 17% of the world’s carbon trapped in vegetation on land. It’s home to the richest canvas of flora and fauna in our world. It’s an abundant source of biodiversity and the oxygen we breathe and is often referred to as the ‘lungs of our planet.’ It plays a major role in regulating the climate.
According to recent research, wildfires alone, not the fires deliberately set for deforestation, can pump out billions of tons of carbon dioxide during drought years.
Who/what is responsible?
Several factors are likely at play, key among which are Brazil’s far-right president and deforestation.
While a blanket of fear descended upon the people living in Sao Paolo and the Amazon, fingers were pointed at Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro. Mr. Bolsonaro was criticized for his weak environmental policies that inevitably lead to an 88% increase in deforestation in June. His entire campaign perpetuated the exploitation of the Amazon’s economic potential. He pledged to open up the rain forest for more farming and mining.
“This is a war that we are facing” says Bolsonaro.
Ever since, his administration has worked to weaken environmental guardrails. In his seven months of taking over office, Mr. Bolsonaro’s policies deviated from saving the forests entirely. The reason why he may have done this was to benefit miners, loggers, and farmers who elected him. He also openly supported opening the rainforest for mining and agriculture exploitation.
However, Mr. Bolsonaro was quick to blame the non-governmental organizations for setting fires to the Amazon as a way to avenge the government for cutting their funds to ‘create problems for Brazil’. The Director of the INPE, MIT-trained physicist Ricardo Galvão, was fired after a tiff with the President as he tried to defend records that highlight the steep increase in deforestation in Brazil. He even dismissed the alarming data on satellite images which showed the entire Northern state of Brazil in dark smoke, calling them lies, with no evidence to substantiate his statements.
The worrying trend of deforestation and slash-and-burn agriculture that peaked in the early 2000s is back under this president. The deforestation and burning in Brazil are happening around the same time as big fires in Siberia, Alaska, and Canada, while it was recently announced that July 2019 was the planet’s hottest month on record.
Which tribes were affected?
As Brazilian’s northern and western areas have experienced considerable damage, most tribes there have been affected. The northern state of Maranhao has the Awa tribe, which was attacked by loggers. An indigenous reserve called the Karipuna tribe saw most of its members suffering from irritated throats, red eyes, cough, and flu. However, the Guajajara tribe is doing its best to protect isolated indigenous people.
Social media united over Brazil
Celia, a member of the Pataxo indigenous community, voiced her opinions in a viral video where she stated that “The Vale mining company is killing our river, our people, our source of life and now they’ve come and set fire to our reservation! We won’t stay quiet! We want the media to defend us!”
Which fortunately for her, the media is.
Like always, social media platforms especially Instagram, Twitter, and Tumblr had a lot to say about the Amazon fires and the Bolsonaro’s tactics. Triggering a rambunctious stampede of angry citizens all over the country, people of other parts of the world soon followed suit upon learning the news. Students, influencers and even celebrities took to sharing pictures and videos to vent their displeasure of the entire ordeal.
Twitter was heated up with tweets such as:
So President Jair Bolsonaro sacked the head of the govt agency responsible for tracking deforestation for being transparent, and is now blaming NGO’s for the #AmazonRainforest forest fire?
— Todd Wayes (@ToddWayes) August 21, 2019
— Joseane Marafiga (@joseanemarafiga) August 21, 2019
— Sérgio Bastos (@SergioBastos) August 21, 2019
António Guterres, the secretary-general of the United Nations, tweeted about the fires on Thursday.
I’m deeply concerned by the fires in the Amazon rainforest. In the midst of the global climate crisis, we cannot afford more damage to a major source of oxygen and biodiversity.
The Amazon must be protected.
— António Guterres (@antonioguterres) August 22, 2019
Also, Leonardo DiCaprio, actor, and environmentalist added a donation link to Amazon Watch on his Instagram profile and posted about the fires.
Tumblr users have written encouraging messages such as “This is not about Brazil, is about the planet.” They surely got that nailed right.
Why aren’t we motivated to address the threat?
Climate change, which is made glaringly apparent by such disasters remains to be a matter of fleeting concern. At the end of the day, it all boils down to our temperament. Our worry fades away quicker as our physical proximity to these calamities increases. Most people fixate over short term gains over long term benefits. We fail to recognize that something which appears to be easily dismissible in the present may have disastrous consequences in the future. Considering it as a nonlinear problem drives further ignorance. When a function increases slowly at first and then accelerates, people tend to misjudge the repercussions and extrapolate that function linearly and this leads to negligence towards its severity. It takes the problem gaining fraction and bursting at its seams till it’s brought to the forefront.
How can you help?
It’s unlikely you’re one of the people who can help douse the blaze, but there are other ways you can aid in protecting the rainforest.
- Donate to Rainforest Action Network to protect an acre of the Amazonian rainforest.
- Donate to the Rainforest Trust to help buy land in the rainforest. Since 1988, the organization has saved over 23 million acres.
- The World Wide Fund for Nature (known as the World Wildlife Fund in the US and Canada) works to protect the species in the Amazon and around the world.
- org is a search engine that plants a tree for every 45 searches you run.
- Explore Change.org’s petitions. A lawyer in Rio Branco has accumulated over 77,000 of his 150,000 signature goal to mobilize an investigation into the Amazonian fires.
- Donate to Amazon Watch, an organization that protects the rainforest. defends indigenous rights and works to address climate change.
- Donate to the Amazon Conservation Team, which works to fight climate change, protect the Amazon and empower indigenous people.
- Amazon Conservation accepts donations and lists exactly what your money goes toward. You can help plant trees, sponsor education, protect habitats, buy a solar panel, preserve indigenous lands and more.
- Donate to One Tree Planted, which works to stop deforestation around the world and in the Amazon Rainforest. One Tree Planted will keep you updated on the Peru Project and the impact your trees are having on the community.
- Sign Greenpeace’s petition telling the Brazilian government to save the Amazon rainforest and protect the lands of indigenous and traditional communities.
It’s in our hands to choose to be selfish and overvalue the present with no regard for the future or to flip this around and value the lives of our children and grandchildren. It is always worthwhile and in our best interests to confront the uncertainty of the future head-on.
Written by Shuba Murthy and Shreemoyee Roychoudhury
Graphics by Ansh Bhagania
Sources: BBC, Reuters, The Guardian.