The Amazon is currently experiencing its most extensive burning in the last decade, with up to 80,626 individual fires in Brazil alone.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro built his campaign around the promise to reduce environmental protections and to increase agricultural development in the Amazon. This would be advantageous to those involved in the growing global market for beef, as more and more land is needed to grow soy and grass for cattle.
These relaxed government policies have since encouraged farmers to burn and develop land in the Amazon. However, as the forest is developed, less moisture is present in the air, soil and plants. As the land gets drier, it becomes susceptible to more fire. It’s a vicious cycle, and experts are wondering at what point it becomes irreversible.
The Amazon is home to more species of plants and animals than anywhere else, in addition to the approximately 400 indigenous tribes that live there as well. The Amazon is also important for the water system throughout South America and, in fact, the climate across the world. Every time a droplet of water evaporates from a leaf and becomes water vapor, it absorbs energy and cools things down.
“…it’s really important for our global rainfall and weather patterns,” said Nigel Sizer, chief program officer at the Rainforest Alliance, in a recent interview with NPR. “Imagine three million square miles of trees pumping water from the soil into the atmosphere, driving rainfall across Brazil, the hemisphere, and even as far away as Europe and Africa.”
Now, as the rate of land clearance reaches one and a half football fields per minute, people across the globe are demanding a solution. Even as President Bolsonaro made claims that this year’s fires are no greater than previous years, the G7—an international intergovernmental organization consisting of the seven largest economies in the world—offered $22 million to help fight the spread of fires.
President Bolsonaro subsequently rejected the offer, instead demanding an apology from French President Emmanuel Macron for accusing him of lying about efforts to stop the deforestation.
“[$22 million is] less than Americans spend on popcorn in a typical day,” said Sizer. “It’s less than the price of a fancy apartment here in New York City, where I’m sitting. And so it’s not surprising that the Brazilian government has rejected this offer.”
Sizer said that Brazil, a huge and modern economy itself, has both the resources and expertise to address the raging fires. It isn’t donations that they need, despite the huge outpouring of donations from civilians and organizations around the world. Rather, since Bolsonaro’s presidency began, Brazil’s environmental protection agencies have been purposefully and systematically defunded.
President Bolsonaro has promised to send 43,000 additional troops to combat the fires, although there has not been a noticeable increase in forces since the announcement. Dan Nepstad, however, president and founder of the Earth Innovation Institute, sees this as an opportunity to come up with a long-term solution; it is an opportunity to not simply dump water on the problem and call it a day.
“But to really come up with a systemic strategy that is long-term, we really need to shift from fire-prone systems, like extensive cattle, to more intensive forms that are tree-based so that the landholder will be more reluctant to use fire to manage their land and they’ll invest more in fire prevention,” said Nepstad.