The Amazon rainforest has been on fire for the past three weeks, and it’s no accident. Here’s what you should know:
How often does the Amazon burn?
Fires are common in the Amazon during the region’s dry season, which typically starts in July and August and ends in mid-November. But this year there have been more than 72,000 fires across the country, with more than half of those occurring in the Amazon. That’s an 84% increase from the same period last year, according to data from Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, or INPE.
The Amazon is known to produce moisture and humidity, making it relatively resistant to wildfires, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Instead, it seems that a combination of droughts, and ranchers and farmers taking advantage of the dry season to burn and clear land for cattle, are to blame. The result is significant harm to both the rainforest, and the indigenous communities who live there.
What are the causes of the Amazon forest fires?
There are currently about 9,500 fires raging across the Amazon.
Deforestation, or the removal of forest and trees to convert land for non-forest use, is the main cause of the fires, and much of the deforestation currently happening in the Amazon is illegal.
The farming industry and international trade relationships are the main drivers of deforestation, more than 75% of which is caused by cattle ranching and soy production, according to a report from the NGO Amazon Watch. Soy beans and beef, two of Brazil’s main exports, are “forest-risk commodities” and most of it is going to China, the European Union, and the United States.
Droughts caused both by climate change and deforestation are also part of the problem, according to Greenpeace. The forest fires are contributing to higher levels of greenhouse gas emissions, which lead to global temperatures rising. As these temperatures rise, major droughts become more frequent and can extend the forest’s dry season.
Despite these factors, Brazil’s far right President Jair Bolsonaro claimed on last Wednesday that NGOs were to blame for the wildfires in the Amazon. He said, without proof, that they were starting the fires because his government had cut their funding.
But the country’s government is at the center of the increasingly violent environmental degradation.
Márcio Astrini the public policy coordinator with Greenpeace Brazil called Bolsonaro’s statement “an attempt to conceal himself from the consequences of the anti-environmental policy he has been adopting.” Astrini added, “His accusation seeks to blame anyone who denounces the environmental problems created by his own administration.”
The fires burning across the Amazon right now are mostly agricultural and man-made, many of them started either by smallholders, loggers, or farmers who are clearing land for cattle. Just this month, farmers participated in a “Day of Fire” around a main road in the Amazon, which Greenpeace says caused a 300% increase in fires in the area.
Experts and activists see the current onslaught as related to Bolsonaro’s xenophobic and anti-environmental rhetoric, as deforestation is not only destroying the rainforest, but indigenous communities, as well. Deforestation was also a problem under the previous presidents Dilma Rousseff and Michel Temer, but it has grown rapidly over the last eight months.
Since Bolsonaro took office this year, his administration has repeatedly rolled back environmental protections, cutting the staffing of both environmental and indigenous rights agencies.
The president recently fired the head of the INPE, the agency that tracks deforestation in the country, after it released a report showing the higher rates of deforestation under his administration. “The numbers, as I understand it, were released with the objective of harming the name of Brazil and its government,” Bolsonaro told reporters.
Bolsonaro’s government also cut $23 million from Brazil’s environmental enforcement agency, while dismantling policies that protect the Amazon in favor of advancing economic priorities, including agribusiness, mining, and fossil fuel extraction.
According to the Articulation of the Indigenous People of Brazil, under Bolsonaro’s leadership, “attacks and invasions” of indigenous lands have been on the rise, as has racism against Native communities. Some indigenous rights groups say the president’s anti-environmental stances are contributing to the land disputes and violence faced by their communities.
Bolsonaro “has said extremely xenophobic things about indigenous communities needing to be wiped out,” Moira Birss, Amazon Watch’s Finance Campaign Director told Fortune. “It’s clearly emboldening actors in the Amazon who are willing to use violence to remove” Native communities in favor of making a profit.
What do these forest fires mean for the planet?
The Amazon rainforest generates more than 20% of the world’s oxygen, meaning these fires will not only affect Brazil, but the entire planet.
Often referred to as the “lungs of the planet,” the Amazon plays an important role in balancing the climate, from farming to drinking water. The impacts of the current rate of deforestation could be irreversible, as scientists say the Amazon could “degrade into a dry savannah.”
“The Amazon is a vital ecosystem for climate stability,” said Birss. “When trees are cut down or burned down, all that carbon they’ve been storing is released and their ability to keep taking in carbon from the atmosphere is eliminated.” Birss says that while reforestation could happen and restore the Amazon to its old growth, the process would also take centuries.
And the planet doesn’t have much time.
Global warming is one of the greatest threats to the world population right now, and the planet needs trees to absorb carbon as global temperatures continue to rise. The loss of its biggest rainforest would be detrimental.
“Forest fires and climate change operate in a vicious cycle: as the number of fires increase, so do greenhouse gas emissions, increasing the planet’s overall temperature and the occurrence of extreme weather events, such as major droughts,” said Romulo Batista, an Amazon campaigner with Greenpeace Brazil.
Can the Amazon fires be stopped?
Experts say international political pressure may be the only way to stop the current onslaught on the Amazon. “The scale is one that requires a governmental response,” said Birss.
The UN secretary general and world leaders have expressed concern.
French President Emmanuel Macron called for emergency talks to put the state of the Amazon at the top of the agenda ahead of G7 summit. A spokesperson for the French president said France would block the EU-Mercosur trade deal reached earlier this year due to the Brazilian government’s response to the fires. If the trade deal moves forward without conditions for protecting the Amazon, Birss says, “that’s going to give a greenlight to Bolsonaro.”
Ireland’s prime minister, Leo Varadkar echoed the same sentiment, while Germany and Norway are halting donations to the Brazilian government's Amazon fund.
But the problem will require taking broader and more aggressive actions, including restoring Amazon protections and reforestation, while also holding accountable the financial companies that profit from deforestation. Likewise, governments importing beef, poultry, and soy from Brazil will need to review their trade policies.