How devastating were the fires in the Amazon? by Chadrick Gagui

If you’re reading this, you're probably a millennial or Gen Z with at least one form of social media. Amidst the sea of influencers, you may have recently come across the shocking images of the Amazon rainforest ablaze. However, these scenes alone don’t tell the full story, with many shocking truths to be uncovered once you delve deeper into the chaos. Looking retrospectively: exactly how devastating were the fires, who is to blame and what does it mean for the future?

As I write this article, nearly a month on from the whole snafu of late-August and September, the “Lungs of the World” are still burning. When comparing the first eight months of 2019 and 2018, there’s an evident increase in the number of forest fires in Brazil - from 49,000 to 87,000. In particular, the northern states: Roraima, Acre and Rondônia have been some of the most severely affected areas. Although Brazil has taken the brunt of the damage, other countries in the Amazon region have also faced crisis - 26,000 and 19,400 total fires this year in Venezuela and Bolivia respectively: the latter exhibiting a 79% increase from the previous year. Is this drastic surge simply a result of Mother Nature’s wrath?

Fires burning in Brazil to clear land for farming and cattle pasture

It’s no secret that the rate of forest fires has increased since the Brazilian head honcho, President Jair Bolsonaro has come into position, although I'm not here to add to the political row. Seemingly we can assume that the majority of forest fires this year are a result of farmers and loggers clearing land for crops and grazing: all in part to Bolsonaro’s boisterous bargain to better Brazil’s economic situation through the use of the Amazon’s “untapped resources.” Often overlooked are the social impacts, particularly to the indigenous inhabitants of the rainforest. Roughly 300 different indigenous groups exist in Brazil, with around 150 territories being affected by the flames in August alone.

The destruction of surrounding flora for agriculture contributes a great deal to greenhouse gas emissions, namely CO₂ - a prime suspect for the cause of global warming. With this severe deforestation comes multi-faceted consequences; not only do the flames themselves emit greenhouse gases but the reduction in rainforest also results in a decreased ability to absorb atmospheric carbon (in a process known as carbon sequestration). As an analogy, think about that time your chicken looked slightly pink, but you decided to dig in anyway - not only do you suffer from food poisoning, you also reap the consequences of reduced productivity as a result of being bedridden. Double whammy!

Now, it’s important to state that forest fires in the Amazon can arise from naturally occurring events, particularly in the dry season running from July to October. With deforestation comes a reduction in evapotranspiration - the process by which vegetation and the surrounding soil release moisture into the atmosphere. So, with less vegetation comes less rain and as a result, the Amazon is left drier than my grandmother’s kneecap. See how this could lead to a vicious cycle which incites further fires?

As you may know, climate change protests have swept the nation and these have certainly done their part in addressing general global warming concerns. The Amazon takes centre-stage in this discussion, so there comes the question of what we can do to help the situation in Brazil and the surrounding areas. Should we be boycotting Amazonian products? As mentioned before, large amounts of land have- and are being cleared for the purpose of cattle grazing. Although the UK isn’t in the top 10 for export of Brazilian beef, such products farmed from illegal pastures can be found in five of the top supermarkets in Britain. It’s clear that reducing red meat consumption is a long-standing concept that will help ease demand for such products. Even vegans and vegetarians can extend their role in the battle to sustain the Amazon, by questioning the consumption of soy and palm oil - other top Amazonian commodities. An alternative to boycotting these products would be to support groups rallying for an improvement in Brazilian cattle ranching practice whereby ranchers could “triple their production without cutting a single tree”. Such groups aim for this sustainability by establishing guidelines, standards and pilot projects while other groups focus on providing the incentives for ranchers and farmers to implement these improved systems. As the commotion settles, it becomes clear that deforestation in the Amazon has left a bitter taste for many - the indigenous communities and climate change activists alike. Regardless of who is to blame, with a bit of research, each one of us can play a part in reducing the negative consequences of the whole fiasco. The world may not have ended in 2012 but unless we collectively change our practices, our impending doom may come sooner than expected.

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