What’s happening in the Amazon?

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A forest fire in Pará. Photo: Victor Moriyama- Getty Images

The Amazon rainforest is affectionally known as the ‘lungs of the earth’. But it’s on fire. 

The Amazon is the world’s largest rainforest, it spans eight countries and 5.5 million square kilometres. It is currently the dry season in the Brazilian Amazon and fires happen at this time every year, but their dramatic increase in number has caused concern. In the state of Amazonas, which has been the worst affected, the peak day of fires in August represented a 700 per cent increase compared to the average for the same date over the past 15 years. Throughout the rainforest it is burning at the highest rate since 2013, an 83 per cent increase from last year. 

At this stage evidence points to agricultural businesses starting the fires, meaning they are man made and mostly deliberately lit illegally for the purpose of clearing the land for development. The fires are one part of the wider issue of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. The current deforestation rate has not been seen for more than a decade. It has increased 60 per cent in the past five years, in July it was occurring at the rate of an area the size of Manhattan every day. Scientists are predicting that 2019 could be the first time in more than 10 years that 10,000 square kilometres of Amazon land is lost in a single year. 

Inefficient agricultural techniques being used in the Amazon. Photo: Alzenir Ferreira de Souza, CC

So why does any of this matter? 

In the short term, the fires are actively producing carbon dioxide, the equivalent of 228 megatons already this year. Long term, the world is at risk of losing it’s largest terrestrial carbon sink. Currently the Amazon reabsorbs up to 70 million tonnes of carbon dioxide each year, some is simply stored in the soil. Studies show that the amount of carbon stored in the Amazon has decreased by 30 per cent in the past 30 years. According to Professor Peter Smith from the University of Aberdeen, if this trend proves to be widespread across the rainforest increasing levels of carbon dioxide will have to remain in the atmosphere, accelerating the effects of climate change. 

About 20 per cent of the Amazon has been cleared already, but continued deforestation combined with the effects of climate change could see a dramatic increase in land loss. If that number reaches 30-40 per cent, the entire climate of the rainforest would be at risk, according to Yadvinder Malhi, Professor of Ecosystem Science at the University of Oxford.  

Aerial view of the Amazon Rainforest, near Manaus, the capital of the Brazilian state of Amazonas, Brazil. Photo: Neil Palmer/CIAT, Flickr via CC

The continued destruction of the Amazon could also have a serious impact on the land’s indigenous people. In the past week there have been 68 fires registered in indigenous territories in Brazil, the majority within the Amazon itself. The indigenous people depend on the land for everything and could not survive if it is lost. 

At the recent G7 meeting, France and Ireland threatened to block the Mercosur free-trade agreement between South America and the EU if Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro does not stop the accelerating deforestation. The strongest international reaction to the situation has come from French President Emmanuel Macron who has characterised the situation as a “global crisis” and criticised Brazil’s overall management of the rainforest. Tensions between President Macron and President Bolsonaro escalated to the point of personal attacks over the weekend, resulting in President Bolsonaro’s rejection of the G7 summit’s proposed $20 million aid package. 

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