The Amazon Wildfire Crisis
By Olivia Ortlieb
As you may have heard in the news recently, the number of fires that have sprung up in the Amazon Rainforest have been increasing at an unprecedented rate. 76 000 fires were reported at the last official count alone, which is an 80% increase from the same time period last year. This widespread burning is devastating the rainforest and the surrounding area and is imposing dire consequences on the earth as a whole. The Amazon is vital to our planet and its destruction is undeniably harming us all. But what is causing this alarming spike in fires, what repercussions can we expect, and how can you help? No one has all the answers, but here’s a rundown of what we know thus far about this crisis.
The general consensus among environmentalists is that the drastic increase in the number of Amazonian wildfires is largely a man-made disaster, as climate and rain patterns have not shifted enough to explain this crisis. However, unlike in North America, where wildfires started by humans are usually accidents, the vast majority of the fires that are springing up throughout the Amazon were intentionally set.
The primary motivation behind this mass destruction is profit. The rainforest and the land that it’s located on are economically valuable for activities such as logging and agriculture. Shockingly, over 7000 square kilometers of the rainforest are burned every year with the intention of clearing it for the sake of growing crops or raising cattle. But since these activities are so profitable, you may be wondering why the number of fires in the Amazon are suddenly spiking now as opposed to earlier. The answer is that up until recently, the environmental protection laws in Brazil strictly regulated deforestation. However, during his first year in office, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro has greatly reduced the power of Brazil’s environmental agencies, rejected a $20 million aid deal that was intended to help stop the fires, approved plans for many highways and bridges that would cut through the Amazon, and enabled agricultural businesses to elude fines when violating forestry laws as he views the protection of the Amazon as a barrier to economic growth. These policy shifts appear to be the main reason why the deforestation rate in Brazil has increased by 88% since Bolsonaro’s election in 2018.
If nothing is done to impede this alarming trend in deforestation, it is possible that the Amazon will disappear entirely in less than 100 years. Moreover, the Amazon could be exterminated even sooner due to a phenomenon known as the dieback scenario. When a rainforest loses enough area, it can no longer sufficiently cycle water throughout itself, causing the vegetation to weaken and lose even more of its ability to cycle water. Eventually, this will result in the rainforest turning into a dry savannah. Research suggests that this will happen once the Amazon has lost 20-25% of its area. Around 16% has already vanished and it’s likely that we’ll hit the 25% mark within 15-30 years. Once the Amazon reaches this figurative tipping point, it’s unlikely that we will be able to save it.
As the world’s largest rainforest, the Amazon is critical to the health of the planet as well as the fight against climate change. On a local scale, the degradation of the Amazon is expected to lead to major changes in climate patterns throughout the region, and ironically, the devastation of the Brazilian agricultural sector that is currently profiting off of its destruction. Despite being located nearer to the equator than many desert-covered areas, Brazil is lush and has no shortage of fresh water. This is largely due to the country’s rainforests, as the plants release moisture, which then condense into rain clouds. Without the Amazon, Brazil will become much drier, leading to droughts which will reduce access to clean drinking water and cut crop production.
On a more global scale, the destruction of the rainforest will be a devastating blow to the fight against climate change. The Amazon acts as a sort of carbon sink, which currently holds around 20% of all the carbon on earth and absorbs 5% of the CO2 we emit, keeping it out of our atmosphere. As the Amazon burns, hundreds of millions of tons of carbon are being released, exacerbating the greenhouse gas effect that is already causing our planet so many environmental problems. Furthermore, the loss of the incredibly biodiverse Amazon will result in the extinction of thousands of species, many of which we have not even discovered yet. It’s very possible that some of these yet to be studied species hold the keys to curing medical issues that may be lost forever if they go extinct.
How You Can Make An Impact:
The Rainforest Alliance Symbol
Since this is such a large issue and is happening far away from Canada, it may seem impossible to make a meaningful contribution towards saving the rainforest, but in reality, anyone can help the cause. As a high school student, one of the best ways that you can contribute is by regulating what you buy. As mentioned earlier, a big reason why the Amazon is being cleared is to make room for agriculture. When buying products such as coffee and chocolate, look out for the Rainforest Alliance green frog symbol, which guarantees that the item was sustainably and ethically sourced. Reducing your beef intake is another great way to help as Brazil is the world’s largest beef exporter. Lastly, consider making a donation to a charity that supports the Amazon, such as The Rainforest Action Network, Rainforest Trust, or Amazon Watch. Saving the rainforest may be a monumental task, but if we all work together, we can preserve this incredibly valuable natural wonder for centuries to come.