Lesson for us in the Amazon fires

Monday, August 26, 2019

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It will take quite a while to put out the fires that are now raging in the Amazon rainforest in Brazil. What effect this disaster will have on our planet is yet to be seen; however, we can't ignore the fact that the Amazon, regarded as the “lungs of the Earth” because it produces 20 per cent of the world's oxygen, has been subjected to heavy deforestation in recent years, especially since January when President Jair Bolsonaro came to office on a platform of increasing development in forested areas.

Preliminary data provided by the National Space Research Institute in Brazil show that between January 1 and August 1 this year a total of 9,250 square kilometres of forest were lost. That compares to 7,537 square kilometres for all of last year.

The agency has also reported that, as of last Thursday, 76,720 wildfires were recorded across Brazil this year — an increase of 85 per cent over last year's figure. Just over half of those — 40,341 — have been spotted in the Amazon region.

President Bolsonaro's critics have said that he needs to be held responsible for the current record number of fires as his policies have emboldened ranching and mining interests. That has led to calls for the international community to force him to reverse his policies by threatening to cancel trade agreements and ban the import of timber and beef from companies that operate in the Amazon.

Such a move would have a devastating effect on Brazil's agribusiness sector and indeed the wider economy.

That possibility has angered President Bolsonaro, who has been reported as saying that he does not defend the burnings “because there always was and always will be burnings” in the Amazon.

However, it is challenging to separate the increase in fires from his advocacy of opening up tribal lands and protected areas to farming and mining interests.

Last week, Mr Paulo Moutinho, co-founder of the Amazon Environmental Research Institute, who has been working in the Amazon forests for near three decades, was reported by The Associated Press as saying that fires are mostly set to clear land for farming, ranching or logging, and they can easily get out of control, especially during the July to November dry season.

The issue causing concern among environmentalists and people living in the Amazon and nearby communities is that the number of wildfires is growing each year.

Yesterday, Agence France Presse reported that in the north-western state of Rondonia — one of the hardest-hit areas — people are living under a blanket of smoke.

One resident who told the AFP that she has been living in the region for 20 years said she had never before seen anything like what is now happening.

“The smoke has affected 100 per cent of our daily lives. We wake up tired from breathing the smoke,” she was reported as saying.

Last week, United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres expressed deep concern over the fires. He also stated, that in the midst of the global climate crisis, “We cannot afford more damage to a major source of oxygen and biodiversity.”

Mr Guterres is, of course, correct.

Just last week Science Daily reported that an international team of climate scientists have found that projected carbon dioxide uptake in the Amazon basin has been reduced by an average of 50 per cent due to phosphorus-deficient soils.

The current fires will certainly exacerbate that situation, thus reducing the role that the Amazon's hydrological engine plays in maintaining the world's climate.

The situation in Brazil should serve as a warning to us here in Jamaica to ensure that government policies do not travel the road of reckless endangerment of the environment.


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