If you’ve been online at all in the past few days, you’ve likely seen images of the Amazon rainforest ablaze. It's disconcerting, to say the least, but there's also quite a bit of misinformation being bandied about. So here’s what you need to know about what's actually going on in the world’s largest tropical rainforest.
1. The fires have been going on for a while.
While images only began cropping up on social media and news sites a few days ago, the fires have actually been blazing for about three weeks. If we’re only hearing about them now, it’s in large part because NASA produced photos from space showing the smoke billowing out of the Amazon about a week ago. Following the publication of these photos, outraged journalists and concerned citizens began to write about the issue on news sites and on social media.
However, many of the photos being published are outdated, especially the most striking ones. One that has been shared by YouTube sensation Logan Paul dates to 1989; another shared by Leonardo DiCaprio was first published in 2012. This isn't to say that these fires aren't devastating – just that some of the photo "evidence" is not accurate for the current fires.
2. This is the Amazon's fire season – but these ones are worse.
Fires are normal this time of year in the Amazon. NASA reports that fire activity usually increases in July and August, with a peak in activity in early September that tapers out by November.
But the fires are far worse this year than they have been of late. Brazil’s space research center (INPE) has stated that the frequency of fires in the Amazon has increased 83 percent from last year, with 1,200 fires ignited between last Thursday and last Friday.
Deforestation in the Amazon region is on the rise, with four times as much deforestation in July 2019 as compared to July 2018, according to INPE; current deforestation levels are higher than they have been in the past ten years. More than 1,330 square miles of the Amazon have been lost since January, a 39 percent increase from last year, according to the New York Times.
Experts note that the Amazon is “approaching a tipping point,” The Guardian reports, after which it will degrade and may ultimately disappear.
3. The Amazon burning has dire consequences for the planet.
Many publications and concerned citizens have made mention of the Amazon as “the lungs of the Earth,” and this metaphor is apt, albeit exaggerated by some media. While some reports show that the Amazon produces upwards of 20 percent of the planet’s oxygen, climate scientists Michael Mann and Johnathan Foley tell the Guardian that the rainforest only produces about 6 percent of the oxygen on earth.
This in no way lessens the environmental worries regarding these fires, however. The Amazon is the world’s biggest terrestrial carbon sink and hosts, by some estimates, between 10 and 15 percent of the world's biodiversity. Many plants found within the Amazon, including cinchona trees and euterpe oleracea roots, have important medicinal properties, and a large number of animal and plant species found in the rainforest do not exist elsewhere on Earth.
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One also cannot diminish the importance of the Amazon as a home for more than 30 million people, many of whom have risked and continue to risk their lives to help prevent the destruction of their home.
4. The fires are (partly) politically motivated.
One contributing factor to these fires is the recent election of Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, whose platform of business development has resulted in lax policies on deforestation. Since his election less than a year ago, Bolsonaro has slashed the budget of the nation's environmental enforcement agency by $23 million and attacked conservation NGOs, paving the way for ranchers, land developers, and other businesses to clear land. Indeed, The Guardian reports the fires are “manmade and mostly deliberate,” stemming from purposeful, business-driven burnings.
That said, one cannot cast all of the blame on Bolsonaro. While Brazil had managed to slow deforestation by 80 percent between 2005 and 2014 thanks to aggressive environmental policies, deforestation rates had already been creeping back up under the two previous Brazilian presidents. And while 60 percent of the Amazon is contained within Brazil, parts of the Amazon located in other countries, including Bolivia, are also on fire, despite Bolivia's country's current left-wing government.
It does, however, bear mentioning that the three Brazilian states with the worst spikes in fires this year are governed by Bolsonaro’s allies, according to Richard Black, former BBC journalist and director of nonprofit Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit.
5. You can help.
The Brazilian military has been called to intervene in the fires, with some 44,000 troops assigned to put out the fires. But more help is needed – and quickly: not just to put out the fires, but to prevent more from being set.
"Once you have a huge forest fire like that, especially when you don't have all the kind of forest fire-fighting equipment that you have in places like the US or Portugal, it's difficult to extinguish," Alfredo Sirkis, executive director of think-tank Brazil Climate Center and a founder of Brazil's Green Party, tells Reuters. "They'll only be extinguished by themselves depending on the weather conditions."
There are a few easy ways that you can help reduce the impact of these fires (none of which involves going down to show physical support, as this can be dangerous and actually divert attention away from fighting the fires).
Firstly, concerned global citizens can pay special attention to product sourcing. Unsustainable palm oil contributes greatly to deforestation worldwide, so either choose products that use sustainably produced palm oil or avoid palm oil entirely. Other commodities contributing to deforestation in Brazil include beef and soy; either avoid these ingredients or seek out Rainforest Alliance Certified products to reduce your impact.
You can also donate funds to organizations working to fight the fires and prevent deforestation in the Amazon on the whole. Trusted and vetted organizations include:
- Amazon Watch, which partners with local indigenous and environmental organizations to preserve the Amazon.
- Greenpeace, an organization devoted to halting environmental destruction worldwide.
- Rainforest Trust, an organization focused on strategic conservation of threatened species in the rainforest.