Under the pressure of an international outcry, the crisis of the burning of Brazil’s Amazon rainforest has reached a turning point. The government of President Jair Bolsonaro has been forced to recognize the crisis and deal with it, however reluctantly.
The evidence indicates that although wildfires do occur there at this time of year, they do not account for the devastating degree of destruction currently underway, as government officials initially claimed. The overwhelming majority of the fires are the work of human hands, chiefly farmers and ranchers who want to clear the land for their own selfish interests.
“The vast majority of these fires are human-lit,” Christian Poirier, program director of the NGO Amazon Watch, told CNN. He explained that even during dry seasons, the Amazon — a humid rainforest — doesn’t catch fire easily, unlike the dry brushland in California or Australia. INPE, the Brazilian space research center, said this week that the number of fires in Brazil is 80 percent higher than last year, with more than half in the Amazon region, and they concur that almost all have been set by people, “either on purpose or by accident,” according to Alberto Setzer, a senior scientist there.
So it was natural to expect that after the 60-day ban imposed on deliberate burning (some of which is done every year for legitimate reasons), there would at least begin to be a significant decrease in the fires, if not an immediate cessation. That, however, has not been the case.
In fact, the opposite is true. Since the ban was announced last Thursday, INPE has said that nearly 4,000 new forest fires have been started in Brazil, roughly half of them in the endangered Amazon region.
Clearly, it will take more than a fiat from Brasilia to bring the situation under control. Those who are used to setting fires to clear land, and have been doing so in remote regions far from any arm of government enforcement, are difficult to restrain. It will take a concerted effort on the part of Brazilian authorities to stop the devastation.
Bolsonaro’s campaign promise to boost the economy by exploiting resources in the Amazon is a message that is proving hard to resend — especially in view of the fact that he fired INPE’s director, apparently because he published data showing the extent of the damage, a move that helped to arouse international outrage and personally embarrass the president.
Having said that, and acknowledging that the threat to the environment must be addressed immediately, it also needs to be said that the proportions of the crisis have been overstated.
The impression given is that if the fires in the Amazon aren’t halted very soon that it’s the end of the world, literally. Over and over again, the trope “lungs of the planet” has been used to describe the rainforests there, with the implication that if they are burned out, the planet will strangle to death.
But, as environmental expert Michael Shellenberger noted in the National Review, the global picture isn’t really like that. “In reality, there was a whopping 25 percent decrease in the area burned from 2003 to 2019, according to NASA,” he wrote.
The Amazonian “lungs of the Earth” providing “20 percent of the world’s oxygen,” Shellenberger rejects as a myth that needs to be debunked, citing climatologist Wallace S. Broecker, who explained why there was nothing to be frightened of. By 2000, he explained, burning fossil fuels would deplete just 0.2 percent of Earth’s oxygen.
“In almost all grocery lists of man’s environmental problems is found an item regarding oxygen supply. Fortunately for mankind, the supply is not vanishing as some have predicted,” Broeker wrote in a 1970 article in the journal Science, which he hoped would restore some scientific perspective.
While whether or not the fires pose an existential environmental threat seems to be very much in dispute, what seems much more real is the danger the fires pose to those who live in close proximity to the inferno. This include members of primitive tribes that are not in contact with the outside world.
COIAB, the Coordinating Body of Indigenous Organizations in the Brazilian Amazon, said in a statement that “The fires are destroying the remaining forests in these regions, which are vital spaces for the survival of our relatives … There are isolated peoples also in the state of Mato Grosso, many of them have not yet had their presence recognized by the Brazilian state, who may be fleeing the deforestation and fires.”
According to the advocacy group Survival International, the Awá, referred to by some as Earth’s Most Threatened Tribe, are already under great pressure, as illegal loggers are devastating their territories, which are islands of green amid a sea of deforestation.
“By encouraging the land invaders and ranchers who set these fires, President Bolsonaro is signing a death warrant for the uncontacted tribes whose homes are going up in flames. If their forest is destroyed, they simply won’t survive,” Survival International director Stephen Corry says.
That is certainly something to be worried about.