By Charli Ferrand.
The Amazon Rainforest was burning for three weeks before awareness, driven primarily through social media, finally got traditional media to sit up and listen, which in turn got the attention of the leaders of some of the world’s richest countries.
If you're like us, you're feeling a mixture of emotions right now.
You may be feeling perplexed as to how something as awful was able to happen in the first place; or perhaps you're feeling sad and angered at the devastating loss to the planet, the ecosystem and the local communities in Amazonia who have lost their homes and livelihood; and you're probably feeling helpless as to how you can help, especially from so far away.
We're going to do our best to answer some of these questions and provide some solutions right now.
WTF actually happened?
Thousands of fires are still ravaging the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, in the most intense blazes for almost a decade.
Clouds of smoke from the fires have drifted across the region, pumping alarming quantities of carbon into the world’s atmosphere.
Although forest fires are common in the Amazon during the dry season (July - October), this year has seen an increase of 84% compared to the same period in 2018... that's 72,000 more fires, the highest number since records began in 2013.
Why have there been so many fires?
Much like bush fires in Australia, forest fires in the Amazon can be caused by naturally occurring events, such as by lightning strikes, but are also caused by farmers and loggers clearing land for crops or grazing.
Activists say the anti-environment rhetoric of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has encouraged such tree-clearing activities, while Bolsonaro continued to dismiss the crisis as a campaign of “fake news” and “disinformation” designed to discredit his government.
Bolsonaro had also pledged to limit fines for damaging the rainforest and to weaken the influence of the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (Ipam) during his presidential campaign. He suggested Brazil could pull out of the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, saying its requirements compromised Brazil's sovereignty over the Amazon region.
Unsurprisingly, climate activists and conservationists believe since President Bolsonaro took office, the Amazon rainforest has suffered losses at an accelerated rate. Ipam stated the recent increase in the number of fires in the Amazon is directly related to deliberate deforestation.
Bolsonaro, a long-time climate change sceptic, accused non-governmental organisations of starting the fires themselves to damage his government's image. He later said the Brazilian government lacked the resources to fight the flames, before finally bowing to pressure from overseas governments and local protestors, when on Friday he ordered thousands of Brazilian troops to go the Amazon to try and contain the fires.
How do the Amazonian fires impact the environment and climate change?
The largest rainforest in the world, the Amazon is a vital carbon store that slows down the pace of global warming. It is also home to about three million species of plants and animals, and one million indigenous people.
The Amazon - 60% of which is in Brazil - is the world’s largest tropical rainforest. It is considered a biodiversity hot spot, with many unique species of plants and animals.
The dense jungle absorbs a huge amount of the world’s carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas scientists believe to be the biggest factor in climate change, so preserving the Amazon, and any rainforest around the world, is vital to fighting global heating.
These fires are mostly illegal. They are degrading the world’s biggest terrestrial carbon sink and most important home for biodiversity. They also contribute to a more important global trend, which is an alarming rise in deforestation.
According to scientists, the Amazon is already approaching a tipping point. The planet is losing its biggest rainforest, just when we need billions more trees on earth to absorb carbon and stabilise the climate. If the Amazon tips over this point, it will irreversibly degrade into a dry savannah.
Trees are the lungs of our planet. The importance of trees to our eco system comes down to simple science, the science we all learned in primary school.
A quick science lesson for world leaders who didn't listen in their geography lessons at school
Oxygen is the most common element of the human body. It makes up about 65% of the mass of the human body.
Plants and trees create the majority of the oxygen we breathe through a process called photosynthesis. In this process plants use carbon dioxide, sunlight, and water to create energy. In the process they also create oxygen which they release into the air.
Apart from oxygen, trees are an important factor in the creation of new soil as leaves and other vegetation rots down and decomposes. Forests also create rain, cool local climates and provide homes for wildlife and local communities. Yep, trees are kinda awesome and a vital part of the earth's ecosystem. We definitely shouldn't be chopping them down or burning them.
"If you think the economy is more important than the environment, try holding your breath while counting your money." - Guy McPherson
How has the world responded?
It took three weeks and a whole lot of social media noise from the general public (go the collective!) to get mainstream media to pay attention to the fact the Amazon was burning.
Even when the news was finally being reported across the world, it still wasn't deemed as important as the Notre Dame Cathedral fire, which happened earlier this year.
A study from nonprofit media watchdog Media Matters for America, found cable news channels – MSNBC, CNN and Fox News – provided nearly 15x more coverage of the Notre Dame fire, despite the Amazon Rainforest fires having a significantly larger impact on the environment, global heating, public health and the hundreds of indigenous tribes and wildlife who call it home.
However, the media attention did eventually push governments around the world to sit up and listen, who in turn put pressure on Bolsonaro, who finally sent in military to attempt to control the raging fires on Friday.
This weekend, leaders from the world’s richest countries gathered in France for the G7 summit. French president Emmanuel Macron pushed for world powers to help put out the fires and fund reforestation and management projects in the Amazon, tweeting "our house is burning"; while German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the "acute emergency" belonged on the summit's agenda. We wait with baited breath to see what outcomes emerge from the summit.
What about the farmers?
Surprisingly the one voice that could influence Bolsonaro's actions is that of Brazilian farmers. Some agricultural leaders fear his poor handling of Brazil's image abroad could hurt exports of soybeans and beef. Some farmers have already urged a change of tone from the government.
What you can do to help
- Get loud, get political: Protection of the Amazon will require financial support and will need governments to align their environment and trade policies. Currently, countries like the UK spend small sums on overseas conservation, then promote billions of dollars worth of trade in beef, soy, timber, minerals and other products that undermine Amazon protection efforts. Join a party or campaign group that makes the Amazon a priority, urge your elected representatives to block trade deals with countries that destroy their forests, provide more support for countries that expand tree cover and listen more to the voices of the people who live in the forest, such as indigenous groups and riverine communities.
Never underestimate the power of the people, of community speaking up and out together. It was noise on social media that eventually drove reports from media and action from governments. This is why it's so important to speak up, to vote, to post on social media, to talk about climate change, to donate to the right non-profits. Never think you are too small to make a difference. Together, we are strong.
- Be mindful about what and how you consume: The best way to make sure the beef you consume isn't contributing to deforestation is not to eat it at all. If you do eat meat, get curious - find out where the meat you buy (and soy, coffee, chocolate and any other produce farmed in the Amazon and really, anywhere in the world) comes from and how it's produced. Ideally, buy locally sourced and ethically produced products, or make sure it is certified by groups such as the Rainforest Alliance - the Amazon connection is not always obvious on packaging. For example, do you have any idea where the meat in your fast-food burger comes from? Living in an affluent country like Australia gives us privileged access to choice in how we consume and with privilege comes responsibility - take that seriously.
- Donate: To organisations that support the forest, forest dwellers and biodiversity, including Aussie NFP Halfcut, Instituto Socioambiental, Amazon Watch, WWF and Friends of the Earth.
- Explore Change.org petitions: A lawyer in Rio Branco has accumulated over 3 million signatures to mobilize an investigation into the Amazonian fires.
Sources and further reading:
Cover image: Reuters