Amazon rainforest on fire

Here’s what you need to know about the fires raging through Brazil.

The Brazilian state of Amazonas declared a state of emergency last month over the rising number of fires in its vast rainforest – fires so intense that they have been captured by NASA satellites from space. What’s going on?

Are fires in the Amazon unusual?

This isn’t the first time the Amazon rainforest has been ablaze: forest fires are common in the Amazon during dry season. However, this year has seen the highest number of fires in Brazil since 2010 – 84% more than the same period in 2018, in fact. In August alone, Brazil saw around 88,850 outbreaks of fire, with 51.9% taking place in the rainforest.

Why did the fires in the Amazon start?

Fires in the Amazon can be caused by naturally occurring events such as lightning strikes during the dry season. But this year most are believed to have been started by farmers who want to make room for crops and pastures. NASA reports that there has been a notable increase in fires along major roads in the Amazon, consistent with areas where this land clearing is taking place. Many blame Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, for the fires. When he took office in January 2019 he pledged to develop the region for farming and mining, despite warnings from conservationists.

What is being done to tackle the fires in the Amazon?

The Brazilian government enacted a burning ban at the beginning of September, but conservationists were sceptical that it would have any impact, as the majority of forest clearance fires are started illegally and laws are rarely enforced. And so far they were right: within 48 hours of the ban a further 2,000 fires had been started.

Bolsonaro – a far-right former army captain – has reacted angrily to the world’s condemnation of his handling of the situation, and initially rejected any offers of help. The G7 countries – an international intergovernmental economic organisation of the world’s seven most advanced economies – approved an £18 million emergency aid package to combat the fires, but Bolsonaro originally threatened to refuse the aid money due to a feud with French President Emmanuel Macron. He has since said he will accept the aid money as long as Mr Macron apologises for calling him ‘extraordinarily rude’ after pressure from Mayors who welcome assistance.

Practical steps to stop the fires include water drops from planes and helicopters, as well as by creating clearings to stop the fire spreading.

How long will the fires in the Amazon continue?

In the short term, Brazil’s forthcoming rainy season will put an end to this year’s fires, but looking ahead things could get worse. Land-clearing – illegal and otherwise – is undertaken by cattle ranchers and agriculture businesses to feed the world’s ever-growing appetite for beef and other sources of meat. Pasture is used to graze cattle and soy is grown to feed livestock for cheap, mass-produced beef, chicken and pork. As the population grows, this demand will increase.

Why does the Amazon matter so much?

The Amazon only covers 1% of the world’s surface area, yet it’s home to more than a million species of plants and animals, and 15% of the Earth’s fresh water. It’s very important for the people who live there, particularly indigenous communities, but it’s valuable to people everywhere as it’s a huge carbon store. These fires are a threat to wildlife and human health through air pollution, but they’re also turning the Amazon into a source of carbon dioxide – the major greenhouse gas – instead of a sink.

What impact do the fires in the Amazon have on climate change?

Estimates so far suggest that this year’s fires have released around 228 million tonnes of CO2 – this is the equivalent to the annual emissions of all the cars and power stations in the UK, but the fires are still burning. The IPCC says that in order to stay at a safe level of 2°C global warming, we need to cut emissions by 45%. Instead, we are increasing emissions every year both though the burning of fossil fuels and – as is the case in the Amazon – irresponsible land usage. The fires in the Amazon are only making the climate crisis worse, and are indicative of a much larger problem with the way we treat the planet.

What needs to be done to prevent fires like this?

If we stop deforestation then damaged areas can be restored through natural regeneration. However, many farmers, and large companies remain focused only on the short-term profit to be had through these intensive agriculture practices. Corporate responsibility is needed to stop this destruction, but you can help make a difference by buying sustainably-sourced and preferably local meat instead of cheap ‘mystery’ meat, which will help reduce demand for the products that are driving deforestation as well as switching to a more plant-based diet.

In other areas of the world such as South East Asia, palm oil plantations are the key source of deforestation. Avoiding products with palm oil or using only those that source sustainable palm oil is a big factor in the fight against burning down forests.

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