Last month, the world watched shocking images of Sao Paulo fall into total darkness in the middle of the day due to the smoke and soot coming from a fire in the amazon.
The rapid spreading of these images by many news outlets has led many people to believe that “Wildfires” are “Raging” through the “Rainforest”.
As much as we love seeing the world stick-up for the rainforests, it would be fair to say that these headlines are a misrepresentation of actual events. Yes, there are fires in the Amazon rainforest, but these fires do not resemble the wildfires of California or the bushfires of Australia. The fires we are seeing are in fact managed fires, set by people in a controlled manner in areas which have been cleared and dried. The rainforest is usually far too moist for any kind of wildfire to spread in the dense vegetation and trees.
“Slash and Burn farming”, as it is known, is a common practice across the globe where an area of woodland is cleared, allowed to dry-out and then the remaining debris and small plants burned to help fertilise the soil. Slash & Burn is carried out by farmers throughout the greater region on an annual basis during the dry season which falls between August – October.
Well, how about the widely-reported recent satellite data from Brazil’s national institute for space research which shows an increase in amazonian fires of 85% since last year? You may ask.
While there is little agreement in whether this figure is accurate or not, there is wide agreement that there has been an actual increase in the number of fires. The reason for the increase in fires is simple – there has been an increase in deforestation. This, paired with particularly hot and windy conditions has aided the fires into growing perhaps larger than usual, and the smoke travelling further.
Following wide news coverage and a global call-to-action on the impact of this year’s fires, the Brazilian government has expressed that it only has limited resources to deal with these man-made flames, however president Jair Bolsonaro has committed thousands of soldiers to extinguish any and all fires remaining in an attempt to show willing to protect the rainforest.
Many campaigners and environmental activist blame the Brazilian governments’ policies – which are aimed towards enabling developers rather than protecting the amazon as an important natural resource – for the drastic increase in deforestation in the region.
Deforestation is not a new problem facing the Amazon, though experts warn that the rate at which the forest is being cleared has accelerated and that it is having very detrimental effects. Experts assert that deforestation is reaching an ecological tipping point, which could cause more than half of the Amazon rainforest to die off. This event would release so much carbon into the atmosphere that it would send global warming into hyper-drive. They argue that the demand for meat and soybean produce to feed the livestock is accelerating at such a rate that this tipping point is only a matter of time.
The rate of deforestation has increased mostly due to industrial farming, urban sprawl and cash crop production. The most common use for the land once is has been cleared is for growing soybeans, Brazil’s biggest export, followed closely by cattle ranching.
However, It’s not all huge corporations that are to blame for the clearing of the forest. Amazonian natives are finding that the land can very quickly be transformed into a ‘quick-buck’ by growing ‘cash crops’ such as palm and cocoa. The natural resource suddenly doesn’t seem so rich when you’re impoverished and need to use the land for the survival of your community. Money doesn’t grow on trees, but it does grow where the trees once were. In order to change these attitudes, the government and business owners need to find a way of improving the economic potential of the forest as it stands, and spread the word of how and why the Amazon is more valuable that way than clearing the land.
The Amazon rainforest has long been promoted as a global public good, but economic and environmental policies need to start reflecting this better. Certain issues are well researched and publicised – such as the somewhat untapped medicinal value of the flora within the rainforest – but remain ill-supported when it comes to policy.
Multiple local-level development initiatives are striving to teach tribes and indigenous people to capitalise on what the forest naturally provides them. The Brazilian banking sector has always traditionally been happier to work with groups wishing to turn the land into large-scale agricultural practices such as ranching, for obvious reasons such as greater return on investment. However, with smaller finance institutions, banking sector disruptors and micro-finance initiatives, more money is now being invested into a longer-term and therefore sustainable approach to resource management. With scientific studies showing the importance of preserving the forest, attitudes among many are rapidly changing from the ‘get rich’ agricultural transformation of previous decades to a more holistic approach which recognises the human responsibility in managing our planet’s natural resources.
Read: Rubber Boom Rubber Bust
No doubt, the Brazilian government’s policies of of deregulation in agricultural practices come from a place of nostalgia – and a desire to return to pre-recession growth numbers. As an ‘emerging economy’, it is important that Brazil’s economy continues to grow, and with growth currently sticking at around 1%, It is clear that the anti-regulatory policies are hoping to provide a boost.
Brazil, Latin America’s biggest nation – and home to the majority of the Amazon rainforest – owes a responsibility to its continent to manage the resources that the Amazon offers responsibly. The Amazon rainforest knows nothing of ‘policy’ or even of ‘borders’, just that every action has an equal reaction.
Watch: Tough Boats of the Amazon
Main image: Squirrel Monkey, Andrew Wales, Flickr Creative Commons