Record fires burn through the Amazon – an ecosystem on which the whole world depends. The Verge will update this page with news and analysis of the fires and effects that may linger once the ashes have settled.
Why is the Amazon burning?
In 2019, an unprecedented number of fires raged throughout Brazil, increasing in August. There are more than that 74,000 fires so far this year the most registered of the National Institute for Space Research (INPE) in the country. It is a jump of around 80 percent compared to the number of fires that the country experienced in the same period in 2018. More than half of these fires take place in the Amazon.
Experts say that deforestation and a practice called slash and burn are the fault of most flames. People cut down pieces of forest, let the area dry out and then set fire to the remains to make room for agriculture or other development. They can also make fires to replenish the land and encourage the growth of pastures for livestock. Brazil is & # 39; the world's largest beef exporter, according to the US Department of Agriculture.
"These are intentional fires to cut down the forest," says Cathelijne Stoof, coordinator of the Wageningen University Fire Department Center (WUR) in the Netherlands. The edge. "People want to get rid of the forest to make agricultural land so that people can eat meat."
"There is no doubt that this increase in fire activity is accompanied by a strong increase in deforestation," said Paulo Artaxo, an atmospheric physicist at the University of São Paulo. Science Magazine. He explained that the fires spread along the borders of the new agricultural development, which is often seen with forest fires.
President Jair Bolsonaro & # 39; s administration, who had promised to open up the Amazon for more development, has tried to draw attention away from deforestation. Bolsonaro initially pointed a finger at NGOs opposing its policy of alleged intentional fires in protest, without providing any proof to support his claim. In August, he laid off the director of the National Institute for Space Research on a dispute over the released data, showing that deforestation has increased sharply since Bolsonaro took office. On August 20, the Brazilian environment minister Ricardo Salles tweeted that dry weather, wind and heat caused the fires to spread so widely. But even during the dry season, large fires are not a natural phenomenon in the tropical ecosystem of the Amazon.
Why is this so important?
Everyone on the planet benefits from the health of the Amazon. While the trees absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen, the Amazon plays an enormous role in the withdrawal of planet-warming greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Without this, climate change will accelerate. But since & # 39; the world's largest rainforest is being eaten away by logging, mining and agribusiness, it is possible that it will not be able to provide the same buffer.
"The Amazon has bought you for a while that it will not buy anymore," Carlos Quesada, a scientist at the Brazilian National Institute of Amazonian Research, told Public Radio International in 2018. Scientists warn that rainforest could reach a turning point, turns into something more like a savanna when it can no longer maintain itself as a rainforest. That would mean that it can hardly absorb as much carbon as it does now. And if the Amazon as we know it dies, it would not go quiet. As the trees and plants perish, they would let go billions of tons of carbon stored for decades – making it almost impossible to escape from a climate disaster.
Of course, those closest to the fires will have the most direct effects. Smoke from the fires became so bad that it seemed to turn day in night in São Paulo on August 20. Residents say that the air quality still makes it difficult to breathe. In addition, a massive global air pollution study showed that between the two dozen countries that Brazil observed, Brazil showed one of the sharpest increases in mortality rates when there is more soot in the air.
And because fire is not a natural phenomenon in the region, it can have major consequences for local plants and animals. One in ten of all animal species call the Amazon on earth, and experts expect they will be dramatically affected by the short-term fires. In the Amazon, plants and animals are exceptionally sensitive & # 39; for fire, said Jos Barlow, a professor of natural sciences at Lancaster University in the UK, The edge in an email. According to Barlow, even low-intensity fires with flames of just 30 centimeters long can kill up to half of the trees burned in a tropical rain forest.
Why is this a hot topic politically?
When Jair Bolsonaro campaigned for an extreme right-wing candidate, he argued for less land in the Amazon for indigenous tribes and conservation, and instead make it easier for industry to get into the rainforest. Since his election in October 2018, Bolsonaro has entrusted the Ministry of Agriculture with the definition of indigenous areas instead of the Ministry of Justice, essentially "taking over the fox from the chicken coop", according to a legislator. His policy has been politically popular among industrial and agricultural interests in Brazil, even though they have been condemned by Brazilian environmental groups and opposition legislators. Hundreds native women stormed the country's capital on August 13 to protest against Bolsonaro & # 39; s ecological setback and violation of development on indigenous countries. The hashtag #PrayforAmazonia exploded on Twitter.
Approximately 60 percent of the Amazon is within Brazilian borders, which gives the nation a huge impact on the region. It is not surprising that the fires have drawn international attention to the plight of the Amazon and have intensified the heat of Bolsonaro's environmental policy.
The French president Emmanuel Macron increased twitter call for action, insist on international emergencies in the Amazon at the G7 summit. On August 26, the seven largest economies in the world offered Brazil more than $ 22 million in aid to get the fire under control. Bolsonaro immediately rejected the money and accused Macron on Twitter to treat Brazil like a colony. Some in Brazil, including Bolsonaro, view international aid as one attack on the sovereignty of Brazil, and his right to decide how to manage the country within its borders.
President Donald Trump, on the other hand, congratulated Bolsonaro on his approach to the fires. "He is working very hard on the Amazon fires and doing great work for the people of Brazil in every way," he said tweeted on the 27th.
Bolsonaro has since said he will reconsider the deal as long as Macron is & # 39;insultsAnd Brazil has control over how the money is spent. Bolsonaro accepted on the 27th $ 12.2 million in the help of the UK.
How are the fires dealt with?
On August 24, after weeks of international and internal pressure, Bolsonaro deployed the army to help fight the fires and send 44,000 troops to six states. Reuters reported the next day that war planes were flames.
"It's a complex operation. We have many challenges," says Paulo Barroso The edge. Barroso is the chairman of the National Forest Fire Management Committee of the National League of Military Fire Departments in Brazil. He spent three decades fighting fires in Mato Grosso, one of the regions most affected by the ongoing fires. According to Barroso, more than 10,400 firefighters are sparsely spread over 5.5 million square kilometers in the Amazon and "hotspots" break out in locations they cannot cover.
Barroso states that they need more equipment and infrastructure to fight the flames adequately. There are 778 municipalities in the Amazon, but according to Barroso, only 110 have fire brigades. "We do not have an adequate structure to prevent, control and combat forest fires," says Barroso. He wants to set up a forest fire protection system in the Amazon that brings together government agencies, indigenous peoples, local communities, the military, large corporations, NGOs, and education and research centers. "We have to integrate everyone," says Barroso, "we need money for that, we have to receive a great investment."
Barroso and other experts agree that it is important to look ahead to prevent fire as we see it now. After all, August is just the beginning of the largely man-made burning season, when it bursts and burns in the tops of the country and coincides with drier weather.
Controlled burns are also a popular deforestation technique in other countries where the Amazon is burning, including Bolivia. The government brought an adjusted one Boeing 747 supertanker to put out the flames.
Using planes to extinguish forest fires in the Amazon is not a typical fire fighting method in tropical forests and is likely to be expensive, says Jos Barlow of Lancaster University The edge. He says that large-scale fires in areas that have been deforested by deforestation "can best be captured by wide-ranging fire protection systems created with bulldozers – not easily in remote areas." "They can normally be enclosed by cleaning up fine fire breaks in leaf waste and fine fuel," says Barlow. "But this is labor-intensive on a large scale, and fires must be reached quickly before they become too large."
Intentionally lit fires, as we see in Brazil, can be even more difficult to control compared to a sudden forest fire. "They are designed to be intentionally destructive," says Timothy Ingalsbee, co-founder and executive director of Firefighters United for safety, ethics and ecology and research assistant at the University of Oregon. Slashing before burning produces a lot of very dry, highly combustible fuel. And on this scale, Ingalsbee calls the fires & # 39; an act of global vandalism & # 39 ;.
Barlow says, "The best fire fighting technology in the Amazon is to prevent them in the first place – by controlling deforestation and managing agricultural activities."
Cathelijne Stoof from WUR agrees: "Fighting the fires is of course important now," she says. "For the longer term, it is much more important to focus on deforestation."