On August 19, 2019, a seemingly normal afternoon in the city of São Paulo in Brazil turned into a nightmarish scene, as the city was suddenly engulfed in darkness.
More then 2,500km away, large parts of the Amazon forest was ablaze with massive forest fires. According to a BBC report, the smoke it created, was carried by the wind all the way to Brazil’s most populous city.
The thick layer of smoke had settled above São Paulo, cutting out daylight, and turning it into night, leading to its residents posting surreal images of the city.
The images screamed “doomsday”, and for a good reason.
According to Reuters, a record number of 72,843 instances of forest fires in the Amazon rainforest has been detected this year by Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (abbreviated as INPE). This points to an 83% increase, compared to the same time period in 2018, and the highest since INPE started collecting data in 2013.
This led a massive outrage over social media, with hashtags like #PrayforAmazonas starting to trend on Twitter, worldwide.
As a political blame game begins in Brazil as to what caused such mishap and what should be done about it, BOOM lists down 5 crucial points regarding this matter.
1. The “Lungs Of The Earth”, And Its Importance
The Amazon rainforest – the largest of its kind – has long being considered the “lungs of the earth”, but in reality it is a lot more than that.
It provides shelter to millions of indigenous species of flora and fauna, most of which is still undocumented and undescribed.
Plants absorb carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere for photosynthesis, and release oxygen (O2) in return. CO2 is one of the major drivers of climate change, with human activities releasing massive amounts into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels, oil and natural gas.
The massive green cover over the Amazon rainforest is said to produce a considerable amount of O2 for the earth’s atmosphere, while absorbing an equally crucial amount of CO2, and acting as a “carbon sink”.
Theoretically, it makes the Amazon rainforest one of our last major natural defences against climate change.
2. The Ravaging Fire – And How It Came To Be
Although rainforests like the Amazon are typically wet, the months of July and August witness the onset of a dry season.
“The dry season creates the favorable conditions for the use and spread of fire, but starting a fire is the work of humans, either deliberately or by accident,” INPE researcher Alberto Setzer told Reuters.
So who set the fire?
It is not unusual for cattle farmers in the region to set fire for clearing forest areas for grazing, and much of it is done illegally.
According to Brazilian daily Folha de São Paulo , on August 17, 2019 several regions saw a unprecedented increase in fire outbreaks from the previous day. This comes a week after farmers in the southwestern region of Pará announced a “day of fire”.
As per the publication, the farmers felt supported by the words of President Jair Bolsonaro, and coordinated the burning of forest areas to “show the president that they want to work.”
3. We didn’t start the fire
“Bolsonaro is the worst thing that could happen for the environment.”– Paulo Artaxo, Climate Change Researcher, University of São Paulo, Science Magazine
President Bolsonaro has repeatedly denied data provided by INPE regarding deforestation in the region and its effects on climate change.
Last month, INPE published a report that showed an 88% jump in deforestation in June, 2019, in the Amazona rainforest, compared to the same month a year ago. Bolsonaro responded by denying the conclusion of the reports and called the data a lie.
Earlier this month, Ricardo Galvao, the head of INPE, was made to leave his job due to the report being incongruent with the government’s stance on the matter.
On August 21, 2019, as wildfires in the region were spreading at a historical rate, Bolsonaro accused environmentalists and “NGOs” for starting fires in the rainforest to embarrass his government, as reported by The Guardian.
Bolsonaro, the 63-year old former army captain, came to power with the promise that he shall tap into the resources provided by the Amazon for development purposes, by opening up lands for mining, farming and logging.
In October, 2018, Paulo Artaxo, a climate change researcher at the University of São Paulo told ScienceMag, “Bolsonaro is the worst thing that could happen for the environment.”
4. If The Fire Continues…….?
At a time, when climate change has become a major global concern, scientists believe that the fragile ecosystem of the world’s largest rainforest is at a tipping point, and it’s disappearance could lead to devastating consequences for the planet.
With a massive loss of vegetation, the amount of CO2 in the earth’s atmosphere will increase, as there will be less plants to absorb CO2 from the air for photosynthesis.
With CO2 being one of the major greenhouse gasses, this will inadvertently lead to a spike in global warming, along with irreversible changes to the earth’s climate
Additionally, burning of trees will release a considerable amount of carbon monoxide (CO) into the atmosphere and lower the supply of oxygen, which will degrade the quality of air for respiration by other living beings, including humans.
5. What Happens Now?
Currently, those affected the most by the current deforestation and wildfires are the indigenous people of the Amazon rainforest.
The Munduruku, one of the indigenous groups in the region, have put up a fierce battle against current and previous administrations to protect the fragile ecosystem that forms their habitat.
It would be up to these indigenous groups and the rest of the Brazilian population to take this matter up with the administration.
Meanwhile the ecological disaster is yet another reminder that we are living in the midst of a climate crisis with time running out.