Amazon Ablaze: What's Going on in the World's Largest Rain Forest?

The world’s largest tropical rain forest, the Amazon, has seen a devastating rise in man-made fires since January. Most of these fires are being legally set by farmers as a precursor to planting, as the dry season in the Amazon, in which fires could be set to prepare the land, runs from April to September. However, many are being started illegally by land grabbers, expanding their lands by clearing protected areas of the rain forest for profit. A significant portion of the fires is in savanna areas of the Amazon, where tree coverage is scarcer. The fires are now threatening the region’s more biodiverse sections, which not only are home to around 40,000 plant species and 430 types of mammals, but also absorb about two billion tons of carbon dioxide per year (roughly five percent of the planet’s total annual emissions). With the increasing threat that climate change poses to the Earth and future generations, it’s pivotal to critically and holistically assess the environmental crisis currently affecting the Amazon, and what it means in the grand scheme of our future.

The Amazon extends across Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Suriname, Guyana, and French Guiana; but Brazil accounts for about 60 percent of the total region. The data presented in this article and in most media coverage of the Amazon fires refer to Brazil’s portion. The Brazilian space agency reports that there have been 43,421 fires from January through August, a 57 percent jump from the average number (27,665) occurring in those months over the past five years. It also reports that from January to July alone, about 4,700 kilometers of rain forest were cleared, 67 percent more than last year. Scientists estimate that about 18 percent of the original forest is gone, and warn that it can’t lose too much more cover before drying out and becoming a savanna. The Amazon recycles moisture from nearby oceans which then evaporates into the air, causing rainfall. Therefore, if it loses too much tree coverage, dry periods will last longer and the forest will be more prone to wildfires, which could produce even more devastating deforestation. 

The city of São Paulo was covered in smoke on August 21 as blackened skies darkened the city two hours earlier than usual, and researchers said the forest fires more than 2,000 miles away were partly to blame. Hospitals in Amazonian cities have reported an increase in respiratory problems as well. Outraged Brazilian citizens posted photos on social media of the skies and neighboring fires, and celebrities and the media were quick to pick up the story. Norway and Germany have halted their aid to the Amazon Fund due to increasing tension between Brazil and the European Union due to the fires and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s budget cuts to IBAMA, the government’s environmental protection and natural resources agency.

Climate change activists and other citizens were in disbelief at the initial lack of coverage of the fires. And the media’s later awakening seemed to involve mostly the political implications of Bolsonaro’s environmental policies rather than a more complete reporting of the situation and its history.

President Bolsonaro took office last January, ending the Workers’ Party’s 13-year governance from 2003 to 2016 (a successor to the impeached Workers’ Party president held office from 2018 to 2019). He has championed controversial right-wing policies and has been called “the Trump of the Tropics” by the media in the United States. They are in no way favorable toward a Latin American Trump, and that may help to explain the amount of inaccurate and biased reporting on the Amazon fires this year in the U.S. media, including numerous reports with false and incomplete data and photographs of fires from years ago, in many instances not even fires in the Amazon. For comparison, in 2010, during the last year of leftist President Lula da Silva’s 8-year term, researchers reported a 261 percent increase in the number of fires year-on-year to a peak of 109,940 fires. The media coverage of those fires was scarce, as most Brazilians and much of international opinion favored Lula’s presidency. 

Bolsonaro should be held accountable for lack of action against illegal loggers, budget cuts to environmental agencies protecting the Amazon, and his government’s general encouragement of expanding economic activity in the Amazon to improve the country’s economy. While a portion of the Amazon can (and arguably should) be used to promote economic activity in the region’s cities, which are among the poorest in Brazil, this should be done in an amount which still allows the rain forest to regrow at a natural rate. However, the media and readers or viewers have a responsibility to report data accurately and to propose solutions that would combat the forest fire crisis, rather than focus on the demonization of a disliked political figure.