It would have been normal to assume that the Amazon was ablaze due to the increased hot temperatures this summer, but here’s the thing: the Amazon is a rainforest; dry weather, wind, and heat, cannot possibly cause result in such great fires in the forest’s tropical ecosystem.
Experts say that most of the area burned so far has been a result of “slash-and-burn” techniques to provide land for agriculture, or for pastures of cattle. After all, Brazil is the world’s top exporter of beef, according to the US Department of Agriculture. “There is no doubt that this rise in fire activity is associated with a sharp rise in deforestation,” Paulo Artaxo, an atmospheric physicist at the University of São Paulo, told Science Magazine.
The Amazon forest is responsible for around 20% of the world’s oxygen, and is often called “the planet’s lungs.” According to the World Wildlife Fund, if the forest is permanently damaged, it could start emitting carbon instead. The trees and plants ablaze would release billions of tons of carbon stored in them for decades, resulting in a point where the surviving trees would not be enough to soak in the carbon already present in our atmosphere.
While the main dry season is said to hit this month, in September, the fires already started taking their toll when the sky turned dark in São Paulo on August 20th during the day because of the smoke. The air pollution has started making it difficult to breathe, and Brazil has already exhibited sharp increased mortality rates directly proportional to the amount of soot in the air. To make matters worse, animals are far more sensitive to such fires, and one in ten species of animals on Earth are being affected.
The Brazilian President, Jair Bolsonaro, has been heavily criticized on his new policies on deforestation in the Amazon. In August, he fired the director of the National Institute for Space Research when data was released showing the sharp uptick in deforestation that’s taken place since Bolsonaro took office.
After weeks of international and internal pressure, Bolsonaro deployed the military to help battle the fires on August 24, sending 44,000 troops to six states. Warplanes were also reported at the scene trying to extinguish the flames. These methods, along with any others, are highly costly and require more time than we currently have. WUR’s Cathelijne Stoof says: “Fighting the fires is of course important now,” she says. “For the longer term, it is way more important to focus on deforestation.”