The Brazilian Amazon is burning. According to the National Institute for Space Research (Inpe) in Brazil, which monitors deforestation using satellites from space, recent data suggest there has been an 84% uptick in the rate of deforestation since the same period of 2018.
I’m just going to let that sink in. Eighty-four percent! More fires! Visible from space!
This also happens to be the same period of time during which Jair Bolsonaro, a climate change denier who is unsympathetic to rainforest preservation efforts, took over as president of Brazil, which is home to 60% of the Amazon rainforest.
At a time when scientific consensus is that we are fast approaching not one but four climate "tipping points" — when damage wrought on the environment by human behavior becomes irreversible — the Brazilian government is not only allowing this to happen, but is using it as a political point-scoring exercise to further entrench its position both domestically and internationally.
Despite efforts from global activists, NGOs and, more recently, celebrities such as Ariana Grande and Demi Lovato to raise awareness, global media coverage of this environmental disaster has been gravely deficient.
How did this all start?
Rainforest fires are nothing new, but Brazil’s president is. Bolsonaro, a right-wing populist, is Brazil’s answer to Donald Trump. He took over as president in January of this year. An outspoken climate change denier who has labelled efforts to mitigate global environmental degradation a "Marxist plot", Bolsonaro has encouraged logging and deforestation in the Amazon in the name of economic development, and scientists have reported an increase in forest fires since he took office. According to recent reports by the BBC, a football pitch-sized area of the Amazon forest is lost every minute.
Why haven’t I heard about it?
Excellent question. We all heard about the Notre Dame fire, right? Global media alerts brought the fire to the world’s attention within minutes of it being detected. And despite the fact that damage to the building was deemed merely superficial and no fatalities were recorded, within two days, celebrities and billionaires, including French fashion house, Dior, had donated $1bn towards restoration efforts.
These fires in the Amazon have been burning for three weeks and only now are they starting to attract the attention of mainstream media organisations. Why? Because media reporting on environmental disasters globally is woefully inadequate, and because those in positions of power, such as Bolsonaro, have been quick to deny the impact or scale of the fires, excusing them as normal for this time of the year. In fact, Bolsonaro went as far as to sack the head of Inpe in a dispute over the data, and accused local NGOs (with no evidence) of starting the fires in an effort to discredit his administration.
Alberto Setzer, a researcher for Inpe, was quick to dispute this claim though, and said that "the dry season creates favorable conditions for the use and spread of fire, but starting a fire is the work of humans, either deliberately or by accident."
What does it mean for us?
The Amazon is the world’s largest rainforest and represents 40% of the global total. In Brazil alone, it is home to over 3 million species of plants and animals, along with 1 million indigenous people. It is a vital global carbon store that serves as a buffer against climate change by flushing harmful toxins from the atmosphere and replenishing it with clean oxygen. In other words, rainforests are vital to the survival of the planet. So yeah, it’s pretty serious.
Is it just Brazil?
Unfortunately not. Brazil is receiving the brunt of the media attention, because it is home to around 60% of the rainforest. However, forest fires in the neighbouring countries of Paraguay, Bolivia and Peru are also at a serious level, largely due to policy inaction and mismanagement by the respective governments in those countries.
How has the international community responded?
International outcry pushed both Norway and Germany to cease donations to Brazil’s Amazon fund, amounting to a combined total of $72.27 million. The European Union is also under increased pressure to block a trade deal with Mercosur (the Southern Cone’s regional trade bloc) which would allow favorable access to the market, therefore boosting Brazil’s economy. International NGOs, such as WWF, are also lobbying for international governments to take urgent action.
What’s happening online?
Outcry has broken out on Twitter and other social media, with the hashtag #PrayforAmazonia going viral. This increased following a tweet from Shannon Sims, a journalist for the New York Times, who shared a picture of a blackout in São Paolo that meteorologists believe was caused by smoke from the fires happening thousands of kilometres away.
How can I help?
Donating to the Amazon Frontline charity is a good place to start. Other charities such as Vivienne Westwood’s Cool Earth offer an "eco tax" service where you can donate 1-5% of your paycheque to support charities that are working to mitigate climate disaster.
Longer term, reducing consumption of beef is a good way to lower the industry demand that drives mass deforestation in Brazil (and therefore government support of it).
And use your voice to shout about it! Knowledge is power, and the more people that know about this, the better.