On September 18th, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro was on his way to a state event in the state of Mato Grosso when the plane he was on was forced to abort a first attempt at landing. The reason was the smoke caused by fires in the region, which had reduced too much visibility for the pilot. Bolsonaro managed to land in a second attempt some time later, but in his speech that very same day, he repeated his usual narrative that the critics for his handling of the wildfires in Brazil are unfair and come from commercial rivals and unpatriotic NGOs that want to attack the country’s agriculture exports.
President Jair Bolsonaro’s plane was forced to abort a first attempt to land in on Friday due to smoke and haze from forest fires ravaging Brazil’s Pantanal region https://t.co/x2xxrnN525
— Bloomberg (@business) September 18, 2020
To honor this sequence of events, 350 América Latina on Twitter quoted the beloved 90s hit song by Alanis Morrissette: Ironic.
— 350 América Latina (@350AmLatina) September 18, 2020
Even though this episode made us marvel at the ironies in life, the fact is that Bolsonaro’s denial to properly address the fires in Brazil has led to devastating environmental and social consequences – which is a major source of concern for us at 350.org.
And it’s not only us. Well-known politicians such as Joe Biden, and global celebrities such as Leonardo DiCaprio, have recently expressed their concern about the fires in South America, and we the rest of the world should be concerned, given that its impacts will affect the entire planet to some extent.
Here is why this is so important:
What is happening and why?
1) This is a crisis.
For several weeks already, there has been a very serious problem of uncontrolled wildfires in Brazil, despite the Brazilian government’s efforts to deny and/or minimise it.
Practically all the biomes in Brazil are affected by the fires to different degrees, with the most dramatic situations in Pantanal, one of the largest wetland areas in the world, and in the Amazon, the largest rainforest on earth.
In Pantanal, the number of fires this year tripled when compared to 2019’s records of the same period. It’s the worst scenario ever since monitoring began in 1998. About 22% of the entire biome, which is larger than Greece, has already burned this year, and the fires go on.
In the Brazilian Amazon, almost 30,000 fires were detected in August, the second-highest number in a decade and only slightly less than last year’s figure, which was the highest in a decade.
2) This crisis is not an accident.
A result of human interference: Unlike the Californian savannahs or the Australian outback, the regions in Brazil where wildfires have the most destructive impacts this year are humid. Wildfires do not occur naturally very often in these areas and certainly not on such a scale. They are almost always started by human action and, in the case of Pantanal, can only propagate because of the unusual drought affecting it. This biome is experiencing one of the worst droughts in almost 50 years, an extreme event that could be connected to climate change and that may become more frequent.
In the Amazon, deforestation and burning cause even more fires to spread because, when parts of the forest are cut or burnt and what remains is basically pasture, the microclimate in that area becomes much warmer. Also, the adjacent parts of the forest lose the natural protection that the humid vegetation would provide. It is a nefarious cycle: the more of the Amazon is deforested, the more vulnerable the standing forest becomes.
Driven by finance: On July 15, Brazil announced a 120-day ban on fires in the Amazon rainforest. However, a NASA-led fire analysis indicated that there has still been a rapid growth of fires in some states. And they are not linked to traditional land practices by Indigenous Peoples or poor families, as Bolsonaro falsely claimed in his speech at the UN General Assembly.
“We are also finding that large numbers of the fires in those states are clearly deforestation—not small-scale agricultural fires”, said Douglas Morton, chief of the Biospheric Sciences Laboratory at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
The Brazilian press has also brought to light several stories connecting the fires with deforestation in medium and large properties, as well as in lands owned by the government itself. Ane Alencar, Science Director of the NGO Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM, in Portuguese), has been using satellite imagery to verify how fires and deforestation in the Amazon progress. According to her research, there are two financial motivators behind the fires in 2020:
1. In the case of government-owned lands, invaders cut the forest and burn it to clear the space and sell that land to others, as if it were their own, for agricultural or ranching activity. This is called land-grabbing or ‘real estate speculative deforestation’.
2. In the case of private properties, fires are used to clear a recently deforested area and open space for economic activity, and sometimes get out of control. This is done mostly in large properties and by landowners who have enough money to hire or buy the expensive machinery necessary for clearing vast spaces of the tropical forest before burning them. A family with an axe simply would not be physically able to bring down so many trees in such a small time.
Made worse by poor policies: Given that Brazil has strong legislation for the protection of its forests and has established a fire-ban, fires in the Amazon and in Pantanal can only spread this much because of the Brazilian government’s lack of capacity to enforce the law.
This lack of capacity was worsened by the dismantling of the government environmental institutions by Bolsonaro and his team. There are many examples of the current government’s disregard for the environment, but to highlight just one: even with the unprecedented scale of fires in Pantanal, the government spent only ⅓ so far of its budget to prevent, fight and investigate fires.
In addition to that, the frequent messages from Bolsonaro and his ministers that deforestation and human-made fires will be tolerated, as well as the fake news the president spreads about the source of the fires, contribute to aggravating the problem, according to most researchers.
How the fires in the Amazon and Pantanal affect not only Brazil but the entire world
Consequences to Brazil are threefold:
a) Rural communities and Indigenous Peoples
A Human Rights Watch report from August 2020 titled The Air is Unbearable tells us that 2,195 hospitalisations due to respiratory illness in Brazil are attributable to the 2019 fires.
Among the affected people were 500 babies and 1,000 elderly people. The report mentions that this is just a small fraction of the real impact of the fires on people’s health, since many rural and small town inhabitants live too far from medical facilities and are unreported.
Indigenous peoples, including isolated tribes with almost no outside contact, are often the most affected. Besides the poor quality of air, their sources of food and shelter are burnt in a devastating display of environmental injustice and environmental racism.
One of the most active Indigenous organisations in Brazil, APIB, recently made a global splash with a campaign asking companies and governments to pressure the Brazilian government to solve this problem. In response, instead of acting to protect Indigenous peoples and lands, Bolsonaro’s ministers condemned the campaign as a crime against national interests.
The number of animals killed by the fires in 2020 in Brazil is hard to estimate but researchers and journalists who visited the affected areas call them ‘large open-air cemeteries‘. Most animals simply can’t escape the fires fast enough and end up carbonized. Heartbreaking images have been exhaustively published in the Brazilian media, including the photos from photographer Lalo de Almeida, such as the one below.
c) The economy
The Brazilian government’s inaction (or even complicity) in face of the fires motivated heated debates in Europe and in Brazil about the possibility that the European Union could cancel a huge trade agreement between the EU and the Mercosur (the trade zone between Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Venezuela). The negotiation of this deal took 20 years and was announced in 2019. The governments of France and Germany are under pressure from companies and NGOs in Europe that claim the agreement might flood the European market with agricultural products produced in recently deforested areas, such as beef and soy.
The cancellation would present a blow to the hopes that an increase in commerce with Europe would help Brazil recover from at least five years of slow growth or recession, aggravated by the Covid-19 pandemic.
In the long term, fires in the Amazon harm Brazil’s possibility to explore all the products and services that this biome may offer to industries such as tourism, chemistry, medicine, cosmetics and food. Not to mention that burning leads to long-term harm to the most obvious economic activities, such as agriculture.
Consequences to the whole world
“For the last month, a single massive wildfire has burned in the Amazon understory, claiming as much of 24,994 hectares (61,762 acres) of pristine rainforest in an area sandwiched between the Jamanxim National Forest and the Baú Indigenous Territory in Pará state, Brazil — both of which are protected areas long subjected to invasions by land grabbers who regularly use fire as a tool to clear and steal public land.
Just this one fire will send almost 3 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere over the coming years as the charred trees die off and decompose, according to new data from a recently launched NASA Amazon fire tool. That’s the equivalent in emissions of 700,000 cars driven for one year.”
This explains how wildfires affect everyone on the planet. When parts of a tropical biome such as the Amazon are lost, humankind loses biodiversity, rain patterns in large areas are disrupted and we all move one step closer towards climate disaster.
In contrast to the global fall in emissions registered in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Brazil may close this year with an increase in its national emissions because of the surge of fires and deforestation in Pantanal, the Amazon and other biomes.
On top of that, the Amazon may be dangerously approaching an irreversible tipping point of degradation. Scientists disagree about how close we are to this catastrophic event but most researchers believe that, if deforestation and fires continue to destroy large swaths of the biome, there might be a point at which the Amazon would stop producing enough rain to sustain itself and degrade into a savannah. This would release billions of tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere, as this article from the British newspaper The Guardian puts.
Saving the Amazon rainforest is key to ensure the climate crisis will not evolve to its worst scenarios.
What can you do?
Here are three simple, free things you can do right now to support the Indigenous Peoples in the Amazon and in Pantanal
1. Keep up with the news – Continue to read articles and watch videos from media outlets you trust
2. Spread the word – Follow and support Indigenous organizations from Brazil on social media, such as Brazil’s Indigenous People Articulation (APIB) and the Coalition of the Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon (COIAB).
3. Join our campaigns – Subscribe to 350.org newsletters and join our campaigns to protect the Amazon from the fossil fuel industry and other threats.