What an Indian environmentalist in Brazil has to say on the Amazon fires

Kerala-born environmental scientist Shaji Thomas, who has been working in the Amazon for the past 25 years, shares his thoughts on the infernos in the rainforest

By Shaji Thomas
Published: Friday 30 August 2019
Fire in the Amazon. Photo: Getty Images

What is happening in the Amazon? This question is being asked of me by many friends in India.

This year (2019), we (Brazil) elected a new president who represents military and extreme right groups. In 1964, the military government had wanted to “occupy” the Amazon ignoring that it had been inhabited by the indigenous and tribal communities.

Between that government and the recent one, many large hydro-electric and mining projects were put up in the heart of the forest. The agro-business and wood industries, supported by public funding, caused large-scale deforestation in the region. Small- and large-scale gold mining contaminated the Amazon river with mercury.

However, civil society and non-profits were still keeping some sort of tab on the actions of the government.

This year though, the new government brought in a new agenda that was totally in favour of agro-business and one that radically reduced the monitoring of the Amazon.

Besides cutting down on the expenditure for monitoring systems and personnel, the Brazilian president is giving incentives to the environmental department to not fine  illegal actions committed by landlords and traders in the Amazon region.

This year, the rate of land clearance has reached one-and-a-half football fields a minute and the total amount of the damage done to the forest is an incomprehensible mystery to most. For me, this destruction is irreversible.

The more the forest is cleared, the less moisture is held beneath its canopy, and the drier the land gets, the more is the chance of turning the whole area into a desert. The drier the land gets, the more susceptible it is to fire and more forest will be destroyed.

Brazil is facing a fundamental change in its ecological system and its biodiversity. The Amazon is extremely fundamental for the water system all over the continent. Huge tracts of the Amazon are ablaze.

The Brazilian Amazon has experienced 74,155 fires since January, according to data from Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, known by the acronym INPE.

That’s an 85 per cent increase from last year and significantly higher than the 67,790 blazes since this point in the year during 2016, when there were severe drought conditions in the region due to a strong El Nino.

One must remember that the fire season (dry season) in the Amazon is from September to December.

The ‘Day of Fire’

Most of the recent Amazon fires are human-made and have been widespread. In the state of Para, where I live, for example, a wildfire surge occurred last week that was linked to a call by farmers for a “day of fire”, namely August 10.

The federal police have identified more than 80 people linked with traders and landlords who organised the day of fire. INPE, using satellite-based sensors and other instruments to locate fires and track the amount of acreage burned, recorded hundreds of fires in the state as farmers cleared land for agriculture and also burned intact areas of rainforest for further development.

Cleared rainforests in this region are typically used for cattle farming and growing soybeans, and much of the land-clearing is done illegally.

According to recent studies, the Amazon, which spans 2.12 million square miles, sucks up about a quarter of the 2.4 billion metric tonnes of carbon that global forests absorb each year.

However, the ability of the rainforest to pull in more carbon than it releases is diminishing. The ongoing fires will further degrade its function as a carbon sink and this ecological change is irreversible.

I feel that it is not just the Amazon that is burning. It is the lungs of the world that are being destroyed. It is more a political decision than a natural phenomenon. The world is worried, but the Brazilian government is not that bothered.

This week, the Brazilian president rejected almost $30 million offered by the European Union to curb the fire. But at the same time, the President has accepted help from the United States and Israel. There is a lot of political play in this whole issue.

It is very clear that we are in a process of losing the Amazon rainforest forever. The fire is not only in Brazil but is engulfing the whole Amazon forest in other South American countries.

It all boils down to a lack of dedication to environmental causes and the poor governing capacity of the national government. As a scientist and researcher, I feel very sorry for what is happening, especially for local people, who are suffering the immediate consequence of this human-made disaster.

What we can do? It is important that the world puts pressure on the Brazilian government and we must consider that the Amazon is not just a local issue but a global one.  

(Shaji Thomas is an Indian environmental scientist and social activist, who has been working in the Amazon for more than 25 years)

(Views expressed are the author's own and don't necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth)

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