The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
The Amazon Ignited
The Amazon is burning -- which is no longer breaking news. It still is, though, really important news.
The health of the Amazon's rain forest is vital for many reasons. There are big issues of carbon storage and climate change. The forest now being lost is home to indigenous cultures and countless species, all of which can exist only in intact forest areas. The rainforest is dangerously close to a tipping point where the entire region could, quite suddenly, be transformed into grassland.
All of those factors are complicated by the economic value of land and resources in the Amazon, which drives intentional deforestation and fires. This year's fires are a deeply political issue, because Brazil's new president has cut environmental laws and enforcement. That's why Brazil's fires were on the agenda at the recent meeting of G7 leaders.
Forest fires have been tragic events and big news in other parts of the world recently. But there is a difference about Brazil. As Robinson Meyer wrote in the Atlantic: "the Amazonian fires are not wildfires at all. These fires did not start by lightning strike or power line: They were ignited."
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Let's begin with some historical and geographic perspective, from two very different sources.
An article from the climate-denying Cornwall Alliance, downplaying the significance of this year's fires, did open my eyes to some surprising statistics. "US space agency NASA said that overall fire activity in the Amazon basin was slightly below average this year." But then came the essential twist: "while the fires have been below average for the entire Amazon, they have been above in the Brazilian part." Cornwall then ignores the significance of why some sections of the forest in Brazil are burning at very high levels.
A wonderfully detailed report from the BBC goes much deeper, with valuable charts, maps and discussions. It is true that there have been more fires in Brazil in 2019 than any year since 2010, but far less fires this year than through the 2001-2007 period.
Both the drop in burning from the peak years, and the rise again this year have to do with intentional polices of protecting -- or exploiting -- the forest. The BBC reports,
There had been a noticeable increase in large, intense, and persistent fires along major roads in the central Brazilian Amazon. ... The timing and location of the fires were more consistent with land clearing than with regional drought. ... Activists say the anti-environment rhetoric of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has encouraged such tree-clearing activities since he came into power in January.
The fires in Brazil are so important -- to that nation and to the world -- because they are the result of government policy and economic forces, both of which can be changed. Indeed, within the last couple of weeks, "in response to criticism at home and abroad, Mr Bolsonaro announced he was banning setting fires to clear land for 60 days."
Some of the fires which are set are small-scale, and are re-clearing land that has been used for agriculture. These are not terribly destructive. But the bulk of this year's burning is on a different scale.
Ranchers and farmers in Brazil, which happens to be the world's largest exporter of beef, set off about 80 percent of the fires to create pasture for cattle. Forest is also cleared to plant soybeans, largely used as feed for the cattle, and for mining operations.
The Guardian has a powerful and extensive report of the conflicting interests about land use in Brazil. There is a sharp divide between the forest dwelling indigenous people whose homeland is being devastated, and the many people who now benefit from the deforestation. In one of the heavily-burned areas, 72% of voters backed presidential candidate Bolsonaro, and his policies of opening the area to economic development.
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The loss of large tracts of rainforest is deadly for the multitude of species which have evolved to thrive in that setting. The Amazon is home to the largest diversity of mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles on the planet, most of them unique to the region. That diversity is irreplaceable. As The Atlantic noted:
If destroyed or degraded, the Amazon, as a system, is simply beyond humanity's ability to get back: Even if people were to replant half a continent's worth of trees, the diversity of creatures across Amazonia, once lost, will not be replenished for roughly 10 million years. And that is 33 times longer than Homo sapiens, as a species, has existed.
The scope of this year's fires presents a major risk for that loss of the rainforest. It doesn't take the cutting or burning of all the trees to destroy the ecology of the region. The Climate Reality Project gives a nice synopsis of how the deforestation of small areas leads to the collapse of the entire rainforest:
trees absorb water from the ground and release it into the air as water vapor. This process forms clouds that transport the water on to other parts of the rainforest -- essentially making the Amazon rainforest a self-sustaining system. ... This cycle carries more water throughout the forest than the Amazon River, which is the largest river in the world. ... we see that the more forest we burn and keep cleared, the less water is carried to the rest of the forest through transpiration, and the drier the entire ecosystem becomes. If deforestation continues, this loop of increasing dryness will create conditions favorable for an entirely different habitat: a savanna.
This feedback loop of drying and a shift to savanna could begin if as little as 20 to 25 percent of the forest is lost. According to the Brazilian government, about 17 percent of that land has been lost already. Just a little bit more clearing of the forest, and the transpiration cycle could be broken, leading to the loss of the entire rainforest.
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A global outcry about Brazilian policies has already brought some change, with Bolsonaro changing his rhetoric of exploitation, restoring bans on burning, and using troops to fight fires. Continued attention and action from around the world is essential in protecting the rainforest.
The economics of deforestation also reach beyond Brazil, and touch all of us. The cattle and soybeans that are raised on formerly forested land are exported, and most of us participate in the global markets which make deforestation profitable.
It is easy -- and accurate -- to point to Bolsonaro and corporations as reckless. But let's also be confessional in our own complicity in this global tragedy, and take a hard look at how our own lifestyles in a globalized world increase the spread of catastrophic deforestation.
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