Lentis/The Amazon Basin Fires of 2019
The Amazon Basin Fires of 2019
In 2019, the Amazon Rainforest received international attention as the yearly amount of forest fires saw an 85 percent increase from 2018.  While the rainforest burns every year, the recent spike in fires has led to concerns about their total ecological and societal impact, as the burning of the Amazon not only affects the people and species who live in the region, but also individuals around the world. Protecting and preserving the Amazon is a necessary undertaking for not only the South American governments, but also for those fighting the fires, those responsible for deforestation, and even people around the world. Without intervention, the Amazon region could become an entirely different ecosystem.
The Amazon River Basin and Deforestation
The Amazon River Basin is located in South America, primarily in Brazil, with smaller portions in Columbia, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Venezuela.  The Amazon is of incredible ecological importance, as 50 percent of the world’s remaining rainforest and the world’s largest population of biological resources are located in the region.  Forest fires have long populated the basin, but the recent spike in fires is largely a result of human deforestation and the climate during the Amazon’s dry season.
For many years, indigenous people were the primary human population in the Amazon rainforest. However, by the late 20th century, deforestation of the land for commercial use displaced many of these people. In the mid-20th century, the Brazilian government promoted construction of highways and transportation routes through the Amazon to access the land, primarily for the creation of cattle ranches and farms. While road infrastructure alone has a small impact on the amount of total deforestation, the resulting land use spurred mass deforestation throughout the Brazilian Amazon.  The entire Amazon rainforest covers an area of 2,300,000 square miles, and since 1978, more than 289,000 square miles of the rainforest have been cleared by deforestation.  While increased regulation, economic factors, and societal efforts incited a decline in deforestation in the mid-2000s, deforestation rates reached a high in 2019, with two times the amount of forest loss than its yearly low in 2012. 
Causes of the 2019 Fires
Slash and Burn Agriculture
The term slash and burn agriculture refers to the act of clearing forests and burning the resulting land to eliminate remaining vegetation. This process clears the land for alternative purposes, such as planting, as the fire rids the land of weeds and the ash helps with fertilization.  It also serves as a method to clear the land for industrial expansion and human settlement. These intentional fires often spread beyond the intended area to neighboring forests. As the forests collapse, they are more susceptible to fires because without tree coverage, the sun heats the dry trees and the forest floor. 
2019 Dry Season
Despite being a rainforest, the Amazon has a long dry season each year. This season has lengthened as deforestation has reduced the amount of moisture stored in rainforest vegetation, which typically triggers the wet season.  This occurs through a process called transpiration, in which moisture stored in a rainforest allows the rainforest to generate its own rain clouds. The 2019 rainfall in the Amazon was slightly below average.  This factor paired with the large spike in deforestation, prompted the Amazon fires of 2019.
South America Burning
It’s not just the Amazon Rain forest that is burning. Much of Brazil and surrounding countries, not in the Amazon boundaries, is burning. According to Global Forests Watch, a World Resources Institute sponsored organization, Brazil had seen more fires from January to August 2019 than any year since they began keeping track. This represents an 83% increase in forest fires as of mid-August. 
While the number of fires have decreased throughout September and October of 2019, the amount of damage already done poses significant environmental threat. The Amazon Basin fires of 2019 have had significant contributions to global warming and wildlife extinctions.
Double the CO2, Double the Impact of Greenhouse Gases
With any forest fire, the increase of greenhouse gases is dangerous. As global warming enters the forefront of international concern, the Amazon Basin Fires of 2019 are seen as major contributors to the effect of greenhouse gases.
Greenhouse gases, like CO2, allow solar radiation into the Earth’s atmosphere, but they prevent the escape of counter radiation back out of the atmosphere. This cycle causes a “greenhouse” effect; one where it’s as if a glass dome surrounds the earth, locking in the warmth and heating up the atmosphere.
The Amazon burning poses a double threat to greenhouse gases. As the fires burn, the trees release more CO2 into the atmosphere. At the same time, those exact trees that are intended to absorb excess CO2 from the atmosphere are being destroyed. This double effect presents nearly irreversible damage to the Amazon Basin that could take hundreds of years to repair.
Ten percent of the world’s wildlife live in the Amazon. This rich hub for diverse species is suffering because of the fires. Animals that reside in the Amazon trees and canopies are losing their habitat. Plants, food, and nutrients produced by trees are burning, causing many animals to be malnourished. In addition, some ground animals simply cannot escape the wildfires fast enough and thus, perish in the flames. Finally, even aquatic animals face danger as well, with ashes and sediment from the fires polluting the water in which they live.
With such significant damage done to the environment from these fires, government involvement is inevitable. As mentioned before, the fires were caused by humans. This destruction began when the new president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, was sworn into office in January 2019. Bolsonaro campaigned to reduce government regulation of Amazon deforestation in order to open it up for economic development. He pledged to increase access for industries to protected areas of the forest, claiming that “native communities are in control of unreasonably vast areas that contain enormous wealth.'' This resulted in a 20 percent decrease in enforcement actions for violations of burning and deforestation, thus encouraging farmers and loggers to participate in this slash and burn agriculture for more profit.
Opposition to Bolsonaro
As the Amazon fires continued to spread, opposition to President Bolsonaro grew. A poll released by the Brazilian Institute of Public Opinion and Statistics (know as IBOPE) in mid-August revealed that 96% of people interviewed believed Bolsonaro should be doing more to prevent the illegal practices in the Amazon causing the fires. Even some of his own allies showed opposition; a letter condemning the weakening of environmental regulations was issued by Brazillian former ministers in May 2019. Bolsonaro did respond to the fires and opposition by reversing his approach, saying that the Brazillian government will not take a “zero tolerance approach” to environmental crimes to protect the future of the Amazon.
A threat to the Amazon is a threat to the world. As the threat became obvious, French President Emmanuel Macron drew attention to the fires at the 2019 G7 summit. Macron later announced $20 million in funding to combat the Amazon fires. Bolsonaro was infuriated by this and initially refused to accept the funding, claiming that Macron “disguised his intentions behind the idea of an ‘alliance’ of G-7 countries to ‘save’ the Amazon, as if we were a colony or a no-man’s land.”
Media Coverage and Social Impact
Controversy Over Media Coverage
The media coverage of the Amazon rainforest fires caused controversy in the United States and globally with many feeling that the fire did not receive a fair amount of coverage relative to its large-scale consequences. A Media watchdog organization, Media Matters for America, found that the Amazon rainforest fires received 93% less coverage while burning than did the fire at the Notre Dame Cathedral, also in 2019. 
People upset with the media’s lack of coverage took to social media to spread information about the fires, using the viral hashtag #PrayForAmazonia.  Some cited the difference in responses to the Amazon fires and Notre Dame fire as a symbol of humanity’s indifference to environmental disorder.
Indigenous People of the Amazon
In discussing the social impact of the Amazon fires, one must look at the most impacted group – the Indigenous People of the Amazon. There are 896,917 indigenous persons in Brazil distributed among 305 ethnic groups. 13.8% of the land in Brazil has been reserved for indigenous people and the majority of these territories are concentrated in the Amazon. 
Research shows that Indigenous people are the most important agents of environmental protection in the forest. Historically, Indigenous lands have some of the lowest deforestation levels among conservation units in Brazil. These reserves are described as “green islands amid clear-cut ranchlands and industrial farms.” 
In past decades, Brazil’s indigenous-affairs agency, FUNAI, has helped protect reserves from developers. But President Jair Bolsonaro, through numerous executive orders, has left the agency disenfranchised and powerless. 
In November of 2019, a ‘Guardian of the Amazon,’ Paulo Paulino Guajajara was ambushed and killed by loggers in his own reserve. Guajajara spent his life trying to fight the invasion of his reserve by illegal loggers, miners and land grabbers with little protection by the Brazilian government.  His death comes as the Missionary Council warns that the number of invasions of Indigenous lands is rising.
The Future of the Amazon
As in other cases of environmental justice, in the case of the Amazon rainforest fires, it is the most vulnerable group, the Indigenous people of Brazil, that bear the brunt of the environmental destruction. Recognizing this, many organizations fighting to protect the Amazon, including the Amazon Watch, the Amazon Conservation Team and the Rainforest Trust, have the protection of Indigenous rights as a key mission. This demonstrates their belief that the goals of Amazon protection and Indigenous rights are mutually exclusive.
The Amazon is a model example of the complex and widespread tradeoffs being made between economic growth and environmental protection across the world. Above all, it will take a huge movement away from deforestation, supported by the Brazilian government and its citizens, to protect the future of the Amazon.
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