190823 amazon jungle fire
Image Credit: Reuters

Thousands of fires are burning in Brazil, many of them in the Amazon rainforest, which is pumping alarming quantities of carbon into the world’s atmosphere.

What is the Amazon rain forest?

Amazon Rainforest
Aerial view of the Amazon rainforest, near Manaus Image Credit: Wikimedia

Just in case you didn’t know what one of the world’s biggest ecosystems is, here is a brief explainer.

The Amazon rain forest is the world’s largest tropical rainforest, famous for a massive biodiversity of animals, plant life and insects. It’s intersected by literally over a thousand rivers, including the largest river in the world, the Amazon River.

Where is it located?

Map of the Amazon Forest
A Google map screenshot of the Amazon Forest Image Credit: Google Maps

In South America, across nine countries. The majority of the forest is located within the Brazilian boarders, followed by Peru and Colombia, with minor amounts in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana

How big is the rainforest?

The Amazon Rainforest is 5.5 million km²

How much oxygen does the Amazon produce?

Jonathan Foley, the former director of the California Academy of Sciences and founder of Project Drawdown, a research group focusing on climate change, tweeted that he estimates it’s only possible for the Amazon itself to produce 6 per cent of the world’s oxygen. So although the burning of the rainforest is worrying for many reasons, there is no need to worry about an oxygen shortage.

Read his twitter thread when you have the chance

What exactly is happening in the Amazon?

Amazon Forest
A satellite image shows smoke rising from Amazon forest fires in Rondônia state, Brazil Image Credit: REUTERS

Allegedly humans are setting deliberate fires to the Amazon Rainforest. Paulo Moutinho, co-founder of the Amazon Environmental Research Institute, said this week, “It is very difficult to have natural fires in the Amazon. It happens but the majority come from the hand of humans."

Why are people setting these fires?

Allegedly, these fires are being started with the aim of deforestation, so the land can be used for business purposes. Moutinho, who has been working in the Amazon forests for nearly 30 years, said fires are mostly set to clear land for farming, ranching or logging, and they can easily get out of control, especially during the July-November dry season. Brazil’s National Space Research Institute, which monitors deforestation, has recorded 40,341 wildfires across the Amazon this year, as of Thursday. That’s 40,341 fires in less than five days. That’s an 85 per cent rise over last year’s figure.

How bad are the fires?

According to preliminary satellite data from Brazil’s space agency, trees were being cleared at the rate of five football pitches every minute.

Why is the Amazon rainforest so important?

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A tract of Amazon jungle burns as it is being cleared by loggers and farmers in Novo Airao, Amazonas state, Brazil Image Credit: Reuters

This particular rainforest is often called the “lungs of the earth,” and 60 per cent of it lies within Brazil.

Trees store carbon absorbed from the atmosphere, and the Amazon each year takes in as much as 2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide — a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. So basically all these trees, take the toxins in the air and convert them to clean oxygen so we can breathe properly.

The Amazon’s billions of trees also release water vapour that forms a thick mist over the rainforest canopy. It rises into clouds and produces rain, affecting weather patterns across South America and far beyond. You need a lot of trees in order to create rain. Without enough trees, the longer and more pronounced dry season could be and then the forest will eventually turn into a savannah.

If the rainfall cycle collapses, winter droughts in parts of Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Argentina could devastate agriculture.

Who is responsible?

Technically, because Brazil is home to the largest portion of the forest, it’s mainly up to them to acknowledge and fix the problem.

Brazillian President Jair Bolsonaro took office on January 1. One of his campaign promises to loosen protections for indigenous lands and nature reserves, so that more businesses can use the land and help the struggling economy with major agricultural and mining sectors.

He has also expressed a desire to protect the environment, “but without creating difficulties for our progress.”

Bolsonaro has also feuded with non-governmental groups and foreign governments, including Germany and France, which have demanded Brazil do more to protect the Amazon. Bolsonaro calls it “meddling by people who should improve the environment in their own countries”. This week he even suggested, without evidence, that a non-governmental organisation or activists could be setting fires to make him look bad.

However, on Friday he mobilised the armed forces to help contain blazes.

How much of the forest is burned?

A tract of Amazon jungle is seen burning as it is being cleared by loggers and farmers in Iranduba, Image Credit: Reuters

There aren’t any exact figures for the areas burnt, but deforestation as a whole has accelerated in the Amazon this year. The figures show that 9,250 square km of forest were lost between January 1 and August 1.

Should I be concerned?

You should be extremely concerned. The fires are set illegally and they are degrading the world’s carbon converter and the most important home for biodiversity in the world. They also contribute to a more important trend, which is an alarming rise in deforestation. Scientists say the Amazon is approaching a tipping point, after which it will irreversibly degrade into a dry savannah.

What is the outside world doing?

The UN secretary general and many world leaders and celebrities have expressed concern. The Amazon will be high on the agenda for G7 leaders at a summit in France this weekend. They are likely to make a strong statement condemning the recent increase in deforestation and urge Brazil to restore the Amazon protections that previously made the country a global environmental leader.

What can I do as a normal person?

The most important actions are political and collective. But here in the UAE, you can donate to organisations that support the forest including Amazon Watch, WWF, Greenpeace, Imazon, International Rivers and Friends of the Earth.

As a consumer, think twice before buying Brazilian beef or other products unless certified by groups such as Rainforest Alliance.

Final thought

At a time when the world needs billions more trees to absorb the carbon that we continue to emit on a daily basis, the planet is losing its biggest rainforest.

-With inputs from agencies