Why Amazon fires are worrying

Amazon Rainforests, its importance and the recent forest fires- a cause of concern for global community.

More in news:

  • Thousands of fires are ravaging the Amazon rainforest in Brazil – the most intense blazes for almost a decade.
  • Brazil declared a state of emergency over the rising number of fires in the region. So far this year, almost 73,000 fires have been detected by Brazil’s space research center.

Amazon Rainforest:

  • The Amazon rainforest is a moist broadleaf tropical rainforest in the Amazon biome that covers most of the Amazon basin of South America.
  • The majority of the forest is contained within Brazil, with 60% of the rainforest, followed by Peru with 13%, Colombia with 10%, and with minor amounts in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Guyana, Suriname and France (French Guiana).
  • The Amazon rainforest stretches across 5.5 million square kilometers, an area far larger than the EU.

Importance of the Amazon forests for the global community:

  • The enormous Amazon River, with all its tributaries, contains 20 per cent of the world’s flowing freshwater.
  • The Amazon rain forests are the lungs of our planet which produces 20% of our oxygen.
  • Precipitation: Through transpiration, the Amazon rainforest is responsible for creating 50-75 percent of its own precipitation. But its impact extends well beyond the Amazon Basin, with Amazon rainfall and rivers feeding regions that generate 70 percent of South America’s GDP. Models indicate that moisture from the Amazon influences rainfall as far away as the Western United States and Central America.
  • Carbon storage: The 390 billion trees across the Amazon rainforest locks up massive amounts of carbon in their leaves, branches, and trunks. A 2007 study published in Global Change Biology estimated the forest stores some 86 billion tons of carbon or more than a third of all carbon stored by tropical forests worldwide.
  • Biodiversity: Though the Amazon covers only four per cent of the earth’s surface, the Amazon is home to more species of plants and animals than any other terrestrial ecosystem on the planet, perhaps 30 percent of the world’s species are found there. Besides their intrinsic value as living organisms, these species have potential value to humans in the form of medicine, food, and other products.
  • Local benefits: Within the Amazon Basin, tens of millions of people depend on services afforded by the forest. Rivers are the main vectors for transportation, while logging and collection of non-timber forest products are major industries in many cities, towns, and villages. The rainforest helps suppress but not completely eliminate the risk of fire, in addition to reducing air pollution. Fish in Amazon tributaries are a huge source of protein in the region. Annual floods replenish nutrients in floodplain areas used for agriculture.

What caused the fire?

  • While the Amazon rainforest is typically wet and humid, July and August are the onset of the dry season (the region’s driest months). Fire is often used to clear out the land for farming or ranching. For that reason, a vast majority of the fires can be attributed to humans.
  • According to Brazil’s space research center (INPE), the country has seen an 80% increase in fires this year, compared with the same period last year. According to INPE, more than half were in the Amazon region, spelling disaster for the local environment and ecology and 99% percent of the fires result from human actions “either on purpose or by accident”.

What environmental protection do Brazil’s law provide, and what are the changes recently made?

  • Under Brazil’s Forest Code of 1965, farmers could purchase Amazon land but could farm only 20% of it.
  • Following the collapse of the military dictatorship in 1988, a new constitution gave indigenous populations legal ownership of their land and the right to reject development of their land.
  • In 2012, the Forest Code was revised to reduce the area of deforested land required to be restored, and to reduce penalties for illegal deforesting.  In 2018, Brazil’s Supreme Court upheld these changes.
  • Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro had promised in his election campaign that the Amazon region would be opened for the business. He even opposed protections for indigenous tribal land.

Way forward:

  • The growing numbers of fires are the result of illegal forest clearing to create land for farming. Fires are set deliberately and spread easily in the dry season. The desire for new land for cattle farming has been the main driver of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon since the 1970s.
  • The devastating loss of biodiversity does not just affect Brazil. The loss of Amazonian vegetation directly reduces rain across South America and other regions of the world. The planet is losing an important carbon sink, and the fires are directly injecting carbon into the atmosphere. If we can’t stop deforestation in the Amazon, and the associated fires, it raises real questions about our ability to reach the Paris Agreement to slow climate change.
  • The Brazilian government has set an ambitious target to stop illegal deforestation and restore 4.8 million hectares of degraded Amazonian land by 2030. If these goals are not carefully addressed now, it may not be possible to meaningfully mitigate climate change.

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