The international community was rocked last week as news spread that the Amazon rainforest has been burning for weeks. Although the destruction of the Amazon is worthy of global uproar, it needs to be made clear that there is nothing natural about this disaster. The National Institute for Space Research states that “while drought can be a factor in rainforest fires…there is nothing abnormal about the climate or rainfall amounts in the Amazon this year” (1). These fires do, however, represent a disaster: “an event that causes great damage or loss of life”. This week, we are exploring the Amazon rainforest fires in order to understand its causes so that we can be part of the solution.
What is happening?
The Amazon rainforest has been nicknamed the “lungs of our earth” as it is the largest tropical forest in the world and is estimated to produce roughly 20 percent of earth’s oxygen (2). The Amazon covers eight countries, but more than half is found within the borders of Brazil (3).
Due to recent reports, communities from around the world have jumped to its defense upon learning that roughly 74,000 fires have been recorded within it, the highest number since records began in 2013 (4).
What is causing the fires?
1. Farming practice: “slash-and-burn”
Slash-and-burn agricultural practice is characterized by alternating the land between using if for farming and leaving it fallow (unused). At the end of the fallow phase, secondary vegetation that has grown over this fallow period, is cut and set on fire. The practice is favoured by many groups around the world as the ashes from the burned vegetation naturally revitalize the soil for a new agricultural phase (5). Further, this practice can be sustainable, as demonstrated by Indigenous groups who have been using this method for millennia without degrading rainforests. This practice becomes rendered unsustainable when the rate of deforestation occurs at a faster rate than the forest is able to recover. This has become increasingly evident. “Since the 1960s, the cattle herd of the Amazon Basin has increased from 5 million to more than 70-80 million heads” (6). In the case of Brazil, the growth of animal agriculture is one of the leading drivers of slash-and-burn agricultural practice.
2. President Bolsonaro’s agenda
Brazil’s President, Jair Bolsonaro, who was elected back in January of 2019, is known for his far-right stance on economic development, human rights, and environmental policy. Since his election, these views have quickly translated into real changes within the country.
For Brazil’s economy, President Bolsonaro has “scaled back efforts to fight illegal logging, ranching and mining” (7). Further, “a New York Times analysis of public records found that… enforcement actions by Brazil’s main environmental agency fell by 20 percent…just months after the President’s election. This reduction in government oversight has resulted in accelerated destruction of the Amazon rainforest (8). President Bolsonaro’s disrespect for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples has also led to increasing development projects in areas that have previously been managed sustainably. President Bolsonaro has been quoted saying: “Where there is indigenous land, there is wealth underneath it” (9). From statements such as this as well as other policy changes President Bolsonaro has promoted, the food security and traditional ways of life of Brazil’s Indigenous peoples are being threatened.
1. Vote every day
What does voting every day look like? It means being conscious of how we spend our money and how we spend our time. It means being the change you wish to see in the world. Invest in what matters to you, whether that is buying local, organic, or some other value!
2. Use your voice
All great moments in history, like progress in women’s rights and racial equality, did not happen because people stayed silent. If you think a business, a community, or a government can do better, make sure they hear you. When we become courageous enough to share about things that really matter to us and if we become more open to other perspectives, we create a community that understands each other better. When we turn strangers into neighbours, no matter how far apart we are from each other, we will change the world in a way that lifts all of us up!
3. Be reflective about home turf
When we learn about environmental destruction or social injustices around the world, it is easy to point a finger and say “they need to do better”, but what about what is happening right under our feet? Every country and community can do better when it comes to inclusivity and sustainability. My advice is to look locally and see how you can make a difference in your area.
- 1) Global News. “Amazon rainforest fires: What caused them and why activists are blaming Brazil’s president.” https://globalnews.ca/news/5794191/amazon-rainforest-fire-explained/beta/?utm_expid=.kz0UD5JkQOCo6yMqxGqECg.1&utm_referrer=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.google.com%2F.
- 2) Veiga, J. B., et al. “Cattle ranching in the amazon rainforest.” Proc. Aust. Soc. Anim. Prod. Vol. 24. 2002.
- 3) Ibid.
- 4) Global News. “Amazon rainforest fires: What caused them and why activists are blaming Brazil’s president.” https://globalnews.ca/news/5794191/amazon-rainforest-fire-explained/beta/?utm_expid=.kz0UD5JkQOCo6yMqxGqECg.1&utm_referrer=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.google.com%2F.
- 5) Metzger, Jean Paul. “Effects of slash-and-burn fallow periods on landscape structure.” Environmental Conservation 30.4 (2003): 325-333.
- Kleinman, Peter JA, Ray B. Bryant, and David Pimentel. “Assessing ecological sustainability of slash-and-burn agriculture through soil fertility indicators.” Agronomy Journal 88.2 (1996): 122-127.
- 6) Veiga, J. B., et al. “Cattle ranching in the amazon rainforest.” Proc. Aust. Soc. Anim. Prod. Vol. 24. 2002
- 7) The New York Times. “Under Brazil’s Far-Right Leader, Amazon Protections Slashed and Forests Fall.” https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/28/world/americas/brazil-deforestation-amazon-bolsonaro.html.
- 8) Ibid.
- 9) The New York Times. “As Brazil’s Far Right Leader Threatens the Amazon, One Tribe Pushes Back” https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/28/world/americas/brazil-deforestation-amazon-bolsonaro.html.