Over the past weeks, the Amazon rainforest has suffered some of the worst fires in its pained history. As one of Earth's most precious life sources, the entire ecosystem and birth place to countless plant and animal species struggles on in the face of human activity.
Brazil: the heart of the Amazon fires
More than 100,000 fires have burnt across the Amazon rainforest so far in 2019, spreading to neighbouring countries including Bolivia, Peru, Columbia and Paraguay. However, it is Brazil where the cradle of the situation lies.
Simply put, the ongoing Amazon fires are an ecological disaster - a direct consequence of human greed and interference, with the natural, pristine environment being cleared for agricultural use.
Official reports from the National Institute for Space Research (NISR) observed more than 74,000 fires between January and August this year. This is an 84% increase on the same period last year. Although this not the worst year on record for fires (133,000 were observed in the first eight months of 2005), their ongoing presence could prove detrimental to the Amazon's long-term survival.
Concerns surround the Brazilian President, Jair Bolsonaro’s environmental policy and handling of the recent spate of fires. You don't have to look too far to read criticisms directed at the Brazilian government. Concerns surround his support of deforestation initiatives and the government's lack of surveillance of illegal practices.
On the 20th of August, Ane Alencar, scientific director of the Brazilian NGO, Institute of Environmental Research in Amazonia (IPAM) said the number of fires taking place in the Amazon were "directly related to deforestation". The figures are said to be well above sustainable.
Global aid recently came in the form of $22 million following recent discussions at the G-7 summit in Biarritz, France. However, Mr Bolsonaro rejected the financial assistance on a range of politically-motivated reasons. This was despite Mr Bolsonaro previously stating that Brazil did not have the means to fight such large-scale fires.
Furthermore, the intensity of the fires recently became so fierce Brazil's capital Sao Paulo experienced a natural "blackout". This occurred when the wind carried the heavy clouds of Amazon smoke around 1,700 miles (approx. 2,750kms) over the city.
With the fires still an ongoing issue, the world faces both a critical environmental and public health issue.
What do the fires mean for the wilderness?
It is said that 10% of the Earth’s plant, insect and wildlife species are found in the Amazon. So vast is this magical rainforest, scientists believe many others are yet to be discovered.
Some describe the Amazon rainforest as our planet's 'lungs'. It makes sense when you consider it is also one of the key absorbers of carbon dioxide 'reserves', helping contribute to absorb greenhouse emissions that contribute to global warming . Varying reports also suggest the Amazon produces between 6-20% of the oxygen we breathe.
So what really is at stake if we continue to destroy the Amazon rainforest? Apart from the obvious climate crisis facing humanity, we set to devastate one of the most important plant and animal havens in the world - an untouched wilderness of Mother Nature at her finest (of what remains).
Why the Amazon is not adapted to fire
In many parts of the world, wild forest fires are a natural part of the environment's regeneration process. In fact, some animals rely on it for the survival of their species. However, such large, numerous fires in the Amazon are not normal.
The Amazon's complex ecosystem does not rely on fire in the same way as other forest areas seen in parts of the U.S., Canada, Europe, and Australia. Fires do still occur but high rainfall levels mean natural burning is less common and much shorter in duration. This means much of the wildlife is not adapted to such intense fire conditions.
William Magnusson, a researcher specializing in biodiversity monitoring at the National Institute of Amazonian Research (INPA) in Manaus, Brazil says the impact of the Amazon fires will have both short- and long-term consequences. For the short-term, the toll on wildlife will be "massive".
"You'll have immediate winners and immediate losers... In a system that isn't adapted to fire, you'll have a lot more losers than you will in other landscapes," Magnusson said.
This short-term impact includes animals perishing from flames, heat, smoke inhalation, or being displaced from their environment and subsequently dying. While some animals will have the speed and ability to flee the flames, many others will become trapped through slower mobility, limited choices for safety, and the rapid changing of wind conditions.
And then come the long-term consequences.
It's important to remember the number of years human-driven fires and land clearing have been ravaging the Amazon rainforest. Now, with this year's heavy toll of fire activity, many scientists believe that parts of the Amazon will take centuries to recover. Even then, the rainforest will be forever altered. Some species are likely to be lost, displacing the balance of this delicate ecosystem.
Additionally, a loss of density of the rainforest's canopy (a defining feature of the Amazon) allows sunlight to reach the undergrowth and forest floor. These are complex ecosystems in their own right that rely on the canopy to shield them from light and the outside world. Such a loss creates multiple knock-on effects, completely altering the structure of the entire rainforest ecosystem. With a disrupted food chain, this could lead to devastating losses for many of the Amazon's unique plant and animal species.
Is there anything I can do to help?
We can sometimes feel powerless to make an impact in putting a stop to such large-scale devastation. But there are some simple things we can do that lead to change and greater good. Try some of the below to help do your part in creating a more sustainable future.
- Donate to a reputable charitable organisation protecting rainforests.
- Use ecosia.org as your web browser. For every 45 searches made, they plant a tree.
- Sign Greenpeace’s 'Save the Amazon' petition addressed to the Brazilian government.
- Reduce your paper and wood consumption. Check ‘rainforest-safe’ products and brands here.
- Reduce your plastic consumption and seek sustainable alternatives.
- Reduce your meat consumption, as it can be linked to deforestation.