Fires are sweeping the Amazon rainforest. They are facilitated by global warming to date and also fuel future climatic catastrophe.
They have been driven by deforestation and sparked further deforestation. Brazil’s president Bolsonaro and politicians internationally have responded with empty words and little action.
August saw a spike in fires across the world’s largest rainforest. In 2019 so far Brazil’s space agency has recorded over 40,000.
There are fires in the Amazon all year round, and August is generally the beginning of “fire season”, but this year’s rate of fires is nonetheless particularly high.
There are no adequate records to establish whether this year is record-breaking, and there is reason to believe the rate may have been higher in the early 2000s. But, on the scale of decades and centuries, there has been a continual and alarming increase.
The Amazon is home to rich ecosystems and many indigenous communities, destroyed and expelled by fires, contributing to biodiversity loss. On 19 August, smoke from Amazonian fires plunged São Paulo — more than a thousand miles away — into a hazy darkness. Resulting air pollution has increased respiratory problems.
These fires stoke global climate change. Trees and plants capture carbon dioxide, converting it into plant matter as they grow. Through this, forests can act as “carbon sinks”, removing CO2 from the atmosphere and storing it within their ecosystems.
The Amazon performs approximately one quarter of the total carbon removal of forests around the world, and holds the equivalent of a decade’s greenhouse gas emissions. On top of that, rainforests play crucial roles in regulating shorter-term global weather patterns. Fires, and deforestation more widely, undermine the Amazon’s ability to perform these functions. Even the healthiest rainforest takes some time to reclaim cleared land, advancing complex ecosystems onto degraded earth.
Scientists fear destruction of the Amazon could push it over a tipping point into a vicious cycle of forest dieback through which rainforest converts into savanna. Over several decades this process could release hundreds of billions of tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere.
Rainforest is generally too wet for large fires to spread far and fast. Increased temperatures and droughts due to global warming encourage a spread.
However, to pin all the fault on climatic heating would be to let those directly behind these flames off the hook. Such fires are started by humans. They are not wildfires as are seen in California.
Fire is a comparatively low cost — and often illegal — method for clearing rainforest, to use the land for crops or cattle for a few years, until this has degraded the soil too much, and yet more rainforest must be cleared. These fires can then grow out of control, spreading most easily — and visibly for the space agency — on already cleared or partly cleared land, including logging areas, they do spread into the rainforest proper.
The international drive by the food and agriculture industry for more and cheaper production has been encouraged by Bolsonaro, his anti-environmental rhetoric and action, and his steps to impede conservation projects. Four of the five Brazilian states with recorded large increases in fires this year are governed by Bolsonaro’s allies.
Bolsonaro has rightly been criticised by political leaders internationally for his policies and insufficient response. Under that pressure appeared to shift, committing to use Brazilian armed forces to fight the fires. Little concrete has yet come from that.
He has rejected offers of international aid, in the same speech saying that people living in the Amazon basin should be allowed “to develop along with the rest of the country” by exploiting its “incalculable wealth… of natural resources”.
The foreign aid is limited not just by its small scale — only tens of millions of dollars — but through failing to address the causes of the problem: deforestation, and, to a lesser extent, global climate change.
The labour movement internationally must step up our solidarity with Brazilian activists, workers and communities resisting Bolsonaro, our push for bold environmentalism to curb the worst climatic heating. We should campaign to strengthen trade restrictions on goods derived from rainforest-cleared land, and businesses profiting from this, taking food industries into social control to develop greener alternatives.
This should be coupled with programmes for vast global redistributions of wealth, and solidarity with international labour movements, towards equitable and democratic economies world-wide rather than short-term pursuit of cheap goods and exports for the profit of a few.