For days images of the burning Amazon Rainforest in Brazil swept social media. Amazon is the world’s largest tropical forest. Every year parts of the Amazon is deliberately set on fire. This year the fires are unprecedented. The fires have burned for more than two weeks. So what is happening in the Amazon and how is it linked to business and political interests in Brazil. The Daily Vox team explains.
Amazon Watch is human rights and environmental organisation, which helps indigenous communities defend their lands from a variety of threats. It is an international solidarity organisation helping to bring more attention to issues affecting communities in the Amazon. Christian Poirier, the programme director at the organisation spoke to The Daily Vox.
Around the world, wildfires are a common occurrence. More than that they are a necessary natural phenomenon. The fires help clear decaying vegetation and allows for new plants to germinate. In South Africa, the end of winter is usually marked by the veldfire season. These are set to manage grazing and agricultural land. However the human impact is changing this.
More often nowadays it is human beings who are starting these wildfires. In the Amazon, that is the case.
The rainforest does not burn on its own. Instead farmers use slash-and-burn tactics to clear land for farming and pasture. This is a practise that is not legal in Brazil at this time of the year. This year it has been even worse. There’s been an 84% jump in the number of fires set.
Alberto Setzer, a researcher at Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE), told Reuters. “The dry season creates favorable conditions for the use and spread of fire, but starting a fire is the work of humans, either deliberately or by accident,” Setzer said.
Poirier says this year’s fires are different because there is “an entirely irresponsible and reckless authoritarian regime creating the conditions politically and rhetorically for these explosion and devastation and human rights abuses in the Amazon.” Poirier says it is the Brazilian government under the leadership of Jair Bolsonaro that is responsible for what is currently happening.
Jair Bolsonaro and the Agribusiness Industry
Bolsonaro took over the Brazilian presidency in January 2019. During his campaign, it was reported that Bolsonaro is a strong supporter of agribusiness. The agribusiness industry in Brazil want access to the protected lands in the Amazon. Bolsonaro has publicly said he does support lands being reserved for indigenous tribes. He also threatened on many occasions to withdraw from the Paris Agreement.
“Bolsonaro is creating the conditions politically through his government or rhetorically through his toxic speech for what we see today,” said Poirier.
With the recent wildfires, Bolsonaro is not at all concerned about stopping the fires. He has instead blamed human rights and environmental organisations for starting the fires. Bolsonaro said this was in reaction to the government cutting funding to these organisations.
According to Poirier, Bolsonaro is trying to defer attention from his own responsibility in the fires towards the activists. “These absurd claims by Bolsonaro are not convincing many people but it does convince his base,” said Poirier.
Importance of the Amazon
Earlier, this year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s special report on land looked at the concern of the rapid loss of tropical rainforests given how much carbon these ecosystems store and how quickly they are being lost.
Reports say that if deforestation in the Amazon reaches 25%, the “forest may not be able to move enough water to sustain itself and may degrade into a savanna.” This would be the tipping point for the Amazon meaning a point of no return. This shows how vitally important the Amazon is. If the Amazon reverts to a savanna it would no longer be the “carbon sink and climate regulator” the world needs.
“The Amazon is critical to the stability of our climate,” said Poirier. The Amazon forest is responsible for creating 20% of the world’s air, and hosts 10% of the world’s biodiversity.
“It is the cornerstone of the future of our environment. If we lose the Amazon, we all go with it,” said Poirier.
Most of the people living in the Amazon forest are indigenous people. The fires that are taking place has a grave impact on the people living there. The massive amounts of smoke from the fires has been wide-reaching. The toxic smoke pollution is harmful to anyone who comes in contact with it.
But the impact is not just the smoke. Already an indigenous villages has been burned. This is criminal arson says Poirier adding that it was set to try and force people off their land.
“Indigenous people are incredibly vulnerable at this moment,” said Poirier. In many interviews and campaign speeches, Bolsonaro has routinely spoken out against the indigenous people. He has used racist and discriminatory language against them. Poirier says Bolsonaro has “routinely dehumanised the indigenous people.”
“This is now the type of rhetoric we see taking concrete form through violence and environmental destruction,” said Poirier.
Yet it is the indigenous people who remain the biggest defenders of their land. They have constantly protested their right to land and to defend it. This is despite facing the might of the police and government. Rayanne Cristine Maximo Franca, an indigenous activist spoke to Dazed about the discrimination she and her people face.
“There is an urgent need to move away from racism, from this direct discrimination that indigenous people face on a daily basis which has a direct impact on the younger generations,” said Franca.
Franca is a part of a group of indidengous women who have organised against the government and corporate exploitation of her people. “Women from the Amazon have been echoing a strong urge to act against fast-tracked consumerist needs that do not respect our lands, our culture, our rights,” said Franca.
What people can do
At the present moment, Poirier says it’s important that people around the world should be informed with good information, and then use that to act. Action means staging protests outside Brazilian embassies to show Bolsonaro the international community won’t tolerate this behaviour.
Amazon Watch has released a report that shows how consumers around the world are complicit through buying commodities. Brazil is one of the world’s largest exporters of beef, sugar, coffee, and cocoa amongst other things.
Poirier says it’s important to understand consumers and politicians complicity through trade.
“Our lives and our ability to continue living on this planet is linked to the future of the Amazon. We need to exercise our power internationally to create leverage over this reckless authoritarian regime.”