As smoky skylines and tongues of flame leap across social media feeds, one thing has become clear: the world is on fire, and we need to stop it. The Amazon rainforest has been burning for weeks now, in a catastrophic culmination of deforestation, slash-and-burn agriculture, and the developmental policies set by the Brazilian government.
While the media coverage certainly suggests that the Amazon has never burned like this before, that’s not entirely accurate. For years, the rainforest has faced fires during drought years or as a result of slash-and-burn practices for expanding agriculture, primarily by beef and soybean farmers. According to the Washington Post, there was a greater number of fires in the Amazon between 2002-05 and in 2007, but those fires sparked coordinated international action urging Brazil to prevent uncontrolled deforestation in the region.
For about a decade, these policies seemed to be working, as deforestation in the rainforest dropped by 75 percent until 2014, according to the Washington Post. Since President Jair Bolsonaro took office in 2019, however, the Amazon has been opened up to economic and agricultural development, and the region has seen “…an 84 per cent increase in fires compared to the same period in 2018,” according to the Rainforest Alliance.
Though the fires are still burning, Edenise Garcia, Deputy Science Manager at The Nature Conservancy (TNC) Brazil notes that action has been taken.
“Following intense international pressure, [the] Brazilian Federal Government has deployed the army to fight the fires. A presidential decree was also signed prohibiting burning in the Amazon for a period of 60 days,” Garcia says. “Besides the immediate actions, federal ministries and Amazon states governors have been meeting to discuss an agenda to create permanent actions of fire combat, real-time monitoring and punishment, as well as sustainable development alternatives.”
With around ten percent of the world’s known species residing in the rainforest that spans more than two million square miles, the thousands of fires in the Amazon this year could have devastating long-term impacts. The World Wildlife Fund for Nature reports that of the many varied plant species found in the rainforest, around 75 percent are unique to the Amazon. Since forest fires are not common in the region, the flames could have an outsized impact on the local ecology. According to Garcia, the recovery of certain areas could take at least two decades.
But the loss of biodiversity in the Amazon has been ongoing for years, as farmers and growers favor monoculture crops that are more economically lucrative. As the forest is cleared to make space for agriculture, less-than-profitable native plants become the victims of deforestation. Thomas Newmark, Chairman of the The Carbon Underground and Proprietor of Finca Luna Nueva Lodge in Costa Rica, explains what the loss of these biodiverse species could mean to the Amazon’s future.
“Let’s say there are 100 types of plants and animals in a region, and a severe drought hits. Some of those plants and animals can’t adapt quickly enough and are wiped out, but other life forms are able to just get through the drought. The greater the biodiversity of a region, the more likely that life in that ecosystem can survive a drought, a fire, a pestilence, or a disruption caused by an introduced species,” he says.
Photography by Anna Haines
“But what if the ecosystem has been dummied down to just one species of plant, say the Gros Michel, or ‘Big Mike’ banana?” Newmark asks. “That one type of banana dominated many areas of Central America that once were biologically diverse tropical forests. For decades, if you were eating a banana, you were likely eating a Gros Michel. Then in the 1950s, a fungal blight called the Panama disease wiped out Gros Michel plantations. If you dummy down an ecosystem from countless plant species to one, you make that ecosystem vulnerable.”
“With our climate crisis raging, with ecosystems being whipsawed by flooding and droughts, we need robust biodiversity or we’ll end up like Big Mike—wiped out.”Thomas Newmark
But there are even greater threats posed by the potential loss of the Amazon. According to National Geographic, with enough loss of vegetation, the rainforest may degrade into something more akin to an arid grassland. Beyond the loss of habitat and biodiversity, this change would also be the harbinger of accelerated climate change, since rainforests serve as effective carbon sinks—pulling down and sequestering carbon from the atmosphere.
This is a crucial function, because according to Newmark, “There are now about one trillion tons of excess CO2 in the atmosphere, put there over many years by agricultural malpractice (including deforestation) and the burning of fossil fuels. Rainforests hold significant amounts of carbon in the wood and roots of their plants—up to 250 billion tons of carbon is a good estimate, and that doesn’t even include the amount of CO2 held in the soils of the forest.”
Should the Amazon become degraded, not only would it fail to pull carbon from the atmosphere, it would also release much of the carbon it currently has stored. By some estimates, if even 60 percent of the forest became degraded, the Amazon could release five years’ worth of carbon into the atmosphere.
“Adding any additional CO2 to the atmosphere will only accelerate the pace of climate change,” Newmark says. However, he points out that “If we can restore health to degraded and deforested regions, we can draw down some of that legacy carbon and help not just mitigate but even reverse the effects of climate change.”
What You Can Do to Help
It’s this action-oriented outlook that has spread like wildfire across media outlets around the world. Tired of “thoughts and prayers” individuals and businesses alike are looking for tangible ways to aid in the firefighting and conservation efforts in the region.
Newmark’s suggestion for ways to support the Amazon is simple. “Average citizens need to do everything possible to learn about rainforests and why preserving them is critical to our survival and happiness,” he says. “They need to teach their families and their communities, and they need to come see the rainforest, take photos, share the beauty, and inspire everyone to love this fragile and diminishing treasure.”
Garcia shares this sentiment. “…As an important part of the fires are the result of illegal deforestation related to agriculture practices, people around the world should be concerned about [their] produce’s deforestation-free origin, as well as about their country’s trade relations involving products that provoke Amazon rainforest destruction.”
The Nature Conservancy believes it is both possible and essential to foster constructive relationships between development and the environment.Edenise Garcia
Garcia goes on to say that at a local level, “…although using fire for land management is legally allowed in many Brazilian states, much more guidance is needed from environmental agencies to ensure proper use, through both education and regulation.”
Photography by Anna Haines
Learning more is certainly key, especially when it comes to understanding which nonprofits will use your donations most effectively. You can consider donating directly to organizations like Rainforest Trust, which purchases and protects lands in threatened tropical ecosystems. To date the organization has protected over 23 million acres of vulnerable rainforest land, and by donating you can take an active part in conserving these fragile ecosystems.
The nonprofit organization Rainforest Alliance has taken a multifaceted approach to conserving the Amazon, providing frontline support on the ground in Brazil, calling for stronger environmental protections through government policies and regulations, and helping companies eliminate unsustainable products from their supply chains. Donations to the Rainforest Alliance can help to combat deforestation at all levels.
But this work can’t just be done by individuals. Businesses, nonprofits, and governments around the world need to come together in order to reverse deforestation and prevent further climate change.
Photography by Anna Haines
The Climate Group is one such organization, working to unite conscious companies and governments into an effective network ready to take action. Amy Davidsen, Executive Director, North America at The Climate Group, says “We focus by working with those who can take action now – as an independent, international nonprofit organization with a mission to accelerate climate action, we work towards a goal of a world of no more than 1.5°C of global warming and greater prosperity for all.”
A major part of The Climate Group’s efforts is organizing the annual Climate Week NYC—a hub of activity which “…gathers a diverse community of business, government, finance, civil society and thought leaders from around the world to showcase real climate action and solutions – and to provide the political support for national governments to take more ambitious action,” Davidsen says.
In terms of what businesses can do to help, ensuring the use of rainforest-safe products is a key first step. “Examining supply chains to ensure there are no products contributing to deforestation is something that all businesses can do,” Davidsen says. “But the transition to more sustainable forest management is not something that can be achieved by any one entity. Collective climate action is key. Businesses must work together with government and civil society to help create new solutions.”
Photography by Anna Haines
Participating in and supporting events like Climate Week NYC is one way to take action and raise awareness of ecological issues like the fires in the Amazon. This year, Davidsen says, “Climate Week NYC will play a key role by bringing together powerful actors and networks from across business and government, to provide a platform for raising collective ambition and action on climate change.”
Although the Amazon fires are certainly an ecological burden, the crisis has ignited a movement online and around the world as concerned citizens mobilize their networks and take action. People are researching the importance of the rainforest and becoming informed of its ecological benefits. By stoking this passion, we can put pressure on governmental and regulating institutions to be proactive in protecting the environment, ensuring that the Amazon—and all precious ecosystems—stays standing for generations to come.