Record number of rainforest fires a burning issue for us all

Record number of rainforest fires a burning issue for us all
Medical student and environmentalist Sofia Guzman, 22, during a protest to call for action to protect the Amazon rainforest, outside Brazil’s embassy in Mexico City. Picture: AP

Raging fires in the Amazon rainforest — the forests are known as ‘the lungs of the planet’ — have sparked global concerns.

Brazilian federal experts reported a record number of wildfires across the country this year, up 84% over the same period in 2018. But why has this happened and what does it mean for all of us?

Are there usually many fires in the Amazon and have there really been more this year?

Amazon fires are common, Greenpeace UK spokeswoman, Alison Kirkman, said.

But there has been a “huge” increase this year.

Her view is backed by Mike Barrett, executive director of conservation and science at WWF UK, who said: “The fires this year are certainly worse than normal.

“We’ve seen over 70,000 fires now, already this year, which is nearly double what we saw in the same period last year.”

But why have there been more fires this year?

The fires are “part of a broader renewed assault on the Amazon,” said Mr Barrett, and this is driven by deforestation.

Fire is being used to clear land for cattle to graze and for crops to be grown. And there is a political angle.

Mr Barrett said: “The reason why this is higher than before, I think it’s very clear that there has been a change in the political rhetoric within Brazil, and that has led to those who wish to deforest feeling empowered to do so.”

Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro’s policies encourage farmers to expand their businesses and grow more crops.

Why is the Amazon known as ‘the lungs of the planet’?

The Amazon is a vast ecosystem and the biggest living carbon store on the planet. It has a huge role to play in regulating the entire planet.

Trees take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and store it within the plant body and within the soil.

“Because of the size of the Amazon, the Amazon actually stores more carbon than any other living body, any other living ecosystem on the planet, so that’s why it plays such a crucial role in tackling climate change. If we lose the Amazon, then we will almost certainly lose the fight against climate change,” Mr Barrett said.

The Amazon provides 20% of the planet’s oxygen, Ms Kirkman said, adding: “So this really is an issue that impacts all of us, and it’s something that we can all do something about. It’s something that we should all be really concerned about.”

Why should people we be concerned?

Around 20% of the Amazon has been lost and scientists now believe that losing another 5% would be sufficient to tip the Amazon into a sort of “unstable state, within which it becomes impossible to actually restore it.”

“If the Amazon ceases to be a functioning ecosystem, ceases to be the lungs of the planet, it is essentially impossible to see how we avoid dangerous climate change at a global level,” Mr Barrett said.

What can people do to help?

One way people can make a difference is by eating less meat, according to Ms Kirkman, who said the burgers and chicken we buy from big fast food chains will likely have come from animals that ate feed that was grown in the Amazon rainforest.

“One of the biggest things that we can do, as individuals, is be conscious of that, and we do really need to reduce our meat consumption globally.”

Consumers have influence on companies, who will be compelled by decreased demand to change their products or how they source their ingredients.

They may have to ensure that their supply chains are clean and that they are only sourcing sustainably, or even reducing the meat in the supply chain altogether.

“But the fact is, we cannot continue consuming meat at the rate that we do,” she said.

Could governments and businesses help?

Mr Barrett said if people switched to more plant-based protein, away from meat-based protein, that would have a positive impact. But governments play a key role, too.

“I think it’s incumbent on all the major economies who are trading with Brazil and make sure that we use our trade for good and not for bad.

“So, thinking about trade deals for Brazil, setting high environmental standards that ensure that deforesting commodities don’t enter supply chains and are not imported by major economies, like ourselves. It’s absolutely crucial,” Mr Barrett said.

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