The Amazon is burning at a record rate. There are many reasons to pay attention

The Amazon is burning at a record rate. There are many reasons to pay attention

Earlier this year when a fire broke out at Notre-Dame in Paris, the dramatic footage received saturation media coverage all over the world, with billionaires pledging their fortunes to assist and crowdfunding campaigns raising more than US$1 billion.

The same can not be said for a record number of fires now afflicting the Amazon, despite the consequences being considerably more concerning for all of us, with huge areas of the “lungs of the world” destroyed in recent weeks.

A far-right populist leader, greed and opportunistic power grabbing play a part in this story, one that has until the last couple of days been largely ignored internationally.

The Amazon supplies 20 per cent of the world’s oxygen, 10 per cent of our biodiversity and is a vital component in slowing global warming and fighting climate change. It carries the responsibility of absorbing around a quarter of the carbon that forests around the world soak up from the atmosphere each year. While it burns, it’s also emitting large amounts of greenhouse gases

The Amazon is also the home of one million Indigenous people, along with three million species of animals and plants.

Satellite images show fires in Brazil are up 84 per cent on this time last year, much of that in the Amazon, with tens of thousands of fires estimated to be destroying the rainforest, and further imagery showing 9500 fires have started in just the past week alone, according to Brazil’s National institute for Space Research (INPE). 870 square miles of the Amazon was lost in June, but the rate of the overall destruction from these fires has further accelerated in recent weeks. Skies have turned dark in Sao Paulo as smoke from fires burning thousands of kilometres away blankets the city.

What causes the fires? Wildfires do occur at this time of year, peaking in September, but it’s the increased frequency that is concerning, along with just how much has already been lost. Drought and deforestation (most commonly to make way for cattle) have contributed, according to NASA. But many fires are also deliberately started in order to pursue legal deforesting activities for cattle, with the dry season creating favourable conditions for spreading the flames. According to a senior scientist speaking to CNN, humans have either inadvertently or purposefully started the vast majority of these fires.

An uptick in illegal fires may also come back to Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro.

Bolsonaro has previously promised to develop the Amazon area, and has weakened regulations protecting it. He’s encouraged farmers to clear the land and ignored the Paris climate accord. He’s cut the budgets of environmental agencies that protect the area and dismissed the director of the INPE, who had warned about the increasing rate of deforestation and defended climate science. Some claim Bolsonaro is doing the bidding of the agribusiness sector which wants to open up protected parts of the Amazon, a sector that contributed to his rise to power.

But Bolsonaro’s blaming non-government organisations for starting the fires, claiming they’re being lit as revenge, in response to their government funding being slashed. There is no evidence to support this.

Bolsonaro also doesn’t appear to take much interest in fighting the fires. During a media conference yesterday, he said his government simply did not have the resources — although didn’t put a call out internationally for help either. “Forty men to fight a fire? There aren’t the resources. This chaos has arrived,” he said.

Curiously, Bolsonaro believes the first have been deliberately started to make him “look bad”. He claims they are occurring in “strategic” locations, which enable people to film the fires and share the footage widely.

If only, globally, we’d actually be willing to pay that much attention.

There will be more media coverage in the coming days, and some pockets of social media are showing an interest, including with the #PrayForTheAmazon hashtag going vial and a post by Leonardo DiCaprio going out to his almost 34 million followers describing the lack of media attention as “terrifying”.

The lack of interest is terrifying , but more so is the greed and political games surrounding the reasons behind the surge in these fires — and the overall lack of interest in preventing and aiming to address the problem.

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