Hot topic worldwide: The largest Rainforest is burning

There have been a massive uproar regarding the news about the Amazon Rainforest wildfire. We should be mindful about the major role and importance of the rainforest to us and to our mother earth, therefore I’ve gathered some facts and information regarding this news for us to be aware about the current happenings in the rainforest and how can we help in our own little ways.

The Amazon rainforest also known as Amazonia or the Amazon Jungles is the largest forest that grows in the tropical basin of the Amazon River. It covers seven million square kilometers wherein this region includes territory belonging to nine nations. The majority of the forest is contained within Brazil, with 60% rainforest, followed by Peru with 13% and Colombia with 10%. Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia Suriname and French Guiana have just small amount of rainforest. The Amazon represents over half of the planet’s remaining rainforest, and it is the largest and most species-rich tract of tropical rainforest in the world.

Now the news of burning Amazon rainforest has captured worldwide attention. Experts say deforestation and a practice called slash-and-burn are to blame for most of the flames. People cut down patches of forest, allow the area to dry out, then set the remains ablaze to make room for agriculture or other development. Fire is often used to clear out the land for farming or ranching. They might also set fires to replenish the soil and encourage the growth of pastures for cattle.

Everyone on the planet benefits from the health of the Amazon. As its trees take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen, the Amazon plays a huge role in pulling planet-warming greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere. Without it, climate change speeds up. But as the world’s largest rainforest is eaten away by logging, mining, and agribusiness, it may not be able to provide the same buffer.

It’s believed about three million different species of plant and animal, one in 10 of all the species in the world, live in the Amazon. Some animals may be able to escape. Large mammals, such as jaguars, stand the best chance of getting away because they are able to run fast enough to get away from the fire in time. But many other animals will be killed almost straight away.

Dr. Claudio Sillero, professor of conservation biology at the University of Oxford, tells BBC News that he’s particularly concerned about the smaller creatures in the forest: “They don’t stand a hope in hell.”

“Different groups of animals will fare differently,” he says. “But we really need to worry about amphibians, reptiles and invertebrates. They live in microhabitats, and if these microhabitats get hit by fire then they will disappear completely, and these animals will die.” Their offspring are at risk too: “Their eggs also need to be kept damp, but in fire the eggs will be quickly cooked.” This, he adds, could cause some species to go extinct. Then there are the Amazon’s many small and slow mammals, such as the sloth. Dr. Sillero says these animals “tend to panic in the presence of fire, and are more likely to suffer direct mortalities”. Birds face similar risks, he adds. While individual birds may be able to fly away and find safety, to do so they will need to abandon their chicks and eggs.

Fleeing the fire is the first step, and as Dr. Alex Lees from Manchester Metropolitan University tells BBC News, these animals’ chances of survival remain depressing. Straight after a fire, he says, “Once the areas burned, it’s useless for many species”. “It’s not like there’s necessarily lots of spare space,” he says. “Most areas are already at carrying full capacity, so they’ll need to displace another individual of the same species from their own territory.

“That’s the major problem here, they can’t go somewhere else because those areas are occupied, and they’d be waiting around for a new territory to open up. But they can’t re-use their old areas that have been burned.” When fires rip through a rainforest like the Amazon, they burn down so many trees that there are holes in the forest’s canopy. This means that the environment beneath, which is usually dark and humid, is exposed to the harsh sunlight, and can dry out very quickly. It is then repopulated by new species that usually live on the naturally dry areas on the edge of the forest.

This is bad news for animals that rely on the forest’s humid, moist environment. Dr. Lees, who specializes in bird conservation, gives the example of insectivorous birds who need the ground to be soft and damp in order to be able to stealthily hunt for food. Dry, crunchy leaves on the ground make this impossible for them. He adds that these species are unlikely to be able to return to their home “for decades, probably far in excess of the single life expectancy of any given creature”. As well as immediately killing and displacing birds, insects and land mammals, this habitat change will also eventually hit aquatic species, such as the Amazon River dolphin or the rainforest’s many different fish. Even though these animals are able to avoid the fires by seeking refuge underwater at first, Dr. Mark Bowler, an ecologist at the University of Suffolk, says the rivers and lakes they live in will be altered.

“If you burn parts of the forest in order to build a cattle ranch, then aquatic habitats are going to be affected as well,” he tells BBC News. “The fish populations and the ecology of the river will change, and that will [also] affect larger animals like the giant otter.” Many forest-dependent humans will lose their livelihoods as a result of the fires, too. Dr. Rachel Carmenta, an environmental scientist at the University of Cambridge who works with the Amazon’s indigenous and mixed-descent communities, tells BBC News that the fires are “a humanitarian problem as well”. Many of the animals hunted by these communities, including tortoises and capybaras, are slow-moving and therefore are likely to have died in the fires, she says. Trying to hunt the few remaining animals is almost impossible, as the ground is too noisy for hunters to quietly cross the forest floor. On top of this, the plants they use to build homes and produce medicines would have also been charred.

“It’s not only about those immediate losses of flora and fauna,” she adds, “but also the relationships, the identities, the attachments that people have to their homes and to their landscapes, which are eroded and become unrecognizable as fires pass through.” Faced with displacement and starvation, many people’s lives are at risk, Dr. Carmenta warns.

When fires start on the other side of the globe, there isn’t much we can do to stop them. Panic and finger-pointing don’t help. However, we can try harder to prevent these events from occurring. Governments need to start investing in environmental protection. They will do that once they understand that the ecological and financial problems are intertwined. Any production process needs to be sustainable over the long term to make sense from a business standpoint. This concept rings true for a single farmer, as well as an owner of a large company or a government official.

Furthermore, there’s distinct animosity between environmentalists and companies that needs to be diffused. Much of it has to do with speaking “different languages.” Modern environmentalism needs to evolve beyond aggressive activism and be rooted in facts and objective reasoning, rather than emotion. With emotion, you may win the hearts of a crowd, but not those of the decision-makers. They, on the other hand, can be swayed with more than petitions and threats: If given a sound financial and legal framework, companies will be willing to go the extra mile to adopt new, less destructive production pipelines. This is where governments come in. Finally, global communities, treaties and organizations should tie together those efforts to amplify their effect.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because, in theory, all of it has already been implemented: Environmentalists swear they are reaching out, but no one responds; companies say they are implementing environmentally friendly practices; and governments claim to abide by signed treaties.

The question we have now is, how are the fires being fought? After weeks of international and internal pressure, President of Brazil Jair Bolsonaro deployed the military to help battle the fires on August 24, sending 44,000 troops to six states. Reuters reported the next day that warplanes were dousing flames.

“It’s a complex operation. We have a lot of challenges,” Paulo Barroso tells The Verge.Barroso is the chairman of the national forest fire management committee of the National League of Military Firefighters Corps in Brazil. He has spent three decades fighting fires in Mato Grosso, one of the regions most affected by the ongoing fires. According to Barroso, more than 10,400 firefighters are spread thin across 5.5 million square kilometers in the Amazon and “hotspots” break out in the locations they’re unable to cover.

Barroso contends that they need more equipment and infrastructure to adequately battle the flames. There are 778 municipalities throughout the Amazon, but according to Barroso, only 110 of those have fire departments. “We don’t have an adequate structure to prevent, to control, and to fight the forest fires,” Barroso says. He wants to establish a forest fire protection system in the Amazon that brings together government entities, indigenous peoples, and local communities, the military, large companies, NGOs, and education and research centers. “We have to integrate everybody,” Barroso says, adding, “we need money to do this, we have to receive a great investment.”

Barroso and other experts agree that it’s important to look ahead to prevent fires like we’re seeing now. After all, August is just the beginning of Brazil’s largely manmade fire season, when slashing-and-burning in the country peaks and coincides with drier weather.

Controlled burns are also a popular deforestation technique in other countries where the Amazon is burning, including Bolivia. There, the government brought in a modified Boeing 747 supertanker to douse the flames.

Using planes to put out wildfires in the Amazon isn’t a typical method of firefighting in tropical forests, and is likely to get expensive, Lancaster University’s Jos Barlow tells The Verge. He says that large-scale fires in areas cleared by deforestation “are best contained with wide firebreaks created with bulldozers — not easy in remote regions.” If the fires enter the forest itself, they require different tactics. “They can normally be contained by clearing narrow fire breaks in the leaf litter and fine fuel,” Barlow says. “But this is labour intensive over large scales, and fires need to be reached soon, before they get too big.”

Fires that have been intentionally set, as we’re seeing in Brazil, can be even more difficult to control compared to a sudden wildland fire. “They’re designed to be deliberately destructive,” says Timothy Ingalsbee, co-founder and executive director of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology and research associate at the University of Oregon. Slashing before burning produces a lot of very dry, very flammable fuel. And at this scale, Ingalsbee calls the fires “an act of global vandalism.”

Barlow says, “The best firefighting technique in the Amazon is to prevent them in the first place — by controlling deforestation and managing agricultural activities.”

WUR’s Cathelijne Stoof agrees: “Fighting the fires is of course important now,” she says. “For the longer term, it is way more important to focus on deforestation.”

We should also be doing our part such as sorting our trash, using less plastic, avoiding companies whose products don’t come from sustainable sources and reduce beef intake because beef found in processed products and fast food burgers are often linked to deforestation. However, the proof is in the pudding. The Amazon and Siberian forests are burning, pollution still plagues our cities and many countries across the globe don’t do enough to reduce their CO2 footprint. There are many more examples that show just how close or how far we are from ensuring our planet remains a hospitable place for generations to come.

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