We could already be at our worst-case scenario as far as climate threat is concerned. The Amazon rain forest, considered the lungs of the Earth, have been burning for weeks now, casting a pall of darkness over the regions surrounding them, turning day into night, blocking out the sun with the smoke and ash.

Amazon rainforest covers a total of around 5.5 million square kilometers and vacuums up 2.4 billion metric tons of carbon from the atmosphere every year

Sao Paulo, Brazil saw day turn as dark as night for over an hour as winds carried the smoke and ash from the forest fires burning 1,700 miles away to over the city. “It was as if the day had turned into night,” resident Gianvitor Dias told the BBC. “Everyone here commented, because even on rainy days it doesn’t usually get that dark. It was very impressive.”

The plumes of smoke from the forest fires were even captured by NASA’s satellite images.

According to Brazilian federal experts, a record number of wildfires are spreading across the country. These wildfires are up 84 percent over the previous year. Images from satellites show the smoke from these fires over the Amazon rainforest spreading across the Latin American countries, right to the Atlantic coast, and cloaking Brazil’s biggest city, Sao Paulo, according to the World Meteorological Organization.

These ferocious fires have accompanied alarming levels of deforestation in the region, which was four times what it was during the same period in 2019, according to the National Institute for Space Research data. Ironically, the Amazonian rainforest is one of the wettest regions in the world. It normally experiences torrential rainfall for the most part of the year, which is why the wildfires, over 72,000 at last count this year from Brazil alone, come as a surprise.

More than half of these wildfires are said to be in the rainforest. Interestingly the previous month of July had reportedly been the hottest month ever. Wildfires are breaking out across the planet. In the Canary Islands, Spain. In Alaska. In Siberia. In Greenland. While all these fires were alarming, they pale in the face of the enormity of the Amazonian wildfires.

Why are the Amazonian rainforests important?

The Amazonian basin is considered the lungs of our highly polluted planet. Just this stretch contributes to around 20 percent of the oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere. These forests absorb around 2.2 billion tons of CO2 every year, contributing to cleaning the atmosphere of CO2 build up.

The Amazon river itself delivers 55 million gallons of freshwater into the Atlantic ocean every second. Over 25 percent of pharmaceutical products are made from ingredients sourced from the rainforests, this when less than one percent of the vegetation has been categorized and studied.

Amazon fires toxic cities
Amazon fires toxic cities

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The Amazon region is termed the Green Ocean because the transpiration from the dense vegetation in the area provides water vapour to the atmosphere, which in turn, affects ocean currents and global weather patterns.

Says Dharmesh Shah, Plastic Policy Advisor with Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), “The Amazonia is one of the largest carbon sinks in the world. Losing it at this rate is just bringing the planet a lot closer to the tipping point of no return. In terms of biodiversity, the loss is perhaps unfathomable. We are experiencing the sixth mass extinction also called the Anthropocene and events like these sound a death knell for several endangered species.”

What is said to have caused these wildfires

Reports put the causes to illegal logging, unhindered deforestation and mining. The protections given to the rainforests have been rolled back, and the rainforests have seen an 88 percent increase in deforestation over the past year.

Janaina Homerin, a Brazilian human rights activist who has been working in the field of violence prevention, criminal justice and the rule of law since 2010, spoke to SheThePeople from Sao Paulo. She says, “I would start by saying that what is currently happening may be under the direct responsibility of Brazil, but the consequences will be endured by all of us.” Homerin calls this is a global disaster and says besides the environmental toll in itself (which is high enough per se), there will be “impact for the indigenous and minorities communities that live in the forest, and hence impacts on the cities on the border of the forest.”

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With respect to the government’s role she added, while the government is not responsible for setting the forest on fire (at least, we hope so), but Jair Messias Bolsonaro has always been transparent regarding his opinion on the Amazon forest: “that there is a hysteria promoted by international NGOs threatening our national sovereignty.” The government is inflating a very mischievous nationalism, and that is very harmful for democracy, Janaina notes.

Encroachment Of Forests

While there have been allegations that the fires have been started by human activity, the reason behind them seems to be an encroachment of the forests for human benefit. Forest land that is cleared is used for cattle grazing and agriculture. Wildfires are the quickest way to clear forest land. But forest fires are a phenomenon that affects climate change which in turn causes more forest fires.

These forests absorb around 2.2 billion tons of CO2 every year, contributing to cleaning the atmosphere of CO2 build up.

The roots of trees hold the soil together and keep the floor of the forest wet. When trees are lost the forest gets dry and this, in turn, makes the conditions conducive for more fires. Incidentally, these fires also release the carbon trapped in all these trees, increasing atmospheric carbon levels and affecting global warming. These forest fires could well be the point of no return for the Amazonian forest if they aren’t brought under control soon.

The Impact on India

Dharmesh Shah points out that even if it feels like the wildfires are happening too far away from us in India, there will definitely be a global impact. “In India, in addition to the climate change impacts, I would be particularly concerned about the air pollution the fires are causing. The smog that affects Sao Paolo and other cities is the immediate impact. Particulate emissions along with elements like mercury and dioxins  have the potential to travel globally. An event like a forest fire will add exponentially to the global disease burden due to toxic substances.”

Human Health at Risk

The European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service states that the fires have directly led to a clear spike in dangerous carbon monoxide emissions as well carbon dioxide emissions which contribute to global warming, thus putting human health at risk around the world.

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The forest fires and deforestation of the Amazon would accelerate the level of global warming which countries are trying to hold at 2 degrees Celsius, when compared with pre-industrial levels.

The Amazon rainforest covers a total of around 5.5 million square kilometers and vacuums up 2.4 billion metric tons of carbon from the atmosphere every year. The forest itself stores up to 90 billion metric tons of carbon. Deforestation and forest fires will release this gargantuan amount of carbon into the atmosphere to disastrous consequences. It is of course, too early to determine how much carbon will be released into the atmosphere as a consequence of these fires. We must also consider the loss of species that such a disaster would entail. Research had earlier looked at possible worst-case scenarios and considered that the Amazonian lowland rainforest could reach tipping point by 2050. Researchers quoted in the Washington Post however said that the trends seen today are beyond their worst case scenarios.

Says Siddharth Singh, author of The Great Smog of India, “The crisis in the Amazon rainforests is grave and must affect each one of us in India personally. Aside from the shared humanity we have with the indigenous people being displaced, and the immeasurable biodiversity loss that will wipe out several species of life, there are global consequences in terms of the carbon cycle. The Amazon rainforests absorb 20% of the carbon dioxide on our planet. As climate change intensifies, all our gains being made in terms of greater solar and wind energy, and reduced use of fossil fuels will be lost because Brazil permitted this man-made crisis to emerge. The consequences of climate change, of course, are felt globally.

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This also leaves behind a terrible precedent of the government of a country pillaging its own backyard for short term economic gains that will come at the cost of its own vulnerable people. If the international community does not act now, we will be further thrown off course in meeting our global climate targets.”

Says Bharati Chaturvedi, Founder and Director, Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group,  “The terrifying Amazon fires we are seeing this year are due to deforestation on purpose. The Bolsanaro government has set the tone for profound disrespect for one of the greatest natural wonders of the world, and we are seeing the results. The BBC says there have been 75000 fires till now in 2019, compared to 40,000 in 2018. The pollution is spreading regionally – the air pollution is only one aspect. The development benefits are being annihilated, as people’s health, livelihood and biodiversity collapse. Brazil’s young children are in harm’s way more than ever, today.”

These fires, which have been burning for over two weeks now, seem unlikely to be brought under control soon. Till they burn down or are extinguished, the environmental damage will be immense. And we, sitting all the way here in India, are foolish to think we will remain unaffected.

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