The Amazon Rainforest – the area in Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay and Peru – is burning at a rate never before seen. The Amazon is regarded as vital in the fight against global warming due to its ability to absorb carbon from the air. It’s often referred to as the “lungs of the Earth,” as more than 20 per cent of the world’s oxygen is produced there. It is hard to get a handle on the exact number of fires, be it 75,000, 90,000, or over 100,000, but one thing is clear, it is a large number and seems to be growing every day, causing significant Amazon deforestation.
Left to its own devices, the Amazon rainforest rarely burns, and the ecosystem is not adapted to deal with fire. The area has been “fire-resistant” for much of its history because of its natural environment, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. While drought can be a factor in Amazon rainforest fires, usually caused by major El Niño droughts, there is nothing abnormal about the climate or rainfall amounts in the Amazon this year. The fires can kill many of the trees they encounter, because the thin-barked Amazonian species are not adapted to deal with fire—unlike many species of trees in the western U.S. or Mediterranean climates, which evolved to deal with frequent fires.
“The majority of the fires we’re seeing now are because of deforestation,” according to Ane Alencar, the director of science at the Amazon Environmental Research Institute. While the fires themselves are destructive and devastating, she continues that their primary cause and the way they are spreading is cause for more concern. This year there are 45% more fires in Brazil than there were at this time last year. What is alarming is that many of these fires are deliberately set, not lightening strikes or careless campers, but planned out and propagated by farmers and large corporations for farming, drilling and mining. If you are like me, living in a metropolitan area, I did not understand the reason for the setting of these fires and the deliberate deforestation of the Amazon rainforest. So, I set about trying to learn why and I thought I would relay my findings to help you understand about the Amazon rainforest fires.
Most of the Amazon fires causing deforestation are due to the growth of industrial agriculture in the area. As the world’s population grows, demands for agricultural products also grow. Harvested crops are not just consumed by people in the area, but as cultivation and transportation system get more advanced and sophisticated, production in these areas can be exported, a lot of it to China and its growing middle-class population. Brazil, now the world’s largest soybean producer, has converted 18% of its forest ecosystem since 1970 through clear-cutting and fire to aid livestock, soybean and oil palm cultivation.
A number of factors contribute to the Amazon deforestation. Cattle farmers start fires deliberately to clear forests to make way for ranching. Additionally, the agro-economic model of the local populations is based on slash and burn farming, a temporary soil fertilization technique that consists of clear-cutting large numbers of trees and leaving the felled trees to dry out. Once the fallen trees have desiccated, they set them on fire providing the plot of soil with nitrogen, leaving behind an open swath of land ready for agricultural activity. While the soil is nutrient rich, it is planted with soybeans. After exhausting exploited land, local farmers abandon it and replicate the process on other nearby land, a circle of endless deforestation.
There is never enough time for reforestation as any regrowth is burned again the next season to plant more product, provided cattle grazing areas, or just never replanted. It is hard to place blame on the local small farmer as this is what they have been taught and they do not understand agroforestry and the techniques available to restore areas of degraded forests without ruining their livelihood. The Gifted Tree’s projects are attempting to reverse this vicious cycle, but more on that later.
Believe it or not, a few decades ago there use to be more fires in the Amazon rain forest. Amazon deforestation peaked in late 1990s and early 2000s. In the worst phases of those peak deforestation periods, over 10,000 square miles of forest could be cut down in a year, much of that cleared area converted directly to cropland for planting soybeans or grazing for cattle. In some years, like in 1998 and 2005, that deforestation activity coincided with major El Niño droughts, and fires were abundant and widespread.
A concerted effort from the Brazilian government after the mid-2000s, as well as coordinated international pressures, led to changes in the management of the forest and agricultural land. The efforts were largely successful: By 2012, the annual deforestation rate bottomed out at about 80 percent lower than the average rate between 1995 and 2006.
Now there is the question of whether the policies of new president Jair Bolsonaro are a reason for the increase in the current number of fires. As part of his election campaign, Bolsonaro pledged to increase agricultural activity in the Amazon and smooth the way for more development in the region, ignoring international concern over deforestation and climate change. Under his new administration, many scientists, indigenous leaders, and environmental advocates worry that deforestation rates were likely to shoot up again. That fear seems to be playing out. Under Bolsonaro, forest protections have been weakened and enforcement of illegal logging has diminished. The fires burning across the region and choking downwind communities are an all too visible result of this shift in policy. Furthermore, national policies are causing economic contraction in the cities, chasing workers into the rural areas. This swelling of the rural population is increasing agricultural activity further exacerbating the deforestation problem. As Doug Morton, the chief of the Biospheric Sciences Laboratory at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center exclaims, “These fires are ecologically devastating.”
While there is no single answer and reversing this destructive behavior will take a concerted global effort, The Gifted Tree is trying to do its part. Planting your gift tree in the Amazon Rain Forest will have wide-ranging community benefits; restore burned areas, conservation of tropical biodiversity, improvement of the water cycle, diversify forest fruit production, ensure food and nutritional security, and store carbon to fight climate change. Besides tree planting, our program teaches local farmers to integrate agroforestry into their farming practices allowing them to earn more income per acre than before. Thus, they are becoming aware of the importance of forest cover for their food crops, and of the ability of trees planted in and around their fields to enrich cultivated soils. As a result, slash-and-burn farming loses its interest. Your gift tree thus makes it possible to mobilize local populations towards a sustainable agricultural production method and thus break the vicious circle of Amazon deforestation by the rain forest fires.