#PrayForTheAmazon: Why the Brazil Forest Fires Need Our Attention Beyond the Hashtag

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#PrayForTheAmazon: Why the Brazil Forest Fires Need Our Attention Beyond the Hashtag

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

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t’s a popular urban legend that the Great Wall of China is the only man-made structure that can be seen from space. While this particular nugget of trivia is a myth, recent weeks have shown us there is another human-made (or at least human-aided) spectacle that NASA has managed to photograph from space: A cloud of smoke from the massive wildfires burning through the Amazon at an alarming rate. 

Satellite images show the devastation in the Amazon.

NASA

For the past three weeks, the world’s largest rainforest has been on fire, and only recently have the international media taken notice, drawing global attention to the ongoing crisis. #PrayfortheAmazon and #PrayforAmazonia have at last begun trending on social media platforms as users try to express their solidarity with the devastated region, which is experiencing a record-breaking spread of the fires. This year has seen nearly 73,000 wildfires, according to the Brazilian space research centre, up 85 per cent from last year, with four more months still to go in 2019. Brazil’s largest city, São Paulo, was shrouded in darkness during the afternoon on Monday because of the smoke blowing in from over 2,700 kilometres away, with residents describing the effect as “day turned into night.”

It all sounds like an apocalyptic scene ripped straight out of a blockbuster. But on the silver screen, there is no shortage of superheroes who show up to save the day. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for this real-life disaster. Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has been roundly criticised not only by his own citizens, but by international activists and commentators for his unwillingness to take action. Bolsonaro, one of the many right-wing authoritarian leaders who are enjoying a resurgence all over the world, has put forward policies to promote economic growth in the developing economy, which often come at the expense of the environment. Bolsonaro has disdained conservation efforts so the logging, mining, and ranching industries — all of them key contributors to Amazonian deforestation — can thrive. 

But that’s not where the president lays the blame for the crisis. While fires can occur naturally in the dry season, the wet climate means that blazes on this scale are unprecedented, at least as far back as our records go. Sources point to human intervention, particularly cattle ranchers who want to quickly clear land for grazing and take advantage of the layer of ash that makes for rich, fertile soil. Local environmentalists accuse Bolsonaro of emboldening ranchers with his ominous election promises to use the Amazon to spur on economic growth. Bolsonaro, however, has refused to admit fault, insisting that NGOs have likely set the fires to make his government look bad as revenge for cutting their funding. 

For us Indians, this bluster is a little too familiar. Bolsonaro’s short-sighted leadership is a cautionary tale for India, where the urgent need for infrastructure development is used as an excuse to strip away environmental protections. The legal battle over building a metro carshed in Mumbai’s Aarey Colony rages on, with climate activists pointing out that the green patch is one of that last lungs of fresh vegetation in a sprawling concrete jungle. Another contentious infrastructure project, the BMC-backed Coastal Road, has been stalled since last month after nearly a year of work after the Bombay High Court order quashed environmental clearances. On one hand, reports found that despite spending about 600 crore, only six per cent of the work has been completed — half of what should have been done. But as well as typical bureaucratic inefficiency, the project, which relies on reclaiming flood-prone coastal lands, has been held up by lawsuits. The road-building will not be allowed to resume without an environmental impact assessment; a good thing, seeing how it jeopardised the city’s depleting mangroves, which help prevent soil erosion and flooding. 

The HC’s judgment is a reflection of the brutal impact of extreme climate conditions felt more keenly every year, with states bearing the brunt of severe floods, heatwaves, and droughts. But these natural disasters are no longer an exception. Climate change has, paradoxically, made extreme weather the new normal. From California to the Canary Islands, and the fires engulfing Siberia, thousands have been displaced by wildfires this year, made deadlier by one of the hottest summers on record. Forests like the Amazon — also known as the earth’s green lungs — absorb billions of tons of carbon dioxide a year, slowing the pace of global warming and rising sea levels. Whether we’re in danger of drowning, roasting, or dying of thirst, it’s natural wonders like the Amazon that have the potential to save us. When governments fail to take climate action seriously, these forests could be the only superheroes we have. 

Bolsonaro has disdained conservation efforts so the logging, mining, and ranching industries — all of them key contributors to Amazonian deforestation — can thrive.

It’s not just about climate change, whose spectre has taken a terrifying form that affects all our lives. The indigenous inhabitants of the Amazon, like all forest-dwelling communities, are being pushed out by encroachments, even though they are usually the only people who understand sustainable development in these delicately balanced environments. The Amazon also includes the single most biodiverse place on earth, and is chock full of valuable plants and animals. Besides preserving unique species that might otherwise die out, indigenous tribes have found countless medicinal uses for them. With about a quarter of Western medicines already derived from rainforest plants, including cancer drugs, who can say what we stand to lose as the Amazon continues to burn?

At the very least, we definitely know what’s at stake: The fate and future of the planet as a suitable home for us human beings. A colony on Mars is still a long way off, too long for most of us to last out the climate crisis. It’s time we took a cue from the movies, and started treating the Amazon fires with the gravity of a real, world-threatening apocalypse. 

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