What is happening in the Amazon? Key questions and answers

Wildfires are raging throughout the Amazon forest, making headlines worldwide and pushing the world’s largest forest closer and closer to an ecological “tipping point” at which the forest could irretrievably degrade into drylands.

But is be a complex story, and online discussion has been riddled with misinformation, misleading photos, and outright errors. To fill in the gaps and bust some common myths, we answered some of the key questions regarding the forest fires.

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What is happening in the Amazon now?

Fires are burning in Brazil and Bolivia, many of them in the world’s llargest rainforest, the Amazon, sending clouds of smoke across the region and pumping alarming quantities of carbon into the world’s atmosphere.

So far this year, almost 73,000 fires have been detected, which marks an 83% increase from 2018 and the highest number on record since 2013. In several states across Brazil, the amount of ash and other particulates in August has hit the highest level since 2010.

Is all the Amazon forest under fire?

No, images of an entire forest ablaze are exaggerated. There has been misinformation spread in social media, using images of previous years’ burning seasons. There are larger fires in Colombia and eastern Brazil than in the Amazon. While there are fires in protected areas, most of them are in already deforested ones.

What’s causing the forest fires?

The fires are mostly caused by farmers clearing forest for cropland or burning stubble after the harvest season. Illegal land-grabbers are also responsible, destroying trees to raise the value of the property they seize. They are manmade and, in many cases, deliberate. Unlike the recent forest fires in Siberia and Alaska, the Amazon fires are very unlikely to have been caused by lightning. Many of the fires can be linked to deforestation for soy crops, which is used to feed cattle and pigs to support the ever-growing demand for meat.

Why is the Amazon so important?

The Amazon rainforest is known as the “planet’s lungs,” because it provides a large part of the Earth’s atmospheric oxygen. The rainforest also removes vast amounts of carbon from the atmosphere and stores it, which can help slow down global warming. Additionally, the rainforest is home to more than 3 million species of plants and animals, representing the most biodiversity in the world. Millions of indigenous people also live in the Amazon rainforest.

If the Amazon is the planet’s lungs, should we worry about oxygen?

No. The crops being planted in the cleared forest areas would also produce oxygen, quite likely at higher levels. So, although the burning of the rainforest is worrying for many reasons, there is no need to worry about an oxygen shortage.

If it’s not oxygen, what are the consequences of the forest fires?

It’s mostly CO2 and ecosystem destruction. Mostly illegal, the forest fires are degrading the world’s biggest terrestrial carbon sink and most important home for biodiversity. They also contribute to a rise in deforestation in the region. Scientists argue the Amazon is approaching a tipping point, after which it will irreversibly degrade into a dry savannah. This is happening at a time when the world needs billions of more trees to absorb carbon and stabilize the climate.

How much forest is being lost?

Deforestation spiked in July to a level not seen in more than a decade. Trees were being cleared at the rate of five football pitches every minute, according to Brazil’s space agency. Over the single month, 2,254 sq km (870 sq miles) were lost, a rise of 278% in the same month last year. This year could be the first for 10 years in which 10,000 sq km of Amazon are lost.

Brazil had been able to slow down deforestation by 80% between 2005 and 2014. This was done with strict monitoring, better policing and stiffer penalties. But that system has been eroded in recent years and many fear a return to the alarming levels of forest loss that occurred two decades ago.

Is the Brazilian national government the one to blame?

Yes, at least in part. Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro weakened the country’s environment agency, attacking conservation NGOs and promoting the opening of the Amazon to mining, farming, and logging. He also dismissed satellite data on deforestation and fired the head of the space agency. Alongside Bolsonaro, the agricultural lobby is powerful in Brazil and it has steadily eroded the protection system that was so successful from 2005-2014.

How is Brazil being helped by the rest of the world?

The United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, world leaders, and celebrities have expressed their concern about the situation in Brazil. The issue was one of the main topics in the G7 leaders’ summit in France, with countries committing to release US$22 million to help stop the fires. Brazil’s neighboring countries Argentina and Uruguay have also offered help to Brazil.

If the fires are stopped, could the Amazon be fully restored?

Yes. The areas in the Amazon that are currently being burned have a high restoration potential because the Amazonian ecosystem is incredibly resilient, and also because so many areas that are degraded are in close proximity to the intact forest. Nevertheless, it will take time and effective efforts to leave the forest alone. Naturally regenerating tropical forests take about 20 years for forest cover to come back.

What can individuals do?

No matter how far you live from the Amazon rainforest, you are probably benefiting from all that it gives to the Earth.

There are a few things you can do to show your support, such as donating to donating highly-rated charities that are fighting to protect the Amazon, such as Amazon Watch. Also, you can reduce your beef and dairy consumption, activities that can lead to deforestation — this is probably the most important and significant thing you can do. Lastly, pushing your politicians to take action on these issues, both locally and globally. At the very least, being aware (and spreading awareness) can also amount to something.

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