The Amazon fires must be approached with both haste and caution

August saw social media lit up with discussion of the Amazon rainforest fires, and one month later those same fires are still burning bright. 80,000 rainforest fires have started in the region since the beginning of January, and Brazillian President Jair Bolsonaro has done very little to put them out. The far-right wing former congressman was a vocal advocate for the industrialization of the Amazon rainforest region throughout his campaign for the presidency, and he seems to be keeping true to his promises this year. The rainforest has degraded drastically since he took office last January, with fire rates up 80% since this past year, all for the sake of making way for farmable land and other whims of private interests. If we hope to save the world’s greatest carbon sink and source of biodiversity something must be done today. Failure to act now will have indelible consequences that our descendants will reap for the rest of humanity’s existence on earth. 

The road to solving this issue is an arduous one. As terrible as the Amazon fires are, it is important to remember that the people with the power to solve the issue don’t see them as such. To men like Bolsonaro, the Amazon burns are little more than pragmatic business decisions made by suits who would like to believe they sit above the rest of humanity. Big businesses like Burger King and the cash flow they bring with them to the region take precedence over the millions of people, plants and animals that reside in the Amazon.

Indigenous Brazilians have now been thrust into a seemingly endless struggle to remind the rest of the world, and their president, that they exist, and that they don’t deserve to be driven out from underneath the leafy canopies they call home. To make matters worse, it doesn’t stop there: they aren’t just having their territory stolen and redistributed, some sources say the leaders of indigenous tribes like the Waiapi are being outright hunted down and murdered by miners on the payroll of the owners of the companies starting the fires. 

That’s not to mention the wide variety of animals native only to the rainforest that now lie dead or dying amongst the swirling whirlwinds of ash and soot. One in 10 known animal species in the world are found in the Amazon rainforest, with species ranging from the capybara to the river dolphin. The animals fortunate enough to survive the actual burns are often subjected to altered breeding cycles, which can be the death knell of their species’ extinction. The damage corporate greed wreaks on the rainforest will be irreversible if something isn’t done soon.  

A common defense of Bolsonaro’s continued destruction of the Amazon is that the burning and logging are all done in the name of clearing land and generating new jobs for the citizens of Brazil. And, to be sure, some jobs are being generated. Many believe that the construction of farms and hydroelectric plants could very well create tens of thousands of new employment opportunities. At a cursory glance, it may seem as though some of the poorest communities of Brazil will be among those benefiting the most from deforestation and subsequent industrialization of the forest. 

This argument smolders out, however, once you consider the fact that the workers Bolsonaro is allegedly so concerned for are suffering due to the methods employed by the farmers he supports. Citizens who work in the heart of the Amazon are developing respiratory issues due to the abysmal air quality caused by the controlled burns nearby, with children and the elderly experiencing the worst effects. Compounding that, large soy farms — the type of farm the land is often being cleared for — are usually automated and require few workers from the local community. Jair Bolsonaro has not established himself as a president for the people. 

In the wake of criticism from environmentalists and conservationists, Bolsonaro is now desperately trying to play both sides of the conflict, going so far as to suggest that the recent fires in the Amazon were caused by environmental groups trying to debase him, and were not the fault of any negligence on his part. This backpedaling is with good reason, as plenty of his once passionate supporters have since turned against him. His approval rating has plummeted from its peak of 49% this past January to a worrying 29% as of August. The citizens of Brazil are speaking out against his actions, and, if only to quell his own political firestorm, he’s taken baby steps towards extinguishing the literal firestorm in the Amazon. The Brazilian military was indeed deployed to fight the fires late last month, which is heartening to a degree, and Bolsonaro issued a statement claiming he is committed to “protecting the Amazon region.”

Bolsonaro’s keenness to shift the blame and backpedal suggests that the time may be ripe for other countries to offer aid for the Amazon again, but it would be risky not to tread lightly. The Brazilian president has made it abundantly clear that his end goal is to commodify the rainforest, and went so far as to initially refuse aid from multiple countries at a G7 summit in August because he perceived the offer as an example of “colonialism and imperialism,” suggesting the G7 leaders were going over Brazil’s head “as if (Brazil was) a colony or no man’s land.” 

This presents a dilemma, as the Amazon can only be saved with financial aid and the help of environmental experts, but the rest of the world must be careful to not step on Brazil’s proverbial toes lest Bolsonaro misinterprets the aid as a further slight towards his country. The situation only becomes more tenuous if Bolsonaro does refuse further international aid, because other world leaders may feel an obligation to intervene without Bolsonaro’s approval, which is exactly the kind of imperialist mindset Bolsonaro accused the G7 leaders of last month. 

The prevailing theory is that damages exceeding 25% will result in the Amazon entering a “dieback” scenario in which the forest’s ecosystem would essentially collapse. In spite of this urgency, caution will be key when it comes to addressing the Amazon fires. If outside nations don’t approach Brazil with a healthy amount of deference then he may feel pressured to make hasty decisions that will affect the rest of the world. Hope is not lost for the Amazon rainforest, but, for now, the world’s primary concern should be extinguishing the flames still raging throughout its thickets. The only permanent solution is to enact stronger environmental protection laws, but until then the fires will continue to crackle and spread throughout the forest expanse like a fever.

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