An Idiot’s Guide to the Amazon Rainforest Fires


I just ate so much steak I’m gonna grow horns.

Seriously. Went to this Brazilian barbecue joint tonight, the kind where waiters keep coming around slicing sizzling hunks of cow onto your plate until you surrender. It was ridiculous.

The irony is that I accomplished this culinary conquest while procrastinating on writing this story. While I was blowing through beefy bacchanalia, thousands of miles away in actual Brazil, the Amazon rainforest burns like Cheech and Chong’s van—a nail slammed into the environment’s coffin. And all so that meatheads like me can scarf cheap steaks by the pound, while pondering entertaining ways to elucidate on environmental disasters. Okay, irony aside…

What exactly is going on in the Amazon?

For a while, it seemed like the news wasn’t covering these massive, man-made, visible-from-space, likely-government-sanctioned ‘wildfires’ engulfing the ‘lungs of our planet’. Have you Googled ‘Amazon Fire’ recently? Talk about a topic with SEO issues. Most likely ‘natural’ disasters don’t feature on the news cycle as well as whatever Trump’s tiny thumbs are tapping about. But in a testament to the seriousness of the situation, the Amazon wildfires ultimately made headlines, so naturally now there’s a pile of information—both real and bullshit—dragging for eyes across social media feeds.

Here’s some facts.

The Amazon is the world’s largest rainforest. Nearly two-thirds the size of the United States, it covers 40% of South America and houses 30 million people, plus so many unique plants and animals that a new species is still discovered every two days. While it spans eight countries, two-thirds of it is in Brazil, and that’s where the problem starts. Taking a page from Trump, Brazil’s far-right populist president Jair Bolsonaro promised his impoverished rural base that if elected, he’d roll back environmental protections in the Amazon to increase agricultural and mining development, and, once elected, started off by slashing his governmental environmental watchdog’s budget by $23 million dollars, rendering them effectively impotent.

Remember all those ‘save the rainforest’ stickers you’ve seen over the years? Well, they worked for a while. Deforestation had decreased 80% since peaking in 2004. But now it’s escalating again at an alarming rate. Between 2012 and 2018, experts claim incidents of man-made ‘slash and burn’ fires are up 73%. Brazil’s National Institute for Space reports there are currently at least 74,000 individual fires burning in the Amazon, up 84% over last year. It’s so bad that Brazil’s most populous city, São Paulo, which sits 1700 miles from the fires, is engulfed in smoke.

Why are people setting these fires?

Pfft. Money, of course. By burning away brush and trees, farmers can clear otherwise often protected land to use for agriculture. Bolsonaro’s environmental budget cuts and promises of loosened regulations have emboldened his people to think it’s okay, even encouraged, to torch the Amazon. They believe his propaganda that environmental and human rights protections get in the way of economic growth, so they burn land and force Indigenous tribes out, thinking they’re going to benefit financially. Of course, much like Trump’s own promises of environmental deregulation for economic advantage, studies show that these statements are not only inaccurate in the long term, leading to what is called a ‘boom and bust,’ but the ones who really benefit are just a small number of already powerful corporations. Naturally.

 So, how does it affect you?

That remains to be seen. While scientists have been quick to point out headlines decrying 20% of our planet’s oxygen coming from the Amazon are misleading, what the Amazon actually does do is swallow up carbon, acting as a ‘sink’ that holds it safe from exacerbating climate change. Lots of carbon. Scientists are warning that this spike in destruction could be forcing a tipping point that would continue to accelerate and eventually destroy the entire rainforest, turning it instead into grasslands and savannah. In the process, it’d be the end of the most biodiverse area on the planet and would release 90 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere. Carbon is bad. So is a lack of biodiversity. Finding new plants and animals isn’t just fun, it also helps uncover, amongst other things, potential medical treatments, like already discovered medicines for heart conditions, diabetes, inflammation, arthritis, skin disease and so much more.

What’s the next steps?

Well, that’s unclear. World leaders sought to send $20 million—barely enough money to make a low-budget Hollywood film, but better than nothing—to help fight the fires, but President Bolsonaro claims he’s going to refuse it and that this whole thing is just overblown politicking looking to destabilise his nation. An interesting notion from the leader of a country whose desire to roll back human rights protections are already the stuff of legend and whose police force kills more civilians than any other country other in the world.

What’s next? Who knows? The world’s gone insane, in case you haven’t noticed. We’ll have to wait and see. But whatever it is, it’s gonna make your next steak taste a lot bloodier.

Donate to Rainforest Action Network to protect an acre of the Amazonian rainforest, the Rainforest Trust, and reduce your paper, wood and beef consumption.

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