The Amazon rainforest is a haven for thousands of species, whether mammals or reptiles, whether aerial animals or arboreal, it has bound everyone together into this perfect ecosystem of harmony and balance. Forest fires are not uncommon in the areas of California and Siberia. But what makes the front page is when a rainforest, the largest of its kind, which stays damp nearly the entire year, is set ablaze. Not once. Not twice. There has been an 84% increase in the rate at which the fire is engulfing the forest this year. The rainforest, that contributes almost 20 per cent of the earth’s oxygen, had been burning for over 16 days resulting in a major loss of trees and biodiversity. It seems that the synergy between climate change and unperturbed human activities has worked out too well, so much so, its leaving ashes and smoke in its wake.
Reasons one too many
Natural and man-made causes
One of the theories of the Amazonian forest fire is extreme droughts due to an increase in the sea surface temperature in the Pacific and the North Atlantic. Another major cause of concern is the increasing rate at which scrub vegetation is vanishing. The slash and burn concept along with the burning of felled trees done by farmers so as to increase or prepare the land for pasture has, due to drought, reduced the soaking capacity of the scrub vegetation, thus being unable to cordon the area of flames to a limited area, allowing it to spread.
Deforestation, logging and land-use category i.e. particular land tracts designated such as indigenous lands, federal government lands and so on are certain human activities that have contributed to fire outbreaks in the Amazon.
Under the leadership of the Brazilian President Jair Bolsonora, who had promised to restore Brazil’s economy by exploring the economic potential of the Amazon rainforest, instead has encouraged the farmers and ranchers to exploit and burn the rainforest like never before. However, he seems to have only looked into his presidential tenure of four years and passed laws, without thinking of the long term consequences of his decision. The fire will not only result in a major loss of trees and biodiversity but also the release of excess CO2 into the atmosphere. The forest fires also result in the release of pollutants including particulate matter and toxic gases such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and non-methane organic compounds into the atmosphere. Yet, Bolsonora cannot be given so much credit, when his predecessors Michel Temer and Dilma Rousseff had been the one to give this boost to the agro sector of the nation, without thinking of the long term consequences.
In Brazil, EIA was established via the enactment of National Environment Policy in 1981. The main aim: to promote the preservation, enhancement, and recuperation of environmental quality of the country. The National System of the Environment (SISNAMA – Sistema Nacional do Meio Ambiente) governs the various governmental institutions at the federal, state and local levels. The National Council of the Environment (CONAMA – Conselho Nacional do Meio Ambiente) is the consultative and deliberative body of SISNAMA and gathers representatives of the three levels of government, businesses, unions, and non-governmental organizations. Among other attributions, it formulates directives and regulations for environmental issues. CONAMA is responsible for establishing norms for the EIA conducted, one of them being the obtaining of three different licenses before a proposed project is to be brought into effect. (Soares 2012)
Lack of implementation of laws
Brazilian environmental impact assessment regulations came into force in 1986 and practice has been evolving ever since. There has been, till now, no issues with the regulations governing the procedures of the Environment Impact Assessment, being one of the strictest in the world. It is in the implementation that Brazil lacks. This is so because, the procedures, though strict, have been criticized to be quite difficult to implement. Even though one of the main aims of these procedures was the involvement of all stakeholders, however, it has turned out to be a failure. Most of the decision making power with respect to the Assessment is with the Federal Government, leaving residual powers to the various states. Even though a provision has been made that for certain cases, there is to be a public hearing, 45 days in advance, yet it is very obvious, that all interested groups may not be entertained in such a short period.
It is the States and the public who have a better idea of the ground reality. The balance between human needs and the environment cannot be better understood than its inhabitants. People in suits, locked within rooms and walls cannot alone decide on various aspects of the environment. Brazil’s procedure is not the problem; it is the practice. (Innovation 2017)
Fall in economic results
One of the major indicators of this imminent massive wildfire was the 2016 report of the Climate Observatory, showcasing the statistics of greenhouse gas emissions, as an increase of 8.9%, largely due to deforestation and intensive agriculture. However, what is interesting is that numbers reveal that the 2016 rise in GHG emissions occurred amid one of the country’s worst financial crises and economic downturns. Brazil’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) fell 3.6%, and in 2015 GDP fell 3.8%. Declines in GDP usually effectually decrease GHG emissions which instead rose to 12.3%.
Adverse impact of laws implemented
Also, with the implementation of the new laws, it has not only caused an adverse impact on the Amazon through its forest fires, but also its rigorous deforestation has resulted in causing a major breach in Brazil’s Paris Agreement of December 2015 in the carbon cut pledge. (Gonzales 2017)
This seems to have been falling on deaf ears on the State of Brazil. Even though it had been established that economic development has nothing to do with exploitation of resources, yet citing this reason Brazil’s Supreme Court in 2018 had upheld major changes that were made to environment laws via the New Forest Code of 2012 that protected the Amazon and other natural resources, reducing penalties for deforestation among starters. The powerful agricultural lobby, with the biggest being bancada ruralista in the Congress, has supported the new laws since it has provided a boom to its sector since penalties on deforestation prior to 2008 have been foregone by the Apex Court in its decision. This is nothing less than ‘legal deforestation’, with over 7 million to 15 million hectares of forest becoming unprotected overnight. Article 12(5) of the Forest Code 2012, allows for only 65% of the forest area to remain protected, which when breached, the aggregate unprotected area more than doubles.
The United Nations Environment Programme, in its Emission Gap Report 2017, found that “recent studies assessed suggest that Brazil… [is] likely to — or [is] roughly on track to — achieve [its] 2030 NDC [Intended Nationally Determined Contribution] targets with currently implemented policies.” However, it seems that they had forgotten to take into account the recent SEEG report showing a sharp upsurge in emissions for Brazil in 2016. (Torres 2018)
Circulation of Fake News
One of the other problems that this crisis has led to it is the posting, sharing and circulating of old photos. Many of the photographs which are being ‘liked’ and ‘tweeted’ on are as old as 1989, almost three decades old. Not only that, but some of these photos belong to the forests of the United States and Siberia. This folly is not only of the general public. President Emmanuel Macron, along with Leonardo Di Caprio seems to have been a party to it. (Bramwell 2016).
What can be done to prevent such mishaps in the future?
For a country, which celebrated nature and encouraged environment preservation at the opening greatest sports event of the world, The Olympics in 2012, it seems to be at a loss to combat fire for over 16 days.
Apart from this, other problems that still demand attention is the reality that protecting Amazon is a difficult and gruelling task. It is very expensive to police vast, remote and sparsely populated areas across difficult, densely forested terrain; one of the reasons why the Amazon has become a smuggling route for illegal drugs.
Yet it is not impossible. Through domestic policy changes, major positive impacts have been seen on rainforests in other parts of the world. Costa Rica has seen its rainforests double in area since 1996 when it implemented a payment scheme to rural areas to fight poverty and deforestation. The country managed to grow its economy and is now moving toward carbon-neutrality faster than just about any other country. (Irfan 2019)
The executive secretary of United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity in the G7 meet had put forward the rising cause of concern of ecological imbalance which had led to unthinkable ramifications in the form of a wildfire which could not be diffused for more than 16 days. The situation will also be tackled in the climate action summit to be held in New York in September, followed by the UN biodiversity conference in Kumming, China, in October. At the climate action summit, the focus would be raising emissions-cutting ambitions and exploring new approaches to drawing carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. It is expected that there will be talks on nature-based solutions, which would cover how the restoration of forests can help to stabilise the climate. (Watts 2019)Frances Seymour, a distinguished fellow at the World Resources Institute who studies sustainable development, pointed out that in many instances, conserving the rainforest has a negative cost, i.e. it generates more value than the resources used to keep it whole. The value of the rainforest takes the form of regulating temperature, providing regular rainfall, controlling flooding, and purifying water that feeds municipal supplies. These functions can help Brazil insulate itself from the consequences of climate change.
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