Anton Aguila / Gavel Media

Our Lungs Are Burning

Encompassing approximately 1.4 billion acres of dense, tropical forest, this South American jungle is home to nearly one in ten known species on our planet. Beneath these verdant canopies lies an incredible array of flora and fauna not found anywhere else, as well as a population of nearly one million indigenous peoples. Responsible for producing roughly 20% of the world’s oxygen, this area is often referred to as “the lungs of the world.” This is the Amazon rainforest, as narrated by Sir David Attenborough.

Well, it’s not actually. But wouldn’t it be great if it was?

No, instead, this is the Amazon in a state of emergency.

Satellite imagery from NOAA-20 on August 13, 2019 showing that the smoke from the flames is visible from space. Photo courtesy of the NOAA Environmental Visualization Laboratory.

According to Brazil’s National Institute of Space Research (INPE), the country has experienced over 75,000 fires this year, a shocking 84% increase from 2018. Roughly 39,600 of them were detected in the Amazon rainforest, the largest number of fires observed since the organization began recording such information in 2013.

The lungs of the world are burning. And like anyone who’s overdone it at the gym will tell you, this is not a good sign. In fact, this is very, very bad. 

A report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released earlier this month stresses just how vital forests are to the planetary ecosystem, emphasizing their role in absorbing millions of tons in carbon emissions every year. 

And while fires around this time of year are not too unusual for the Amazon rainforest—given that it’s the height of the dry season—the sheer number that have occurred in 2019 is astonishing scientists. Since the Amazon received more rainfall than normal this year, researchers note that the scale of these flames seem to indicate deforestation-driven fires.

Satellite imagery from August 20, 2019 showing clouds of smoke rising over vast parts of South America from the Amazon fires. Photo courtesy of NASA Worldview, Earth Observing Data and Information System (EOSDIS).

Buoyed by the perception that media outlets are ignoring the devastation in the world’s largest rainforest, along with suddenly darkened skies over São Paulo believed to be the result of the fires, people have taken to social media to spread word of the crisis. This has caused the hashtag #prayforamazonia to trend globally on Twitter, with nearly 150,000 references to the fires.

The catastrophe sparked further controversy when Brazil’s right-wing President, Jair Bolsonaro, weighed in on the source of the flames. 

Initially dismissive of environmental concerns, Bolsonaro claimed that the fires were caused by the routine slash-and-burn tactics used by farmers to clear land. However, in a later interview with local news agencies, he went on to accuse non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) of deliberately setting the fires as retribution for slashed funding. 

"So, there could be... I'm not affirming it, criminal action by these 'NGOers' to call attention against my person, against the government of Brazil. This is the war that we are facing," said Bolsonaro in a Facebook Live interview translated by the BBC.

The president failed to provide evidence for his allegations.

Bolsonaro has previously received condemnation over his environmental policies.

Earlier this year, the Brazilian president fired the director of the previously referenced INPE, Richard Galvão, for publishing data portraying an alarming 88% increase in deforestation rates compared to the same month in 2018. 

Most officials attribute this deforestation to developers clearing the land for cattle ranching and mining, practices that have been encouraged by the government. Since taking office earlier this year, Bolsonaro has shown an increased willingness to relax environmental restrictions in favor of economic growth.

“To sacrifice ‘the environment’ for the sake of wealth makes sense only if you see humans as outside of the environment,” said Aaron Salzman, MCAS '20, a member of Climate Justice of Boston College.

“But if you see us as a part of the environment, and if you recognize that we cannot have unlimited material growth in a finite world, our actions seem suicidal.”

Bolsonaro faces increased pressure from the international community to act on environmental concerns. And yet, the Brazilian president is proving to be incredibly resistant to the idea of foreign interference, casting doubt over whether or not Brazil would accept the $20 million USD in aid set aside by the G7 Summit to help stem the fires in the Amazon. 

“He sees environmental protection as a needless constraint on Brazil's economic development and wealth, and an undeveloped Amazon as a potential national security threat,” said Boston College political science Professor Jennie Purnell.

“Like the military [dictatorship] before him, Bolsonaro considers environmental restrictions to be externally-imposed, a form of neo-imperialism, and thus a threat to Brazil's sovereignty as well as its wealth.”

Bolsonaro has also shown open disdain for Brazil’s participation in the historic Paris Climate Agreement, threatening to leave the accords like the United States, before backpedaling shortly prior to the country’s national elections. 

Nevertheless, observers note that Bolsonaro’s arguments against environmental regulations sound remarkably similar to those used by U.S. President Donald Trump.

“I do believe that Bolsonaro is encouraged by U.S. environmental and climate policies,” said Purnell. “He’s also adopted the language of the Trump administration, most notably calling domestic and international coverage of deforestation in the Amazon ‘fake news.’” 

President Emmanuel Macron of France has since promised to scrap the potentially highly lucrative EU-Mercosur trade deal should Brazil pull out of the Paris Agreement.

Amidst international condemnation over his climate policies, it remains difficult to say how Bolsonaro’s environmental agenda is affecting his political prospects.

“Like President Trump, he has a core base of support (around 25-30%) that remains strong and undoubtedly supports most or all of his policies,” remarked Purnell.

“Outside of that base, he's definitely losing support, faster than any other president since Brazil's return to democracy in 1985. But without polling data, it's hard to say how much his environmental policies play into that.”

One sector of Brazil’s population that is disproportionately affected by Bolsonaro’s environmental policies is its indigenous people, many of whom call the Amazon rainforest home.

During a campaign event in 2017, Bolsonaro underscored his views on scaling back protections for indigenous territory in favor of economic development.

“Where there is indigenous land, there is wealth underneath it,” declared Bolsonaro as he ran for president.

“Bolsonaro respects neither indigenous peoples nor indigenous rights,” expressed Purnell. “He considers indigenous people to be an obstacle to development, and argues that .04 percent of total population cannot control 13% of the national territory.”

“There's a great deal of racism involved here—Bolsonaro considers indigenous Brazilians as lazy, backwards, ignorant and so forth.”

While the damage is not yet completely irreversible, the Amazon’s point of no return is coming uncomfortably close. Once a certain amount of a rainforest is lost, it triggers a process known as “forest dieback” in which the forest’s ecosystem can no longer sustain itself, leading to a rapid collapse.

So, the lungs of the world—our lungs—are burning, and the person who is ostensibly in charge of fighting the fire is both somewhat responsible for the severity of the flames and seemingly unwilling to accept any outside help. 

Despite the dire situation, Salzman continues to urge people to believe in the importance of individual change.

“Educating yourself on the broad implications of climate change is a good place to start,” said Salzman. “Then, students should examine their own lives to see how they personally contribute to the climate crisis, and make changes as much as possible.”

“At the end of the day, it's our future we're talking about.”