Brazil’s Amazon rainforest has seen a record number of 75,336 wildfires this year. Amazon forests cover 40% of South America and powers the South American economy. “The Amazon is often referred to as Earth’s ‘lungs,’ because its vast forests release oxygen and absorb carbon dioxide, a heat-trapping gas that is a major cause of global warming, and store it as massive amounts of carbon,” wrote The New York Times.
Amazon is a natural stockpile of carbon reserves with 90-130 billion tonnes of carbon stored in trunks of huge trees that would otherwise be polluting our atmosphere. It is also home to about three million species of plants and animals, and one million indigenous people.
Low-level fires in the rainforest are not unusual. Even in ‘virgin’ forests, fires may burn across thousands of acres during dry years. The distinctions between these fires and the fires that forests are increasingly experiencing today are in the frequency of occurrence and the level of intensity. Natural fires in the Amazon generally do a little more than burn dry leaf litter and small seedlings. Typically, these fires have flames that only reach a few inches in height and have virtually no impact on tall trees or the canopy itself.
But the recent massive wildfires have become the biggest threat to Amazon forests, burning about 8 lakh hectare of forests this year, and releasing huge amounts of carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere. The dry season creates favourable conditions for the spread of fire, but starting a fire is the work of humans, either purposefully or by accident.
Together with accidental fires, clearing of forests by humans for farming, mining and logging is responsible for a loss of about 6,000 acres every hour in the Amazon forests. Journalists from ground zero have reported that there is an increase in the fires of dry scrub and trees cut down for cattle ranching. These fires are also lit as a strategy to gain ownership of land, although the real threat is from large-scale accidental forest fires in drought years.
The Amazon rainforest is one of the most incredible places on earth but has been neglected over the years. Since 1978, an estimated 7.5 lakh square kilometres of rainforests have been destroyed. If this trend continues, the Amazon rainforest could disappear within 100 years. And if the Amazon forests are destroyed, the consequences will be disastrous not only for South America but the entire world.
It’s nearly impossible to bring back these plants and animals. Restoration of forests is never full; certain losses are permanent. Some species are at risk of being made extinct. Most importantly, the indigenous people dependent on these forests would be the worst-affected. Moreover, if we don’t do anything to stop the fires and start taking preventive measures, the world will certainly lose its battle against climate change.
Reservoir of Life
The Amazon rainforest has more plant and animal species than any other terrestrial ecosystem on earth. Any destruction of this forest would not just harm diversity, it would also destroy the balance of nature, impacting all of us hugely.
We are also hugely dependent on these forests for food and medicines. From simple herbal medicines to the complicated drugs used in the cure of cancer, which are classified as essential drugs by the World Health Organisation, they are prepared by using ingredients derived from these forests. Scientists indicate that we just know about 5% of this forest ecosystem in terms of its potential medical benefits.
With the denuding of this forest, there is a danger of global warming leading to extreme events of droughts and floods.
Studies show that the tropical forests may be able to survive destruction caused by humans as rainforests have the inherent strength to rejuvenate if it has enough seedlings. However, this can only be successful if the forest is not always under attack by humans.
Brazil’s economy depends on agriculture and over 30% of its gross domestic product comes from agriculture. It is a major exporter of many agricultural and forest products across the world. President Jair Bolsonaro is prioritising development over forest conservation.
The Brazilian government relaxed stringent forest conservation laws, and many people feel that it is fine to cut forests for agricultural development as they are not going to be punished. With the attractiveness of returns from agriculture and relaxed forest conservation laws, in recent years the conversion of forest land for agriculture has increased by indigenous people, farmers and agribusiness firms. In this process, some are burning the forests to take ownership of the land for commercial agriculture.
A balanced approach, therefore, needs to be adopted between development and conservation. There is a need for an international consensus on forest conservation laws and protection of indigenous people’s rights.
The actions elsewhere are also important to reduce carbon prints like replacing animal-based food by plant-based food, as the later has less carbon footprints. Reduce the amount of paper use as well since its major raw material timber is a main product of rainforests.
As a world community, we must be careful not to destroy the resources that people will need to survive in the future. Maybe, if we all work together we can restore this beautiful rainforest to its glory.
(The author is Principal Scientist – Agricultural Economics, ICAR-Central Research Institute for Dryland Agriculture, Hyderabad)