If you’re like me, you may have been appalled by photos from space showing the massive burn occurring in the Amazon rainforest last year. People shared it, got worked up about it, and forgot about it. The photos shouldn’t just be a cast away internet trend, though—the Amazon has been burning for over two decades, and still is. In 2020 alone, deforestation covered an estimated 11,088km2, which is 9.5% higher than in 2019 and nearly 182% higher than the rate Brazil has pledged to stay within .
Yes, you heard right; Brazil is by law supposed to be decreasing deforestation of the Amazon, not increasing.
The Amazon spans nine countries and is larger than the western half of the United States. To put it in perspective, the suburbs of New York make up a collective 790km2 . Last year, Brazil cut down nearly 14 New York Cities, and almost half of those areas are now charred to a crisp.
Habitat loss is fast emerging as the leading cause for species loss worldwide, and the Amazon is a primary location for it. One of the greatest issues with deforestation and fires is fragmentation of habitats. Fragmentation can cause genetic isolation, leading to inbreeding or selection for undesirable traits and ultimately species demise. Not only are species actively lost to habitat fragmentation, but they also perish in the active burns or during deforestation.
Despite only making up 40% of the world’s rainforest, the Amazon is responsible for 25% of the world’s biodiversity, with many unique species that can’t be found anywhere else . In addition to the threat to animal species, diversity of trees and plants are also at risk, as the Amazon holds 13% of the world’s trees, 45% of those species unique .
A recent study estimates between climate change and rapid deforestation, approximately 58% of the tree biodiversity will be lost by 2050 . Imagine your children and grandchildren not knowing what a toucan or a red-eyed tree frog look like.
Burning the rainforest does not only have implications for the animals, as indigenous people also call the Amazon their home. A major threat to human health in and near the rainforests is the smoke and mixture of toxic pollutants created by the fires.
Particles become dangerous when they are smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, readily entering the lungs and lingering in the bloodstream . These toxic particles can cause a range of problems from mild irritation to lung damage, COPD, asthma, and cardiovascular dysfunction . These ailments are particularly common in developing children and those with at-risk pre-existing health concerns. In the long term, exposure to high levels of 2.5PM can cause premature death.
In 2019, IPAM Amazônia, a leader in the Brazilian effort to derail Amazonian deforestation, compiled a map estimating the area exposed to 2.5PM in higher-than-recommended doses by the World Health Organization (WHO) (Figure 1). An estimated 2,195 hospitalizations occurred in 2019 as a result of poor air quality—70% of those hospitalizations attributed to infants and older people .
You may be wondering how exactly an extremely wet place could catch on fire, and you’ll be sad to know that it doesn’t just happen. Most, if not all, of the fires are intentionally set to make room for cattle ranching or agriculture . Since President Jair Bolsonaro took office in 2019, enforcement of environmental law and policies has all but disappeared . He has actually created policies to minimize consequences for those caught intentionally burning or illegally logging land and also vowed not to designate any more land for indigenous peoples . While Brazilian policy to decrease deforestation has essentially failed since 2012, Bolsonaro truly ignited the war on the rainforest.
The Amazon is a home for many species of plants and animals as well as an integral part of the global carbon and hydrological cycles. In 2019, global carbon dioxide emissions were estimated around 40 billion tons . The Amazon absorbs about 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide a year, making it an important carbon “sink” . The rainforest is also responsible for generating much of its own rainfall , and this is important for agriculture and climate of the southern hemisphere.
If droughts begin to occur more often, the Amazon could reach a tipping point, turning into a savannah or semi-arid scrubland . Additionally, some animals and plants are also staples of everyday life for indigenous peoples, such as the giant catfish . Thus, loss of biodiversity and total deforestation would have local and global impacts.
The future of the Amazon appears bleak. After reading the depressing statistics and information above, you might be wondering how we can fix it. In order to save the rainforest, prompt, dramatic action is needed. This could begin at the source, developing sustainable cities and educating local farmers and indigenous people on safe land practices .
Strict enforcement of deforestation reduction policies and high penalties for illegal burning and deforestation is a good start. Alternative agriculture income sources would also be essential, such as aquaculture. Overall global reduction in meat consumption would cause a drastic reduction in resources needed for cattle farming. Finally, the world needs to come together financially to support development of sustainable land use and environmental education practices.
Humans often possess a narrow framework of thinking when it comes to their environmental impact. Building a damn here or burning a patch of land here may seem to have minimal repercussions, but lighting little fires everywhere truly adds up. The saddest part is the data is right in front of us, and we have the tools to fix it. Ultimately, continued destruction of the rainforest will have global implications the human race may end up regretting for decades to come.
1. Batista, Fabiana. “The Amazon Is Still Burning, Only Now the World Isn’t Watching.” The Print, 8 June 2020, theprint.in/environment/the-amazon-is-still-burning-only-now-the-world-isnt-watching/437980/.
2. Gomes, Vitor H., et al. “Amazonian Tree Species Threatened by Deforestation and Climate Change.” Nature Climate Change, vol. 9, no. 7, 24 July 2019, pp. 547–553., doi:10.1038/s41558-019-0500-2.
3. Kaiser, Anna Jean. “AP Explains: Role of the Amazon in Global Climate Change.” AP News, 27 Aug. 2019, apnews.com/article/384fdb5ee7654667b53ddb49efce8023.
4. Silva Junior, Celso H., et al. “The Brazilian Amazon Deforestation Rate in 2020 Is the Greatest of the Decade.” Nature Ecology & Evolution, vol. 5, no. 2, 21 Dec. 2020, pp. 144–145., doi:10.1038/s41559-020-01368-x.
5. Sant’Anna, André Albuquerque et al. IPAM Amazonia, 2019, pp. 1–49, The Air Is Unbearable – Health Impacts of Deforestation-Related Fires in the Brazilian Amazon, ipam.org.br/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/brazil0820_web.pdf.
6. The World Bank, and Thomas Lovejoy. “Why the Amazon’s Biodiversity Is Critical for the Globe: An Interview with Thomas Lovejoy.” The World Bank, 22 May 2019, http://www.worldbank.org/en/news/feature/2019/05/22/why-the-amazons-biodiversity-is-critical-for-the-globe.
WORDS: Elizabeth Kantra.
IMAGE CREDIT: NASA Earth Observatory.