The Amazon is being shrouded in plumes of smokeas fires rage across parts of the rainforest, imperilling the so-called “lungs of the planet” and the vast array of life to which it is home.
Visible from outer space, the smoke billows have prompted international alarm, calls for action and much finger-pointing over what, or who, is responsible for the burning.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, in particular, has come under intense scrutiny for his controversial stewardship of Brazil’s majority share of the rainforest.
Where are the fires?
The fires are burning across a range of states in Brazil’s section of the Amazon rainforest.
Northerly Roraima down through Amazonas, Acre, Rondonia and Mato Grosso do Sul have all been badly affected.
Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) spotted more than 9,500 new forest fires in Brazil since August 15 alone, while atmospheric monitoring agencies have tracked smoke from the Amazon region drifting thousands of kilometres across the Latin American giant to the Atlantic coast and Sao Paulo, briefly turning daytime in Brazil’s biggest city to night on Monday.
Amazonas, Brazil’s largest state, declared a state of emergency on August 9 while Acre has been on environmental alert since August 16 due to the fires.
Several other countries in the Amazon region have also seen a surge in fires this year, according to INPE data, including Bolivia and Peru, which both border Brazil.
What’s causing them?
Fires are a regular and natural occurrence in the Amazon at this time of year, during the dry season.
But environmentalists and non-governmental organisations have attributed the record number of fires to farmers setting the forest alight to clear land for pasture and to loggers razing the forest for its wood, with INPE itself ruling out natural phenomena being responsible for the surge.
Critics say far-right President Bolsonaro’s weakening of Brazil’s environmental agency, IBAMA, and push to open up the Amazon region for more farming and mining has emboldened such actors and created a climate of impunity for those felling the forest illegally.
Why does the Amazon matter?
The Amazon is the largest tropical forest in the world, covering more than five million square kilometres across nine countries: Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela. It acts as an enormous carbon sink, storing up to an estimated 100 years worth of carbon emissions produced by humans, and is seen as vital to slowing the pace of global warming.
“The Amazon is the most significant climate stabiliser we have, it creates 20 percent of the air we breathe and it also holds 20 percent of the fresh flowing water on the planet,” Poirier said.
Put simply, he added, preserving the forest is of “critical importance” for both the region it encompasses and the rest of the world.
But in the last half-century alone, nearly 20 percent of the forest has disappeared.
Scientists have warned that if tree loss in the Amazon were to pass a certain “tipping point” threshold, somewhere between 25 and 40 percent, deforestation could start to feed on itself and lead to the demise of the forest within a matter of decades.
Who (and what) calls the Amazon home?
The Amazon has been inhabited by humans for at least 11,000 years and is home to more than 30 million people – about two-thirds of whom live in cities carved out of the greenery.
Among those living in the region are about one million indigenous people, according to indigenous rights group Survival International, who are divided into some 400 tribes.Most live in villages, though some remain nomadic, with each tribe possessing its own distinct language and culture, both of which are traditionally intimately intertwined with the surrounding environment.
Jonathan Mazower, a spokesman for Survival International, said the tribes were “dependent on their forests for everything, and have managed and looked after them for millennia”.
“[But] many are seeing their lands burned in front of their eyes, and with it their livelihood, source of food, medicines, and their very homes,” he added.
Poirier agreed, saying the fires pose an “affront” to the “safety and integrity” of their way of life.
“Indigenous people are on the front line of this struggle – the work they do to protect the forest is so vital and their connection to the forest is so important to their cultures,” he added.
“The potential is here for not just environmental devastation, but also cultural genocide.”
In addition to the human presence within the Amazon, the forest also houses 10 percent of all known wildlife species, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), with a “new” species of animal or plant discovered in the rainforest every three days on average.
Before & After look of our lungs Amazon..