World, Environment

Amazon fires wreak new level of havoc on surroundings

Deforestation, climate change could transform much of region’s rainforests into savanna ecosystem, says expert

Burak Bir   | 27.12.2019
Amazon fires wreak new level of havoc on surroundings


The deforestation of the Amazon rainforest -- the "lungs of the earth"-- by wildfires is untold destruction, not just for the Amazon but for the entire planet, according to the head of a nonprofit environmental group.

"The total deforestation recorded from January to November was 8,934 square kilometers [2.2 million acres], 83% more than in the same period of 2018 and an area almost the size of Puerto Rico," Christian Poirier, the program director of Amazon Watch, told Anadolu Agency.

Saying there is strong evidence that this year’s fires in the Amazon are linked to deforestation, he noted that the number of active fires in July was four times higher than the average in the previous three years while the number of active fires in August was almost three times higher than in August 2018 and the highest since 2010.

"The last data related to Amazon fires is from Nov. 29. There were 10,223 outbreaks registered, even with the beginning of the rainy season in the region, which means a 30% increase over October (which had 7,855 outbreaks) and a 15% increase over November 2018," he added.

Destructive effects on wildlife

Speaking on the "devastating effects" of the fires on wildlife in the rainforests, Poirier stressed that although the consequences for fauna are yet to be well measured, very old forests are being lost, which is generating more carbon emissions.

"The rainforest can take decades, even centuries, to recover," he added.

"Among other impacts, the flow of water into the basins that comprise the Amazon will decline, affecting fishing and agriculture, deepening the threat crisis to species and worsening regional and global climate change," he said, citing a recent research from Stony Brook University in the U.S.

He went on to say that with as much as 17% of the forest lost already, scientists believe the tipping point will be reached at 20% to 25% of deforestation.

"The combination of deforestation and climate change could transform much of the Amazon into a savanna ecosystem, with dire effects on the world’s climate system.

"If this happens, tens of thousands of endemic species will go extinct and enormous amounts of carbon will be lost," Poirier noted, referring to worst-case scenarios if there is a "tipping point" in the Amazon.

He added that as huge amounts of the rainforest are vanishing, there is also the danger that the key role of the "heart of the earth" in acting as a carbon sink will drop dramatically, meaning more carbon dioxide will remain in the atmosphere.

Situation of Indigenous communities

Referring to figures from the National Institute for Space Research (INPE) which detected a number of fires on indigenous lands in the first nine months of 2019, which is double that of last year and the highest number in the last eight years, he stressed that the fires are linked to "deforestation, invasions and violence" in indigenous territories.

"Invasions of indigenous lands have increased since 2018, leading to deadly clashes with indigenous people and deliberately set fires aimed at clearing forests for cattle pastures," he added.

Land grabbers and illegal loggers and miners are the main drivers of deforestation which was supported by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro's anti-environmental policy, he said.

Citing figures on killings of indigenous people in the region, he said murders of indigenous people made up 37% of all rural killings this year, up from 7% in 2018.

For thousands of years, the Amazon has been home to at least 400 distinct indigenous peoples from eight South American countries whose lives are intrinsically connected to the land and water for daily and cultural survival.

Bolsonaro's policy towards Amazon

Mentioning that although there was a remarkable drop in Amazon fires after the Bolsonaro government's firefighting response, Leila Salazar-Lopez, the executive director of Amazon Watch, highlighted that there is the need for a real commitment from Brazil’s president to protect the rainforest.

"Bolsonaro has promised ‘zero tolerance' for explosive deforestation and subsequent widespread arson. However, his policies and rhetoric have actually encouraged such crimes," she noted, referring to farmers’ and ranchers’ operations in the rainforest.

"The Amazon fires were a global tragedy directly related to President Bolsonaro’s anti-environmental rhetoric," she said, adding that U.S. and European corporations’ operations in the rainforests accelerated the deforestation.

"We must keep the pressure on the Brazilian government to ensure the protection of the Amazon and its native peoples, who are on the front lines of defending the rainforest, and look inward to do our part in protecting our rainforests and planet for generations to come.”

The Amazon is home to one-third of the world’s plant and animal species and generates 20% of the Earth’s fresh water. It also produces 20% of the Earth’s oxygen and as a vast carbon sink absorbs more than 1 billion tons of atmospheric carbon which is emitted by the burning of fossil fuels annually.

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