The Amazon rainforest is spectacular, a truly sublime testament to the beauty and wonder of the natural world. The area, known as the ‘lungs of the world,’ is a verdant paradise, spanning some 5.5 million square kilometres. It is home to some 390 billion trees, of which a large proportion are now burning. The fires raging across this magnificent, fertile landscape have shocked the world, with questions coming from nations around the globe. How did these fires start? Why are our lungs burning?
The answer to these questions is not simple. The Amazon is vast. Sometimes too vast to properly comprehend. It stretches across Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Columbia, French Guiana, Bolivia, Suriname, Guyana and Venezuela. And it’s not just its geographical topology that is vast and untenable, its history, its social implications, practically everything about it is complex. A twisting tale of nations, people, wildlife and industry all bound together like so many branching roots.
The cause of the fires currently raging was a match lit long ago when the first transatlantic explorers arrived from Portugal in the 16th Century. They saw the value of the vast swathes of forest that lay before them. Since then, the demands of international trade have seen the rainforest be used not only for the early timber trade but also later for the rubber trade and, more recently, agribusiness and illegal logging.Embed from Getty Images
This recent deforestation, occurring from the middle of the twentieth century onwards, has meant that huge tracts of the Amazon have been gouged away. Fire has been used as a way to clear land for agriculture for many years with terrible consequences for the rainforest, but it is with the new policies of the Bolsonaro government that the breadth and extent of the destruction has reached new heights. The Brazilian government has culled financial support for their environmental protection agency by 95% which has direct consequences for fire-fighting provisions in the Amazon. Farmers, businesses and other organisations are now emboldened by these policies and by a quiet unspoken reassurance that they will not be held to account for their actions.
The fires currently raging through the forest were, most likely, started by people making room for cattle farming. This has had a devastating effect on the biodiversity of the region, as well as destroying populations of indigenous peoples. Indeed, it is well documented that Bolsonaro is overtly opposed to the rights of the, at least, 305 tribes that live within his country’s borders. This has given licence to armed, extremist groups of ‘grileiros’ or land-grabbers, who will invade the land of indigenous tribes and feel legitimised to do so. Most, if not all, of these tribes are heavily reliant on the rainforest, for their daily lives, their cultural beliefs and their societal units. They have survived hundreds of years of colonial, industrial encroachments and these recent fires are just the latest incursion in centuries of systematic infiltrations.
The Rise of the Populist, we reap what we saw.
It is clear the rise of populist leaders in the US, Europe and further afield have now emboldened characters like Bolsonaro to roll back environmental protections for the Amazon. Last month, when world leaders met at the G7 they quickly condemned the Brazilian president for his inaction and total failure in the stewardship of the Amazon. His reaction was not only defiant it also exposed the total lack of political capital. Even their offer of financial support (the carrot world powers always fall back on) fell on deaf ears. Bolsonaro is not interested, and why should he be? When President Trump pulls the United States (one of the world’s largest polluter) out of the most comprehensive climate agreement ever signed, what does that say to populist leaders like Bolsonaro? When the UK, a country with over 19,000 miles (34,000+ Km) of coastline would rather invest in highly unpopular fracking sites than in green energy such as tidal and wind, what does that say to Bolsanaro? When instead of taking immediate action at the sight of the polar ice caps melting faster than ever predicted, nations are instead fighting to be the first to exploit the region’s now uncovered oil and gas resources, it is almost comical to think that a few “stern words” from leaders at the G7 will accomplish anything.Embed from Getty Images
What are Bolsonaro’s plans for the Amazon?
Behind the displacement of the Amazon’s indigenous populations are the plans to build hydroelectric dams in the region, developing the land used by the native people and effectively destroying their way of life. The river is the source of their food and water. Any development on the land would severely affect this resource. Bolsonaro has spoken of unifying and integrating the indigenous people with the larger Brazilian population, in an cynical attempt to utilise the areas of rainforest they currently inhabit. The development of this land for dams may be seen as a popular decision, bringing employment, construction and the glimmering possibility of economic stability. It is the same cynical strategy employed by the current US administration to Make America Great Again by promising to bring the coal industry back to it’s hayday or removing protection of wild animals and opening up wildlife reserves for oil and resource exploration. What many don’t realise or are completely happy to ignore is the consequences of the environmental destruction. The fires currently darkening the daytime skies over São Paulo should serve as a stark warning of the ramifications of such devastation.
What Should be done?
It is clear that without a coordinated international effort it is not just the Amazon that will suffer. The rise of populism is a direct failure of leadership by the world’s leading economies, not only have we failed to lead the rest of the world, but we have also failed our own people. The roll back of environmental protections is a consequence of this failure and without drastic change from each of us the “powers that be” will be in no hurry to provide solutions.
It is with hope and inspiration that we look at the next generation and their passion to save the environment. Young people all over the world are emboldened by their peers, such as Greta Thunberg, who is now a household name in many countries. Efforts by her and others her age might finally start to translate into a real change of policy and culture. However, what chance will they have to fight for the necessary change in a world of dwindling resources and opportunities? A world more divided and at odds with itself? Are we simply setting them up for failure? We stand upon the precipice of unimaginable consequence and we are, in fact, already in the midst of a mass extinction event. Not brought on by some natural disaster over which we have no control but by our own greed and wilful ignorance.
Right now, we are standing on train tracks playing a game of chicken with the incoming locomotive. When it hits, you can be rest assured the locomotive and track will be just fine, we however, won’t be.