Educational Series: Animal Homes Are Burning In The Amazon

By Nick Engelfried
The Amazon Rainforest is the world’s largest tropical forest, a global stronghold of biodiversity, and one of our best defences against runaway climate change. From huge jaguars, to pygmy marmosets small enough to perch on your hand, the Amazon is home to some of the planet’s most amazing wildlife. However, today this global treasure is under threat as perhaps never before. Unprecedented fires raging through centuries-old forest have led to a crisis for wildlife and people in the Amazon and all over the world.

It started earlier this year, when deforestation began to surge in the Brazillian Amazon as valuable wildlife habitat was cleared to make way for activities like agriculture and mining. Brazilian deforestation rates had been gradually increasing over the last few years, a reversal of the sharp decline in deforestation between 2004 and 2012 attributed to aggressive new environmental policies. However, the deforestation spike in 2019 has been especially noticeable–and many conservationists blame it on the policies and rhetoric of Brazil’s new president, Jair Bolsonaro, who was sworn into office in January.

Bolsonaro, sometimes referred to as the “Trump of the tropics” is known for his far-right and anti-environmental political views. During his campaign for the presidency in 2018 he vowed to open protected areas in the Amazon to industry and to pull Brazil out of international climate agreements (like Donald Trump in the U.S., Bolsonaro denies the existence of human-caused climate change). Since taking office he has largely made good on these threats. Under Bolsonaro, the Brazilian government has dismantled environmental agencies and largely stopped issuing fines for illegal deforestation. Conservation groups believe this has contributed to a political climate where loggers, miners, and agriculturalists feel they can cut and burn the forest with impunity.

While deforestation ticked upwards in the spring and early summer of 2019, it took this summer’s massive fires to get the world’s attention. In late August smoke began blanketing the skies above Brazilian urban centers like Manaus and São Paulo, carried from raging fires by the wind. By this time thousands of individual fires were burning, most of them intentionally started to clear forest. With smoke-related air pollution reaching dangerous levels in affected areas, the human cost of this destruction has become clear. Still, the impact on other species is even more severe.

The Amazon is believed to be home to about 10% of the planet’s biodiversity, from large animals like jaguars and tapirs, to hundreds of thousands of insect species integral to the ecosystem’s healthy functioning. Countless rainforest creatures have been caught in the path of the blazes–and while certain large animals and birds may be able to flee the flames, most species have no ability to escape. Unlike forests in some parts of the world where fires are more normal, the Amazon is not well-adapted to bouncing back after burning. With centuries-old trees going up in flames, scientists estimate it may take hundreds of years for some areas to fully recover.

If there is a silver lining to this crisis, it is that people all over the world are waking up to the plight of the Amazon in a way that hasn’t happened in a long time. In August, mass protests broke out in Brazilian cities as people took to the streets to call on the government to take action to save the Amazon–and for the resignation of Bolsonaro and key members of his administration. While Brazilians have a long history of protesting over other issues, the environment has rarely been a focus as it has been since the fires began. Deforestation and fires in the Amazon are the result of political decisions made by the country’s policymakers, and now for the first time in years, conservation of the world’s largest tropical rainforest has become a major political issue in Brazil.

Perhaps just as importantly, people in other countries are beginning to stand up for the Amazon and its inhabitants as never before. While the Bolsonaro regime’s policies are the most important immediate cause of the crisis, the truth is Amazon deforestation is a result of decisions made by companies, governments, and individuals all over the world. Most clearing of forest in the Amazon takes place to make room for growing agricultural commodities like beef, soy beans, and sugar, or as a result of extractive activities like logging and mining. The demand for Brazilian crops, wood, and metals comes largely from the international market, with raw materials being shipped from the Amazon to major economies like the U.S., Europe, and China.

Amazon Watch, a nonprofit dedicated to defending Amazonian people and wildlife, released a report in 2019, Complicity in Destruction, that sheds light on the connections between Bolsonaro’s administration, extraction of resources in Brazil, and international companies that supply goods to the U.S. and Europe. Corporations linked to deforestation in the Amazon and surrounding areas include agricultural giants like Archer Daniels Midland, Bunge, Cargill, and Louis Dreyfus. Amazon Watch refers to these four agricultural companies as the “ABCD group” responsible for much of Amazonian destruction.

International investors also bear some of the blame. The biggest asset manager in the world, BlackRock, has been accused by organizations like Amazon Watch of investing millions of dollars in extractive and agricultural industries profiting from deforestation in Brazil and elsewhere. Progressive advocacy group CREDO is urging people concerned about the plight of the Amazon to call BlackRock’s Director of Corporate Engagement at 212-810-3167, and demand the company cease contributing to deforestation.

Many residents of industrialized countries are already taking action to save the Amazon from today’s unprecedented threats. On September 4th, thousands of people in more than twenty countries joined a global day of demonstrations for the Amazon, protesting outside Brazilian embassies and the offices of international companies involved in the web of destruction. Meanwhile Norway’s largest pension fund has begun urging companies it is invested in to cut ties with Amazon deforestation. A massive trade deal between the European Union and a group of South American countries including Brazil may also be stalled over concerns that it would contribute to further clearing of forest.

Unfortunately, the worst may not yet be over for the Amazon. Reacting to public pressure, the Bolsonaro administration recently announced a short-term moratorium on setting fires in the Amazon region, but in other ways the Brazilian government’s response has been to stall and deflect blame, arguing without evidence that data showing increased deforestation is inaccurate. Further, as the Amazon’s dry season drags on into this fall, experts predict the worst fires may be yet to come. This is dire news for tens of thousands more animals likely to see their homes go up in flames.

From contacting companies like BlackRock, to educating ourselves about the links between deforestation and international commodities, each of us can help bring relief to the Amazon and the people and wildlife who depend on it. In fact, it’s possible the crisis caused by this year’s Amazon fires might be what finally inspires the world to ensure permanent protection of this globally important ecosystem. If so, there may yet be hope for the many irreplaceable animal species who call it home.

Photo credit: NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens

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Nick Engelfried Writes About Animals, the Environment, and Conservation for the ForceChange network

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