The Amazon is Burning at a Record Rate

Jerri-Lynn here. This Real News Network interview with Amazon Watch’s Christian Poirier discusses Bolsonaro’s policies that prioritize agribusiness over people – especially indigenous people.

DHARNA NOOR: It’s The Real News. I’m Dharna Noor.

The Amazon Rainforest is burning at a record rate. The fires are so big that you can see the smoke from NASA space satellites. On Monday, the sky turned black over the city of Sao Paolo, Brazil and meteorologists found that the smoke filling the sky there was from fires thousands of kilometers away. Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research has documented almost 73,000 forest fires this year already. That’s an 84% uptick from what they saw in the same period last year. This comes amid a spike in deforestation in Brazil under right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro. He took office in January. But on Wednesday, Bolsonaro said that NGO’s are to blame for this uptake in fires. Now joining me to talk about this is Christian Poirier, who directs Amazon Watch’s Brazil program. Thank you so much for being here today, Christian.

CHRISTIAN POIRIER: Thanks for having me.

DHARNA NOOR: So, of course, a number of factors can contribute to these wildfires— increased dry periods because of climate change, increased logging, some fires are even created intentionally to clear land for agribusiness. Talk about all of those factors and why we’re seeing this huge spike in fires in the Amazon.

CHRISTIAN POIRIER: Under President Jair Bolsonaro, who is now in the eighth month of his tenure, we have seen an explosion in deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. Almost all of this deforestation is considered illegal. One report said 95% of deforestation we’re seeing today should be considered irregular or illegal and this is due to the rhetoric of Jair Bolsonaro, and indeed his policies, which are entirely anti-environmental and antagonistic to human rights as well, especially to the rights of Indigenous peoples who occupy the Amazon, 22% of which is indigenous territories. So the giant spike in deforestation we’re seeing today, a 67% spike since last year, and the signals that Bolsonaro is sending to rural actors, farmers, and also illegal actors, militias and mafia’s that are operating with wanton impunity under his reign, is driving a process of illegal invasions of protected areas like Indigenous territories and other protected forests.

The intentional setting of fires, the 73,000 fires we are seeing today, almost all of these were set intentionally because in Brazil this is considered the burning season. This is not unusual, but what is unusual is the 84% spike since last year. This is a humongous growth in forest fire setting and the scale of these forest fires are unprecedented. What we see as well is Bolsonaro trying to shift the blame from his own real responsibility for the massive destruction of the Amazon and the attack on Indigenous and other traditional peoples who live there by shifting the blame to nonprofits, NGOs that are doing very good work to try to protect the Amazon and it’s peoples. This is a pathological denial of the truth that we all are quite aware with or quite familiar with here in the United States under Donald Trump. Fake news is a motto of these leaders.

It’s also a denial of the science. The stats you cited earlier, the 72,843 fires we witnessed today, are from Brazil Space Research Center, INPE. INPE’s director was sacked just a couple of weeks ago for telling the truth, for doing his job, for showing that deforestation’s on the rise. And Jair Bolsonaro went on record saying that this is fake news, that INPE is trying to smear Brazil’s reputation, when in fact it’s doing its job. It’s doing his job showing Brazilians and showing the world about the environmental catastrophe that is befalling the Amazon today.

DHARNA NOOR: Now, deforestation was on the rise even before Bolsonaro was elected. The National Space Research Institute that you just cited says that it’s been increasing since 2012, so how much worse has it gotten since Bolsonaro was elected and why? Who is he responding to? Why is he enacting all these policies allowing more logging, more deforestation in general?

CHRISTIAN POIRIER: Deforestation has indeed been rising since 2012 as you say, but the spike we’re witnessing today is of enormous concern. It’s incredibly alarming, and what Bolsonaro is doing is he’s responding to the calls of Brazil’s agribusiness sector, the people who actually brought him to power, to open up protected areas in the Brazilian Amazon to extractive industry and agribusiness and to infrastructure development. He is answering the call of this sector and doing their bidding.

Basically, Brazil’s agribusiness sector is running the show in Brazil today, alongside mining, and what we see is that these actors, who have long sought to open up protected areas, protected forests, Indigenous territories to their activities, are acting with impunity. They’re acting with incredible lawlessness and they’re seeing this complete absence of the state. The government has gutted the ability of the environmental agency IBAMA, to monitor and enforce environmental law in the Amazon. The signal that this sends is that these actors can go ahead and set fires to the forest, attack, invade, and terrorize, in fact even kill Indigenous peoples who live there with impunity. So this is of enormous concern. It’s not something we witnessed previously. This is very much what Bolsonaro has brought to the table as president.

DHARNA NOOR: You’ve mentioned the impact on the Indigenous folks still living in the Amazon, and of course, these fires there have a global impact, but could we talk a little bit about how they’re affecting the folks who are actually there? Some 1 million people are still living in the Amazon. You recently visited the Amazonian state of Para, where the Munduruku people live, I believe. What do these fires and these policies either contribute to them due to these populations, and then what kind of resistance is mounting amongst those populations too?

CHRISTIAN POIRIER: Well, Indigenous peoples are really on the front lines today of the most brutal attack on their rights and on the forest in 30 years. We’re seeing the rollback of 30 years of progress on human rights and environmental protections in Brazil today. Indeed, harkening back to Brazil’s military dictatorship, the times that Jair Bolsonaro eulogizes, that he calls back to all the time, and what he’d like to see is a regime installed that have a similar agenda of wanton destruction of the forest for so-called environmental progress. Indigenous people, as I mentioned, are suffering the brunt of this attack today. I was recently on the river Tapajos, in the state of Para. Para is burning today and I was with the Munduruku people. The Munduruku people have been resisting for centuries the incursions of outsiders, be them the Portuguese, a variety of other of other actors, including now today the Brazilian state who want to build dams on their river, who want to allow wanton destruction of their territories by way of logging and mining, and who are absolutely absent in their constitutional duty to title and defend Munduruku territories.

Just after I left Munduruku territory, the territory called Sawre Muybu, the Munduruku carried out what’s called an auto-demarcation activity because the state has not demarcated this territory, leaving it open to a variety of threats, acute threats that I witnessed—diamond and gold mining rampant in the region, polluting waterways, destroying forests. Then we have also illegal loggers acting completely in open impunity, and we see as well the Munduruku needing to resist and defend their territories on their own without any federal support. They went onto their territories and drove illegal loggers off of their land and did so on their own at great peril because these are armed militias we’re seeing them go up against today. The murder of the Wayampi leader in the Northern state of Amapa shows that stakes are rising for Indigenous peoples. The Munduruku and others are really on the front lines of these struggles and need to be supported.

DHARNA NOOR: Yeah, absolutely. But the stakes are rising for the rest of the world as well. A report from the Brazilian Research Center Imazon, showed that some 20% of the Amazon was destroyed in the 20th century. Then last month on The Real News, we spoke with Alexander Zaitchik who found in a report for The Intercept actually that if we lose another 20% of the Amazon— and that could happen in less than three years— it could trigger what scientists call this dieback loop, where the forest could start to dry out and burn on its own until it was completely obliterated. Of course, the Amazon stores carbon, so it slows global warming. It’s supplies 20% of the world’s oxygen. It’s also responsible for 10% of the world’s biodiversity. What happens if we lose the Amazon? What happens to the whole – the global population if we lose this incredible resource?

CHRISTIAN POIRIER: The Amazon is indeed approaching what specialist scientists have been calling a tipping point for some time. The moment it crosses that tipping point, it will no longer be able to create its own climate, its own rainfall, and sustain itself as the life-giving rainforest that we all need to act as a buffer against runaway climate change. The Amazon creates wet weather patterns around the world. It also creates rainfall for Brazil and for Brazil’s agribusiness sector, so it should be seen as an incredible shot in the foot for the sector to be sponsoring this wholesale destruction of the forest today. But if we see the Amazon lost, we will go with it. The Amazon is essential to our survival. It’s essential to the stability of our climate and we all have a responsibility to see that it’s protected.

DHARNA NOOR: What needs to happen to end this crisis? Who needs to be held accountable, and how do we do that?

CHRISTIAN POIRIER: Well, first and foremost, we need to hold the Bolsonaro regime accountable for its responsibility in driving this crisis today. But Bolsonaro has cut off ties with all forms of resistance to his government or even attempts to dialogue with his government from the social-environmental justice movements in Brazil, including Brazil’s national Indigenous movement. So what we’re seeing is that these movements are taking their movements, their struggles, to a global level, and they’re calling for accountability from international buyers of Brazilian commodities. Brazilian markets are very dependent on export commodities like soy and beef, timber and other commodities that are vulnerable to market pressures and political pressure abroad, especially in Europe, which is the second largest importer of Brazilian commodities. We need to see Europe take leadership at this critical moment to push back and say it will not be buying commodities from Brazil that are linked to illegal deforestation and rights abuses.

We need to see European politicians, the European Parliament – do not ratify the EU-Mercosur trade agreement under these conditions. We need to see that these trade blocks do not allow for open free trade under these conditions. We need to see much better standards put into supply chain management and the protection of forests and human rights foremost over trade. This needs to be conditions that are installed over any sort of trade regime to protect the Amazon because this is one language the Bolsonaro government will understand. International boycotts of conflict commodities, the closing of markets, this is the language they’ll understand. They’re not going to understand the language of dignity, of responsibility, of human rights, of environmental protection. Everything we expect from our leaders – they’re not going to hear this. So we have a responsibility internationally— in the North, in North America, in Europe, in Asia— to make a stand against this destruction because it’s all of our responsibility. It really implicates all of us.

DHARNA NOOR: Okay, well, as you at Amazon Watch continue to mount this disruption, continue to fight this, and document the struggle and the fights of Indigenous populations in Brazil and elsewhere, we’d love to hear from you again. Christian Poirier, the Director of Amazon Watch’s Brazil program. Thank you so much for being on The Real News Network today.

CHRISTIAN POIRIER: Thanks so much for having me.

DHARNA NOOR: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

 

 

 

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21 comments

  1. scarn

    Thanks for posting this! It’s important to highlight that Bolsonaro actually fired the head of INPE for reporting the truth.

    Reply
    1. Ignacio

      And this is very telling. It says that Bolsonaro’s business friendly policies and rain forest destruction will go on while he remains in power no matter how much and strong national and international protests this sparks. To be sure, Bolsonaro is just another link on the long chain of the business friendly crowd that symply don’t give a damn on the consequences of their actions in the biosphere. Business is business and the Amazonian forest is doomed as many other ecosystems before.

      Bolsonaro is playing nationalistic blaming others such as NGOs or calling types like Macron “neocolonialists”. A big problem is that such nationalism is now fashionable and has spread to some of the biggest and most powerful countries and any international coalition interested on stopping this would be very weak.

      Any international attempt to at least put a brake on this should offer incentives to Brazil for stopping rain forest destruction but that na ga happen. IPCC models should be updated and account for the potential destruction of most of the Amazonian forest in the next decades.

      Reply
    1. PlutoniumKun

      I’m not so sure that the EU won’t hurt them. The Mercosor deal is in very big trouble, this could kill it entirely. I suspect that Bolsonaro will not be forgiven by his business backers if it falls apart.

      Reply
      1. pretzelattack

        i fervently hope you are right, because the world is turning into the modern version of easter island.

        Reply
  2. The Rev Kev

    There is a useful map site at https://earthdata.nasa.gov/earth-observation-data/near-real-time/firms/active-fire-data and if you click the link marked ‘Fire Map’ on the left under ‘Data from FIRMS’, it will take you to a world map showing where fires are at the moment. South America is getting it hard but equatorial Africa is getting clobbered. Between Californian fires, fires in Russia, South America, Africa, etc. I guess that this is the new norm for a post-climate change world.

    Reply
    1. barefoot charley

      Thanks Rev, that map is shocking–and I’ve heard not a word about the holocausts in Congo and Madagascar. Even the Sahara is burning!

      Reply
  3. Herb

    Lets not forget that the so called. eco socialist Evo Morales is presiding over a dramatic increase in forest fires in Bolivia as well.

    Reply
  4. Peter

    A bit different view:

    https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/145464/fires-in-brazil

    As of August 16, 2019, an analysis of NASA satellite data indicated that total fire activity across the Amazon basin this year has been close to the average in comparison to the past 15 years. (The Amazon spreads across Brazil, Peru, Colombia, and parts of other countries.) Though activity appears to be above average in the states of Amazonas and Rondônia, it has so far appeared below average in Mato Grosso and Pará, according to estimates from the Global Fire Emissions Database, a research project that compiles and analyzes NASA data. (Note that while the chart label says 2016, the 2019 data is listed on all of the plots as a green line. Roll your cursor over the green 2019 block below the plot to isolate the 2019 numbers.)

    But then what happened:

    https://www.science20.com/robert_walker/nasa_say_the_amazon_is_burning_at_below_average_rates_yet_many_news_stories_say_record_rates-240959?fbclid=IwAR1qkDxun5dbi7o6V0aBcaOyDNwbwiDltgOWJOQUToxeBHcGW44rcozRYs0

    So that’s the explanation, the fires were at average levels through to mid August, and then there was a huge uptick.

    Why was that? Seems that it started when the farmers in the state of Para declared a “‘dia do fogo,'” or “day of fire” on August 10th. They said they did this in order to show to Bolsonaro that they want to work and that the only way to clear pastures for them to work was with fire (report in Portuguese here), This was spectacularly “successful” and there was an immediate increase in fires which continued through the following weeks.
    As Aljazeerah reports it:

    According to the Brazilian newspaper Folha do Progresso, the fires started on August 10 when an association of farmers in the state of Para announced a so-called “day of fire”. The idea, according to the publication, was to coordinate a number of simultaneous fires to show Bolsonaro “they are ready to work”. On that day, 124 new fires were registered by INPE and the next day 203 more were flagged.

    The Public Prosecutor in the State of Para has opened an investigation into the incident

    Brazil’s Amazon is burning: ‘Some families lost everything’

    Reply
    1. Ignacio

      Though activity appears to be above average in the states of Amazonas and Rondônia

      That is key. Those fire statistics are not for the rain forest but include mainly fires in the Mato Grosso and other ecosystems where fires can be natural as well as caused by humans during the dry season. On the contrary, fires in the rain forest are mostly unnatural even in the dry season, thst is why the big forest exists. As you can see in the link provided by RevKev the distribution of fires in the rain fores is unnatural, it is related with human settlements in the shore of rivers and in the outer limits of the forest. Experts say that the frequency of fires increase very much with El Niño as it occured in 2016 but this year there is not El Niño to blame. Bolsonaro has openly promoted fires by eliminating the application of existing regulatory protections in the amazonia. He signed in January an order that gives the Ministry of Agriculture power to certify (or de-certify) formerly protected indigenous lands and transform them in agricultural land. Of course, most forest fires will occur during the dry season because in de wet season would be very difficult and it is also easier to mask them beneath the miriads of other natural/unnatural fires in places limiting the rain forest. Thus, it is a no brainer to associate the increase in amazonas fires, specially in indigenous territories with Bolsonaro’s policies.

      Reply
  5. Peter

    It’s supplies 20% of the world’s oxygen.

    A bullshit claim that really needs to be debunked, likely made by those who do not realize that plants at nighttime actually consume a substantial portion of the Oxygen they are producing during day time.
    http://www.yadvindermalhi.org/blog/does-the-amazon-provide-20-of-our-oxygen

    Therefore in terms of TOTAL global photosynthesis, photosynthesis in the Amazon contributes around 9%. This is smaller, but still substantial.

    Second, a bigger point that is often missed is that the Amazon consumes about as much oxygen as it produces. This is shown in the diagram below. Plants produce oxygen through photosynthesis (green arrow). However, the the same plants consume the equivalent of over half the oxygen they produce in their own respiration (blue arrows: my own team’s research suggests this is more like 60%). Plants metabolise just as animals do, just at a slower rate, and at night when there is no photosynthesis forests are net absorbers of oxygen.
    So, in all practical terms, the net contribution of the Amazon ECOSYSTEM (not just the plants alone) to the world’s oxygen is effectively zero.

    Reply
  6. Ford Prefect

    The Amazon burning is a huge issue, but two of the largest deforestation/degrassland programs in history were the growth of suburbs with lawns in the Eastern US and West Coast and large farms requiring irrigation in the US Midwest.

    If somebody lives in a suburb with a large grass lawn, they can plant native trees and shrubs instead of grass that needs mowing and they will:

    1. Sequester carbon;
    2. Respire oxygen into the atmosphere;
    3. Reduce smog (a lawnmower engine creates more smog than cars due to the lack of emission controls)
    4. Allows pollinator larvae to grow on the tree and shrub leaves
    5. Provides insects for birds and small mammals to eat
    6. Provides shelter and nesting habitat for birds and small mammals
    7. Provides cooling reducing urban heat island effects in the summer
    8. Reduces total runoff into streams
    9. Reduces nutrient loads from lawn fertilizer into streams and lakes reducing blue-green algae

    My basic rule is that people who are mowing large lawns aren’t allowed to moan about Amazon deforestation.

    Reply
      1. Ford Prefect

        Yes.

        We have numerous mature and young native trees (both canopy and understory trees) on our 0.5 acre lot. The grass lawn is only a small percentage of the lot and has a lot of linear edge area with various native wildflower/grass, shrub, and tree areas – some are moist/wet meadows, some are drier upland conditions. It takes about 30 minutes to mow using a small electric battery powered mower – very quiet, you can mow at 6 am and not wake the neighbors. The grass areas are largely to allow for easy movement through most of the garden in lieu of hard paths – the robins love the limited amount of the grass – they nest in a large willow on the edge of our property and fly down to hunt for food in the grass.

        There is constant activity of birds and pollinators throughout the garden. There is probably 100+ species of native plants for bio-diversity (I haven’t counted, but I know there are over 20 species of native trees alone). Native herbaceous and shrub plants have been selected so that something is always in flower from April-November (witchhazel flowers around Thanksgiving in Central NY). Right now is a pink and white period for one wet meadow area with boneset, joe pye weed, obedient plant, swamp milkweed, and turtleheads. Another area is yellows with goldenrods, cup plant, and various rudbeckias. The asters are just about to kick in to gear. The tree and shrubs have another month before they put on their fall show but many of them have ripening berries for the bird fall migration..

        Some of the trees, like bur oak, swamp white oak, and tulip tree, have long life life spans likely measured in centuries for long-term carbon sequestration

        Reply
  7. Steven

    Any guesses as to whether there might be a connection between China’s embargo of US soy exports and Brazilian farmers taking advantage of an opportunity to permanently fill the void?

    BTW – According to George Will, farm equipment maker John Deere is seizing the moment by selling Brazil the equipment needed to substitute agricultural exports rain for rain forest.

    Reply
  8. George

    Peter, it also has become a net carbon emitter, actually producing more C02 than total US car emissions.
    https://www.counterpunch.org/2017/11/06/the-ecosystem-is-breaking-down/

    Equally horrifying, recent studies show tropical rainforests emitting more CO2 than automobiles, which is kinda like getting hit repeatedly in the head with a wooden two-by-four, a deadly serious wake up call that says the planet is breaking down.

    As for the rainforest research: A 12-year study claims the world’s tropical rainforests have reversed gears. Instead of absorbing CO2, as they have forever and ever and ever, serving as a carbon sink, they are emitting CO2 into the atmosphere. It’s not supposed to work that way. (Source: A. Baccini, et al, Tropical Forests are a Net Carbon Source Based on Aboveground Measurements of Gain and Loss, Science, Vol. 358, Issue 6360, pp. 230-234, October 13, 2017)

    “The forest is not doing what we thought it was doing,” said Alessandro Baccini, who is one of the lead authors of the research team from Woods Hole Research Center and Boston University. “As always, trees are removing carbon from the atmosphere, but the volume of the forest is no longer enough to compensate for the losses. The region is not a sink any more.” (Source: Jonathan Watts, Alarm as Study Reveals World’s Tropical Forests are Huge Carbon Emission Source, The Guardian, Sept. 28, 2017) The “region is not a sink any more” is almost impossible to accept. How can it be true?

    Reply
    1. salvo

      sorry, but the claim that tropical forests are now net carbon emitters does not make any sense, as it confuses cause and effect.

      Nearly all of the oxygen found on Earth today is produced by biological activity. During the process of photosynthesis, carbon dioxide and water react in the presence of chlorophyll to produce carbohydrates and oxygen. Scientists believe that oxygen was essentially absent from the earth’s atmosphere when the planet was first created. As life developed on Earth and photosynthesis became more common, the rate of production increased until the present concentration of oxygen in the atmosphere, the oceans, and the crustal rocks was reached about 580 million years ago.

      tropical forests as such, like any forest, like any tree, like our oceans are net emitter of oxygen, in fact they are by far the main source of it.

      It’s deforestation what’s contributing to an increase of CO2 emissions, not the forests per se

      Tropical forest trees, like all green plants, take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen during photosynthesis. Plants also carry out the opposite process—known as respiration—in which they emit carbon dioxide, but generally in smaller amounts than they take in during photosynthesis. The surplus carbon is stored in the plant, helping it to grow.

      When trees are cut down and burned or allowed to rot, their stored carbon is released into the air as carbon dioxide. And this is how deforestation and forest degradation contribute to global warming. According to the best current estimate, deforestation is responsible for about 10 percent of all global warming emissions.

      this difference should be made clear, otherwise people may start thinking we may and should get rid of forests

      Reply

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