By David Hemson
Pictures of black tree lines outlined by the red background of a fire, of thousands of blazing fires mapped along the Amazon, have commanded the attention of every thinking person. As in a horror movie, our planet appears to turn to flame and burn to ash as runaway fires stream across the TV screen. Astonishingly, the firing of the Amazon is not the only incendiary tragedy of its kind; the surge in fires has been headed in time by fires in the Arctic, particularly in Siberia but also Alaska. In Africa there are similar scenes in Angola and the DRC. The world ablaze portrays our-fast deteriorating environment and climate.
What is the significance of this appalling spectacle of pristine and commercial lands which is being etched on our minds? The evidence is hardening on the interpretation that the world is entering into a period in which, unevenly, global warming is accelerating faster than predicted.
The figures are frightening. This year is likely to be the third hottest on record globally; last year was the fourth hottest. The heat wave in Europe has been linked to the runaway fires in Siberia. Year after year, global warming is being directly experienced.
Although these are only confirmed after they’ve happened, tipping points have been passed in climate change. The rapid deforestation of the Amazon and globally is one of these; at some point recovery is not possible. In a whirlpool of destruction, the Amazon is being affected by climate change and, its resulting decline into deforestation further accelerates climate change. The reduction in rainfall through climate change (as predicted) will create dry conditions for fires to spread.
Experts are indicating that the current fires are not just a seasonal issue, as Bolsonaro is arguing. Fire is a readily available instrument to turn forests into farmland or (eventually) drive tribes from the land; it is used deliberately by corporations and poor farmers. With drier conditions brought about by climate change, the thousands of fires range ever wider and become more destructive. This is the beginning of the current dry season, and many more fires could be started.
The large number of fires this year is not because 2019 has been a year of drought but because they have been started deliberately. Although deliberate fire-starting has always been a problem, it has never been seen to this extent.
According to a Brazilian expert, environmental policy conditions had changed, and local people are “comfortable enough to do it because the government has not made any effort to prevent it”. A surge in wildfires in a province has been linked to a call by farmers for a “day of fire”. Hundreds of fires erupted as farmers cleared land for agriculture as well as intact areas of rainforest for further “development”.
Previously local authorities had stopped such gratuitous burning in an effort to maintain the forests and protect the indigenous people of the Amazon. Now mining companies as well as farmers are firing the land and driving out tribal peoples. The indigenous peoples depend on forests for their lives, for food, clothing, medicines, and a sense of place.
The Amazon is critically important to the survival of our planet. Although it has been described as the “lungs of the world” through region “breaths” in and out, it releases about as much carbon as it absorbs. There are two critical points about the destruction of the Amazon. Firstly, for a period forests store large amounts of carbon dioxide in organic matter; fires release this stored carbon. Secondly, as significantly, through trans-evaporation the forest releases huge amounts of moisture into the atmosphere, as much as the Amazon River releases into the ocean. The canopy is so thick that the forest floor is dark, and when it rains it takes ten minutes for the rain to reach the ground! These trees create a micro-climate; they cool the land surface. Their destruction speeds global warming.
A political task
Stopping the conflagration and preserving the Amazon forests intact is a political task. The Brazilian people are not indifferent to the fires; far from it. During the day recently the sky over Sao Paulo turned black, which also became the colour of the rainwater. Considerable progress in slowing deforestation had been made in previous years through local authorities curbing forest fires. This year’s fires are 80% greater than last year’s.
The farmlands resulting from deforestation are added to the cattle ranches and soya bean fields of corporations, which constitute a major proportion of Brazil’s exports. This brings a point of vulnerability of Bolsonaro to international pressure; his first angry acknowledgement of the conflagration came after threats were made to the EU trade agreement with Brazil. This agreement has not yet been finalized, and there is opposition from EU farmers to provisions to lower tariffs on beef and soy. Brazil is presently in a state of tepid growth, and a boycott of these products would be a blow to its export drive.
Bolsonaro has been forced to respond. In the face of fierce criticism, he has deployed the army to contain the blaze – a tactic of limited power against the thousands of fires. Despite rising criticism at home, he refuses to call a halt to the deforestation and the clearing of the Amazon for agriculture and mining.
With the economy barely out of recession, Bolsonaro’s support is waning. The reckless squandering of natural resources has brought an avalanche of criticism internationally. Internally, controversy over the government’s land use policies is exploding. Along with the austerity Bolsonaro is forcing on working people, this massive degradation of the environment is expanding opposition. His weakness is becoming clear, along with that of many other right-wing demagogues around the world.
Ending this conflagration is a key political issue in every country, not just in those most immediately involved. The conflagrations have a political base in brutal market relations. Youth and the labour movement internationally have to stop the Amazon becoming a wasteland and indigenous tribal people being driven from the land as never before. The cities, the climate, the world, also are all deeply affected.
For united solidarity action in schools, universities, workplaces and unions against Bolsonaro and the destruction of the Amazon!