The Amazon is Still Burning: Why Did We Forget It?

Image Credit: Vinícius Mendonça/Ibama, Image Cropped, CC BY-SA 2.0

If you missed the furore about the fate of the Amazon rainforest earlier this year then you clearly do not have social media or a newspaper subscription. For a few weeks it became the call-to-arms for environmentalists everywhere (unless they were busy doing that whole “what about this other catastrophe” thing). And then the posts dried up, and public attention waned. But whilst the fires aren’t as bad now, they’re still burning, and still threatening both the vast numbers of different species and the indigenous groups that call the Amazon their home. So why has it disappeared from the public consciousness?

Let’s have a quick recap first of all. Whilst wildfires in Brazil are far from a new occurrence, the scale that was seen in August this year was unprecedented. Most of them are believed to have been caused as a result of poorly controlled deliberate burns by farmers. Fire has been used for land clearing and weed control before now, but when far-right President Geir Bolsanaro took over at the start of 2019, he started encouraging more development, including near protected areas of the Amazon. This demands more deforestation, which leads to an increase in use of fire. Whilst Bolsanaro’s government claimed that the weather was to blame and not their policies, Brazil’s own scientists publicly rubbished this, including the director of Brazil’s National Institute of Space Research Ricardo Galvao, who Bolsanaro fired after he claimed that deforestation was increasing in Brazil.

No matter the cause, images of the Amazon wildfires went viral, with cries of despair going up for what were dubbed the ‘lungs of the planet’. Whether or not the Amazon really does provide us with 20% of the planet’s oxygen (spare a thought for the neglected phytoplankton of the world), the threat to hundreds of charismatic species and thousands of Brazilians and Bolivians were on full display.

The charisma of the Amazon may have something to do with how widely publicised the events were. Forests in Indonesia were set ablaze in 2015 due to many of the same issues Brazil faced, with the fires covering 26,000 square kilometres. This year, they have released 360 million tonnes of carbon dioxide since August, the same amount Spain emitted in 2018. Yet in 2015, and again this year, they haven’t made many headlines. But the Amazon is a household name. It’s what most people think of when they hear the word ‘rainforest’. Whilst the Indonesian fires have resulted (among other horrifying things) in slow burning peat fires, which unlock sinks that store millions of tonnes of carbon, it’s simply not as easily understandable a concept as ‘the lungs of the planet’.

Yet we somehow managed to forget the Amazon as well. People all over the world have assumed that the fires stopped. It’s true that the blazes have waned somewhat due to oncoming rain and the heroic efforts of Brazilian and Bolivian firefighters, but there are still hundreds of fires burning across the continent, still hundreds of species threatened (honestly we’ve probably already suffered the extinction of tens of species based on this one event) and still thousands of people in danger.

One contributing factor may be the fact that Bolsanaro, while refusing the $20 million USD that the G7 nations offered him to help fight the fires, eventually relented and sent over 40,000 troops in to fight the blazes. It could be that this was seen as ‘battle over’. The bad guy caved. The fires are being fought. It’s fine.

Another could be that the impacts of the fires just don’t hit close enough to home. Whilst ‘the lungs of the world’ is a useful metaphor, it’s hard to make the impact of this disaster, or the Indonesian fires, tangible for someone living in Maryland, USA (a state the same size as the area burned by the Indonesian fires). It hasn’t impacted the quality of their lives directly (yet). So it fades from their radar eventually.

It could also be that for many people, fires aren’t seen as a ‘trend’, they’re seen as one-off occurrences. I’m from a part of the world where bushfires have always been an issue, and they’ve been coming closer and closer to major population centres over the decades. My colleague Lara Veylit grew up with the California wildfires at her doorstep. We know that they’re always a danger at a certain time of the year. But for many people, bushfires like this can resemble a short-term catastrophe, something unpredictable, like a hurricane or an earthquake. The thought of them as an annual event, or having lasting consequences beyond local economic disasters isn’t immediately obvious. Once this is over, it’s over, right?

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Smoke from fires in Indonesia, which has suffered from wildfires brought on by similar causes as in Brazil (Image Credit: buitenzorger, CC BY-SA 2.0)

In fact some risk theorists even believe that a disaster being over can often reassure people that it won’t happen again for a long time. They’re safe, the worst has passed. Unfortunately, with no obvious decrease in deforestation and fire mitigation techniques hypothesised by some scientists to play little role in reducing Amazon fires, not to mention Bolsanaro hurling insults at those who criticise his attitude to the Amazon, the Brazilian population will soon find out that this isn’t the case.

It could even be that our focus has switched to other aspects of the natural world. Greta Thunberg has dominated the news lately, with personal attacks against her occupying front pages worldwide.

Of course, it could all be down to how short our collective memory is these days. There are more than enough social causes which have enjoyed a rampaging following on social and traditional media. Think ALS, Kony 2012, the 2014 Sudanese famine, the Notre Dame cathedral. None of the underlying causes of these issues have gone away. Yet they seem to have had their time in the public sphere.

A small part of me hopes that the fires start up in Brazil next year, just so we can see that without sustained global engagement, this situation is not going to get better. Yet that’s a dark step to take for us to have to realise how quickly our world is changing.

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