The Amazon: More than 100,000 Fires This Year, Causing Spike in Air Pollution

A Journal of People report

This satellite image by European Space Agency shows levels of carbon monoxide pollution caused by the fires in the Amazon rainforest, between the second half of July 2019 and the first half of Aug. 2019.

The number of Brazil’s forest fires soars past 100,000, a 45 percent increase from this same time last year, according to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research.

Statistics from the NISR – whose director was sacked last month after clashing with Bolsonaro – show deforestation has surged in recent months with a Manhattan-sized area lost every day in July.

The fires burning throughout the Amazon rainforest and the rest of Brazil are billowing all types of air pollutants into the atmosphere, new satellite images from the European Space Agency (ESA) show.

The images confirm that the Amazon fires are a threat to public health.

New satellite images show an increase in air pollution in the Brazilian Amazon while fires burned in the region last month.

Several maps showed more carbon monoxide and other pollutants in August than in the previous month, when there were fewer fires.

The agency said fires released carbon dioxide once stored in the Amazon forests back into the atmosphere, potentially having an impact on the global climate and health.

Burning continues in the Amazon despite a 60-day ban on land-clearing fires that was announced last month by President Jair Bolsonaro.

With the spike in fires, ESA found that the rates of dangerous pollutants like carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, and aerosols have gone up dramatically this year compared to last.

The particulate matter from the organic matter going up in flames can cause respiratory or cardiac issues for individuals exposed.

Carbon monoxide can make it harder for individuals to breathe by reducing oxygen levels.

The World Health Organized issued a warning to vulnerable communities just last week because of all this air pollution.

Studies show that air pollution, whether it is small particles or gases, leads to an increase in cardiovascular conditions and lung problems, especially among young children and the elderly.

Small particles can also be transported by winds in cities that are not immediately close to where the fires are taking place.

The lack of rain during the current dry season in the Amazon region makes things worse, she said, as rain can help stop the progress of particle pollution.

Brazil’s Health Ministry shared last week a list of recommendations for those living in areas close to the fires, saying people should “avoid staying near places where the fires are happening,” wear masks and eye protection outdoors and favor air conditioning, especially in kindergartens, schools and hospitals.

The black carbon emissions from the fire are absorbing sunlight and blocking outgoing energy, a process that can worsen warming. The forest is also releasing carbon dioxide from its burning trees, another factor that could speed up global warming.

Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro has been outspoken about handing the Amazon over to private interests, which burn the forest to clear land for crops, cattle, mining, and timber. The indigenous communities that live under the forest canopy have the most to lose as the Amazon continues to burn.

The Amazon forest fires are part of a greater global trend: The number of global fires increased by nearly fourfold last month compared to last year. August 2018 saw 16,632 fires. In August 2019, the number was 79,000. The world is on fire.

The government of Jair Bolsonaro has launched a global PR campaign to try to convince the world everything is under control.

“The Amazon is not burning, not burning at all,” Brazil’s foreign minister, Ernesto Araújo, insisted in an interview with CNN.

Marcos Rocha, Rondônia’s governor and an ally of Bolsonaro, dismissed the “fuss” over the fires as a foreign ruse to shackle Brazil’s economy.

Rocha, a retired police colonel, said: “If we look at the situation in other countries, their forests are burning much more than here in our Brazil. You go to London, or other countries, and what do you see?

“It’s not fog – it’s smoke! Smoke from burning; from industry. So how can they demand of us what they haven’t done themselves?”

João Chrisóstomo, a Bolsonarian congressional representative in Rondônia’s capital, Porto Velho, rejected claims that Brazil was entering a new era of Amazon devastation and insisted that conservation was a top priority in Bolsonaro’s Brazil.

Chrisóstomo chastised European leaders, such as Emmanuel Macron, who have questioned Bolsonaro’s vision for the Amazon.

Chrisóstomo seethed: “He’s not Brazil’s president. He’s not even from the Americas. This forest isn’t shared, as he claims. It belongs to a nation which enjoys complete autonomy and authority to decide what happens to the forest and takes every possible care to preserve it.”

A reporter from the Guardian this week travelled almost 2,000km by road and river through two of the Amazon states worst affected by this year’s fires, Rondônia and Amazonas.

The Guardian report said:

“Along the way, an almost identical refrain emerged from the mouths of indigenous leaders, wildcat goldminers, environmental activists and government officials: that Bolsonaro’s stripping back of protections and anti-environmental rhetoric had contributed to the scale of the fires – more than 30,000 of which were recorded in August alone – and set in motion a new age of wrecking that looks set to continue beyond the end of the annual burning season next month.

“‘It is chaos. Chaos, chaos, chaos,’ lamented one senior official from Brazil’s environmental agency, Ibama, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“‘If we go on like this, things will get worse and worse,’ predicted the official, diplomatically blaming the spike in Amazon deforestation during Bolsonaro’s first eight months in power on the ‘political situation’ in Brazil.

“Life has never been easy for the activists and government agents seeking to slow rainforest destruction in a vast region many still call Brazil’s ‘faroeste’ (Wild West).

“In the riverside town of Humaitá in Amazonas state, Ibama’s former headquarters lies in ruins two years after it was stormed, ransacked and burned to the ground by illegal goldminers in retribution for a crackdown.”

The report said:

“Now, as the dismantling of Brazil’s environmental protection system gathers pace, its operations there are to halt altogether.

“Three regional Ibama offices – in Humaitá, Parintins and Tabatinga – are in the process of being deactivated, leaving only one central command post in the capital, Manaus, to tackle environmental crime in a state three times the size of Spain.

“In a recent letter to Ibama’s new president, several hundred officials voiced ‘immense concern’ over the direction environmental protection was taking.

“Márcio Tenharim, an indigenous leader from a reserve near Humaitá, said he feared the influx of soy farmers, ranchers and mining companies would accelerate as Brazil’s president pushed for such activities to be allowed on previously protected areas.

“‘We aren’t ready for this,’ said Tenharim, predicting such ‘development’ would bring ‘nothing but misery’ for his people.”

The report quoted a goldminer:

“‘He’s our hope for improvement,’ said Martins Tavares, 33, a goldminer who said he and virtually all of his colleagues backed Bolsonaro, believing his promises to open up the Amazon would help them feed their families.

“Rui Souza, the owner of waterside petrol station in Humaitá that sells to goldseekers, said he was also optimistic Bolsonaro would do away with environmental and indigenous reserves so they could be commercially exploited.

“‘Our Amazonia is so rich, my friend. But we’re not allowed to use any of it,’ the 65-year-old complained.”

In Rondônia, 72% of voters backed the far-right candidate in last year’s election.

The Guardian report said:

“Bolsonarian billboards dot the highways declaring: ‘Together we will change the destiny of Rondônia and Brazil!’

“‘Nearly everyone here voted for him,’ said Vicente Costa, a 69-year-old restaurant owner in the town of Araras, whose silver SUV was plastered with Bolsonaro stickers reading: ‘Change Brazil for real.’

“That delight contrasts with the growing despair of many forest dwellers whose lives were upended in the 1960s when Brazil’s military dictatorship bulldozed roads through the Amazon.

“‘During his campaign Bolsonaro promised to divide up indigenous lands. That’s why the ranchers voted for him. But we don’t want to share our land,’ said Valdillene Urumon, 28, as the fire continued to rage near her village.

“‘We felt sad [when Bolsonaro won]. But now we have to fight, don’t we?’”

The report quoted firefighters:

“But on the rural outskirts of Humaitá another fire had broken out and as night fell two local firefighters battled in vain to contain it.

“‘The environment is so crucial to us, isn’t it?’ one firefighter said as he paused from smothering the flames with a rubber damper. ‘It saddens us to see it being destroyed like this.’”

In the Amazonian state of Para, about 250 illegal miners, known as “garimpeiros,” blocked a federal highway Monday demanding that the government legalize mining activities, the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo reported.

The group, working for wildcat mines in the region, also asked for an end to on-the-ground operations by environmental protection bodies that have the authority to burn equipment allegedly belonging to illegal miners.

An AP report said:

In Porto Velho, the capital of Brazil’s Amazon state of Rondonia, lingering smoke has reportedly caused an increase in such respiratory problems. The number of people treated for respiratory issues increased sharply in August at the Cosme e Damia Children’s hospital.

A forest fire near Palmeiras, an isolated Amazon settlement in Brazil’s Rondônia state.

The Amazon rainforest

The world’s largest rainforest affects the global climate, and its diversity of plants and animals is without equal.

Tom Metcalfe writes in MACH:

“The Amazon rainforest is a vast tract of largely untamed jungle that is Earth’s most biodiverse region, filled with plants and trees and teeming with animals of all types and sizes — including many unknown to science.

“It is also the world’s largest rainforest, spanning more than 2 million square miles in northern South America, mainly in Brazil but also in parts of Peru, Colombia and six other nations. It’s called a rainforest because of its rainy conditions.

“But though it has existed for 50 million years, the Amazon rainforest is now under threat from human activities, including devastating fires set to clear acreage for ranching and agriculture as well as the mining of oil and gas, copper, iron and gold.

“The rainforest contributes about $8.2 billion a year to Brazil’s economy from products including rubber and timber.

“In recent months, the Amazon region has been hit by thousands of fires that collectively have cleared more than 7,400 square miles of rainforest in Brazil. Scientists say the recent spate of fires reverses a long trend toward fewer fires and less deforestation.

“Fires break out every year in the Amazon rainforest, often accidentally during the dry months of September and October. But satellite photographs show that many fires in the Brazilian portion of the rainforest were set deliberately to clear land.”

Tom Metcalfe writes:

“Scientists who study the Amazon worry that deforestation could bring the rainforest to an ecological ‘tipping point’ at which the entire ecosystem collapses. That could cripple regional economies and cause the loss of many indigenous species.

“‘It is a scary prospect, the potential for a dieback or a collapse of the Amazon region,’ Morton says.

“The rainforest brings rainfall across South America, and much of the continent would become hotter and drier if large portions of it were to be destroyed. The shift to a more arid climate would devastate the vast agricultural areas farther south; parts of South America would become effectively unlivable.

“The decline of the Amazon rainforest could also affect the global climate, although scientists are unsure exactly how. At the least, rainfall patterns across North America, Europe and Africa would change.

“Despite some media reports to the contrary, scientists say the loss of the Amazon rainforest wouldn’t dangerously limit sources of breathable oxygen. The oxygen created by vegetation in the rainforest is largely consumed by the animals living there. Most of the oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere was created over millions of years by microscopic ocean plants called phytoplankton.

“The Amazon rainforest stores a huge amount of carbon in its vegetation and soil. If the burning of vegetation released all that carbon into the atmosphere, efforts to limit climate change by cutting down on carbon dioxide emissions from motor vehicles and industrial processes would become pointless, says Yadvinder Malhi, an ecologist at the University of Oxford in England. ‘Any chance of doing that would be blown out of the water.’

“Given the vast numbers of plants and animals that live there, the Amazon rainforest is of incalculable biological and ecological value. It’s home to about 390 billion trees and more than 16,000 plant species and millions of animal species.

“‘This is the richest place on our planet, from the billions of years of evolution of life before humans were around,’ Malhi says. ‘It’s one of the great libraries of nature on Earth.’

“Among the animals that live in the rainforest are some of the world’s rarest and most colorful birds; hundreds of monkey species; giant cats like jaguars and black panthers; and unusual creatures like tapirs and capybaras. It’s also home to crocodiles, lizards, giant snakes like the anaconda, amphibians like the famous poison dart frogs we well as rare pink river dolphins and fish like arapaimas and piranhas.

“All of these species and thousands more could be lost if the Amazon rainforest were to collapse.

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