Many Instagram users have recently been misled by well-meaning online posts raising awareness about the Amazon Rainforest fires. What you might not know is that the posts should read: “The Amazon is being intentionally burned.” Mongabay, a media outlet specializing in environmental news, reports that these fires are being lit to make room for large-scale farming, cattle pastures and soy farms. Because of this, an understanding of their effects on the rainforest are incredibly important.
The chair of the Willamette environmental science department, Professor Scott Pike, explained why this is an important topic to understand. “What’s interesting is that Amazon has poor topsoil with poor nutrient soils which motivates the jungle to be burned by farmers due to the fact that they can only get a couple years of farming.”
However, the situation is even more dire there than it would be in North America, because fires are not a part of the natural ecological life cycle of the Amazon. Professor of Conservation at Lancaster University Jos Barlow reports, “even low-intensity fires with flames just 30 centimeters tall can kill up to half of the trees burned in a tropical rainforest.” The result of this is that these ancient forests are being destroyed for a few years of farming.
You may think that the Brazilian government would want to put a stop to this destruction but they are enabling deforestation to continue. Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro has privatized public lands, funded fewer onsite inspections, and turned a blind eye to illegal land grabs where the jungle is being burned, seeded with grass and sold to ranchers.
Fortunately, many posts claim that the Amazon rainforest produces 20 percent of the oxygen we breathe. Actually, according to marine biologist Brenda Soler-Figueroa as interviewed by The Washington Post, all terrestrial forests combined produce about 20 percent of the oxygen we breathe, and the Amazon is only a small percentage of that number. Aabout 70 percent of our oxygen is produced by microscopic phytoplankton in our oceans.
Unfortunately, Professor Pike says the real damage is that these fires are “releasing billions of pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere while also losing [the Amazon as] a carbon sink,” further accelerating climate change. More broadly, this will also be a tremendous blow to the biodiversity of life on earth. Biodiversity is important because many of our materials, pesticides, crops and pharmaceuticals were first found in nature. By destroying unexplored and unstudied forests, we may be inadvertently destroying future medical or scientific breakthroughs.
As an individual there are actions one could take to help stop this destruction. Since 84 percent of Brazil’s agriculture is sold on the international market, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Global Agricultural Information Network, you might be unwittingly contributing to the deforestation by eating cows raised in Brazil. Fortunately, you can combat this problem by eating local Oregonian beef or buying meat labeled as a “Product of U.S.A.” However, eating beef is still environmentally damaging even without clearcutting forests for pasture. If you are concerned about the environment, going vegetarian is a great way to reduce your carbon footprint while also helping prevent the deforestation of the Amazon.