The “Lungs of the World” Are Collapsing. By Ellie Rill

Over the past year, what many consider the “lungs of the world” began to collapse. São Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, was shadowed in ominous clouds due to the thousands of fires blazing across the southern area of the Amazon. According to data from Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, about 76,000 fires were burning in the last official count. This is an increase of over 80 percent over the same time period last year. Indigenous people have been forced to relocate, wildlife species are in great stress, and one of the most important carbon sinks is fighting for its life. The world’s largest rainforest and home to over 30 million people has been left burning, and individuals are finally starting to notice.

Image Courtesy: Carl de Souza/AFP/Getty Images

Image Courtesy: National Geographic

The Amazon is a vital component in the world’s ecosystem. Stretching over 2.67 million square miles and into seven countries, the beautiful rainforest is able to breathe in more than it can breathe out. At least, that was the case until this year; 2019 was the first time in history that the Amazon Rainforest emitted more carbon dioxide than it absorbed. In fact, according to Dr. Marta Maria Azevedo, the author of Demografia Dos Povos Indigenas no Brasil, emissions were 0.6% higher in 2019 than the previous year. The Amazon also brings rain to other parts of South America. There is an atmospheric river that transports water vapor from the trees to the air, as well as provides moisture to countries like Bolivia, Paraguay, and Argentina. If the Amazon’s destruction continues down its current path, much of the continent would experience higher, dryer temperatures. This sudden change in climate would devastate agricultural areas and make parts of South America unlivable.

Most of these fires have been caused by human intervention. Ane Alencar, the Director of Science at the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM), spoke out about this issue saying, “the majority of the fires we’re seeing now are because of deforestation. We reduced deforestation by almost 65 percent in the past…And now we’re going backwards.” In the short time period between August 2018 and July 2019, 9,762 square kilometers were cut down. According to the National Institute for Space Research, this is a 30% increase from the previous year. The majority of this harmful process is taking place in public land which is regulated by the government. However, Brazil’s President, Jair Bolsonaro, isn’t trying to solve the issue, but is rather contributing to the abuse of the environment. Following the actions of his predecessor, Michel Temer, Bolsonaro cut the budget for Brazil’s environmental agency, IBAMA, by 24%. This left them without the resources needed for the enforcement and monitoring of these public areas. The Amazon Rainforest brings $8.2 billion a year to Brazil’s economy and rather than implementing policies that incentivize sustainable land use, Bolsonaro took away federal programs that will protect the region.

Image Courtesy: IPAM

Another form of human action that is putting a vast amount of stress on the Amazon is gold mining. The price of gold has risen to historic heights due to the instability in the global market. This is incentivizing miners to partake in illegal activities without regulation. The Andean cloud forests contain numerous endemic species and is considered a hotspot for biodiversity. Gold prospectors are ignoring these crucial environmental factors, clearing large areas of forest for landing strips and other mining necessities. Not only is this process harmful to biotic systems, but also the local population surrounding those areas. Due to antiquated equipment, miners often release mercury into the environment, introducing the methylated form, a problematic neurotoxin, into local food chains through rivers. Indigenous people in those areas consume freshwater fish for their main protein source and retroactively consume the mercury. Not only is this an environmental issue, but it has become an issue for public health.

Image Courtesy: National Geographic

The Amazon is in trouble and has been for years. Environmentalists, economists, politicians, and all those alike must come together to preserve the land we have left. Our world, and all life that we know, depends on it.

“Burn the forests if you will, but you will only scorch your own lungs.”

― Anthony T. Hincks