In the past few days, alarming photos have spread across social media, showing the Amazon – the world’s largest rainforest – on fire. The bright orange flames and dark plumes of smoke, which some believe have reached the city of São Paulo about 2,000 miles away, are no doubt cause for concern. But amid conflicting reports of the fires’ causes, including several conspiracy theories from Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro, many are wondering: what’s really happening?
For starters, yes – the Amazon is on fire. And it has been for a while. ‘At the fringes of the Amazon, there has always been illegal deforestation,’ says travel specialist Martin Frankenberg, owner of Matueté, who has been taking travellers to the country for 30 years and has lived in Brazil for most of his life. Man-made fires are started to clear swathes of forest for agricultural use (largely for the cultivation of soya beans, which are often sold as pig feed) and cattle herding, both important means of income for local farmers. ‘Under the new administration, there has been a significant policy shift in terms of protecting the Amazon,’ says Frankenberg. ‘This government is more focused on helping agriculture than on preserving the forest. Farmers are taking advantage of this new leniency.’ The current fires, Frankenberg and experts clarify, are the man-made type, not wildfires – though it’s no doubt that the dry climate has enabled the illegal burning to grow further out of control.
While these fires have been happening for years, Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, or INPE, released data last week that showed deforestation throughout the entire country has increased by 88 per cent from last year. A majority of the 74,155 fires recorded in Brazil this year occurred in the Amazon, the agency reported. Carlos Nobre, a researcher at the University of São Paulo, told German broadcaster Deutsche Welle that his team believes that forest areas in the Brazilian Amazon have been reduced by 20 to 30 per cent over the last 12 months.
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Worldwide media attention latched onto the fires after INPE’s data release, bringing much-needed attention to the larger issue. And there are ways that you can help and spread the word about the region that produces more than 20 per cent of the world’s oxygen, absorbs millions of tonnes of global carbon emissions per year and is home to millions of animal and plant species – many of which cannot be found anywhere else.
The quickest way to help protect the Amazon from future man-made fires is by donating, now, to conservation organisations that are working to change legislation and provide immediate aid. You can make an online contribution to Amazon Watch, Conservation International, Rainforest Alliance and Rainforest Action Network, all of which continually act to protect these natural spaces. There are also smaller, regionally focused groups, including reforestation body Instituto Terra and the Coordination of the Indigenous Organisations of the Brazilian Amazon, also known as COIAB, which focuses on protecting the rainforest land that hundreds of indigenous groups call home.
Then, plan a trip to the Amazon and see it for yourself. Because the fires are burning in remote agricultural areas, far from touristed sections of the rainforest, they will not impact your trip, meaning you can fly into the Brazilian city of Manaus and hop on a river cruise, or head to an eco-lodge, without experiencing side effects from the burning. Plus, the income from responsible tourism has the potential to provide an alternative to agriculture for farmers in the region. ‘As travellers, we have to prove that the Amazon is worth more standing than it is cut down,’ says Frankenberg.
Look to experts such as Frankenberg and his team at Matueté, or Jill Siegel at South American Escapes for help planning a trip. ‘Anyone who visits the Amazon immediately understands the importance of its preservation and can become a more conscious and savvy advocate,’ says Frankenberg. ‘And right now, the Amazon needs allies.’
The Amazon is also home to 10 per cent of all the wildlife species, which is why the World Wildlife Fund is working hard to raise awareness, help local communities fight the fires and advocate for stronger laws in the Brazilian parliament. To learn more and to donate, visit wwf.org.uk.
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