By DOM GALEON
About 18,900 kilometers away to the east of the Philippines lies the Amazon rainforest, a 5.5-million-square-kilometer stretch of dense forest that extends from Brazil to Peru to Colombia and to six other South American countries and forms a huge part of the Amazon basin. Now this rainforest is on fire.
Wildfires are a regular occurrence in the Amazon, particularly during the dry season. But according to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE), there have been over twice more forest fires trecorded his year. It’s the worst it has ever been for the past five years, the report says, with over 70,000 forest fires scattered across the Amazon so far this year—that’s an 80 percent increase from 2018 figures for the same period.
Should we be worried?
It’s not clear when the fires started. Reports show that fires have been ravaging parts of the Brazilian Amazon, in a region called Rodonia, as well as in parts of the rainforest in Bolivia and Paraguay for over three weeks now. It took a while for the rest of the world to notice.
On Aug. 20, the skies over São Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, turned black in the middle of the day, as thick clouds and a change in the direction of the cold front brought smoke over the city. Citizens took to social media to express concern over the strange phenomenon, and Brazilian meteorologists said it could be smoke from the Amazon fires from over 2,000 kilometers away.
Almost immediately, #SaveAmazonia started trending on Twitter, with netizens calling for action on and attention to the forest fires that are supposedly destroying swaths of the Amazon rainforest. Hundreds of thousands have expressed outrage over the seeming lack of attention world leaders and the media have for the forest fires. Fans of Kpop boyband BTS, which call themselves the Army, have also mobilized themselves over social media with their own hashtag, #ARMYHelpThePlanet, to raise awareness on one of the world’s largest ecosystems.
The Amazon rainforest is the single largest remaining tropical forest in the world, home to more than half of the 10 million species of animals known to humankind. It produces 20 percent of the oxygen in the earth’s atmosphere and its trees trap 17 percent of the world’s carbon emissions.
“Just consider this: the amazon is the largest rainforest in the planet covering about 40 percent of the area of the South American continent,” Jun Ballesteros, associate professor of environmental engineering at the University of the Philippines – Diliman, tells Manila Bulletin Lifestyle. “As such it is a major sink of carbon dioxide which is linked to global climate change. Global climate change will worsen if this natural carbon sink is eliminated. Moreover, the vegetation in the Amazon RF produces about 20% of the world’s oxygen. ”
Social media, however, has been the cause not just of spreading awareness about the current state of the Amazon rainforest, but also of fake information. News and images of the fire spreading or photos of animals endangered by the fires have spread accompanied by the #SaveAmazonia or #PrayForTheAmazon hashtags. Several of these photos, according to AFP, are outdated, with one photo of an Amazon wildfire dating back to 1989.
Spreading awareness is helpful, but some overzealous social media posts have been fueling undue online rage, which could even lead to unnecessary panic.
“In terms of magnitude, the affected area is more extensive than last year. Satellite data from the National Institute for Space Research shows an increase of 83 percent compared to the same period last year,” Ballesteros explains. “The unprecedented scale is thought to be brought about by drought and uncontrolled forest clearing. Brazil supplies one fourth of the global demand for beef. It has about 200 million heads of cattle. Thus there is a tremendous pressure to provide ranching area to grow cattle and this is met by razing forest land.”
Forest fires the world over
Now trending on Twitter, much of the world has their eyes on the Amazon rainforest and on Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro who has been criticized for his apparent inaction. But Brazil and the Amazons are not the only places currently experiencing large-scale forest fires.
In the north, Russia is also on fire. Over 54,390 square kilometers of forest have gone up in flames in Siberia and the smoke from the blaze has covered large parts of the country and crossed even to the US through the Pacific Ocean.
Spain’s Canary Islands, which is off the northwest coast of Africa, is currently experiencing its second major blaze for the month of August. Fires that started on Aug. 17 continue to burn parts of the island’s forests, engulfing over 100 square kilometers on Gran Canaria where more than 900,000 people have been evacuated.
Persistent hot weather have pushed Alaska’s wildfire season, which normally ends by the second half of August, to overtime. Even parts of Greenland have wildfires, and some are approaching inhabited areas.
Although wildfires occur naturally over periods of drought, there are also human-made forest fires due to deforestation. It’s the latter that is a cause for concern and it is what the Brazilian government has been criticized for. “There is nothing abnormal about the climate this year or the rainfall in the Amazon region, which is just a little below average,” INPE researcher Alberto Setzer told Reuters. “The dry season creates the favorable conditions for the use and spread of fire, but starting a fire is the work of humans, either deliberately or by accident.”
Even the Philippines isn’t immune to forest fires. Reports from the Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP) recorded more forest fires due to kaingin (slash-and-burn farming) in the Cordilleras from January to March this year as compared to the same period in 2018. These fires even caught the attention of NASA’s Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) from space.