When the Amazon Burns, We All Lose

Last year’s Amazon fires took so much — from all of us.

A fire burns a patch of ferns and trees in the Amazon rainforest, releasing thick smoke into the air.
Photo by Victor Moriyama/Greenpeace

Fires raging in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest, in August 2019

Near the end of August 2019, news broke that São Paulo’s skies had turned black from smoke — even though Brazil’s largest city is more than 3,000 kilometers from where most of the fires raged in the Amazon rainforest. I began to panic. My parents had just retired from the US back to Uruguay, my father’s homeland, and were living 1,500 km south of São Paulo, in Punta del Este. We frantically tracked the fires, which at one point were moving toward the Paraguay-Uruguay border. If those winds prevailed, smoke would engulf the country. Or worse, bring flames.

This scenario was all too familiar for my folks. In 1992, when I was 3, we moved to Punta del Este for the first time from my hometown of San Diego, CA, to escape smoke borne on the Santa Ana winds. I had yet to be diagnosed with asthma, and suffered severe shortness of breath and uncontrollable coughing.

My family did what many people are doing today, and many more will do in coming decades: moving away from natural disasters. The International Organization for Migration estimates there will be anywhere from 25 million to 1 billion climate migrants by 2050. We had the privilege of bringing our whole lives with us — including a beloved stuffed elephant bigger than I was. Most climate migrants won’t.

But back to last year. The Amazon rainforest makes up half of the planet’s remaining tropical forests, and in 2019, it suffered the worst fires in a decade. The Amazonian biome was ravaged in Brazil, Bolivia, and Paraguay. On August 19, 38,227,000 hot spots were identified, and the rate of new fires starting didn’t slow until October.

The Amazon rainforest makes up half of the planet’s remaining tropical forests, and in 2019, it suffered the worst fires in a decade.

The number of fires in the Brazilian Amazon between January and September 2019 was double that of the same period in 2018. The impacts are grave, according to Daniel Brindis, Greenpeace USA’s forests campaign director. “The loss of primary forest cannot be replaced,” he told me in an interview. “Forest restoration is possible, but costly, and alters the biological makeup of the forest. The emissions from deforestation and the fires can take decades to remove from the atmosphere.”

Because of my asthma, breathing in smoke has caused recurring crises and anxiety in my life — my lungs can’t even handle a little cigarette smoke. As the fires raged through South America, I worried I’d need to create an evacuation plan for my parents. It broke my heart to contemplate canceling my first trip to Uruguay since gaining citizenship. I hadn’t been to the country in a decade, or seen my parents in a year. Fortunately, both smoke and fires stopped threatening Uruguay in late September, and I was able to join my family as planned.

Not only did the fires threaten my family home, they’ve also changed how I think about a dream I’ve had since childhood. My father would tuck me in with bedtime stories from his journey trekking across the Amazon rainforest in the 1970s. He’d escaped Uruguay after being tortured during the military dictatorship. Over six months, he traveled from Uruguay to Mexico, mostly on foot, with only a backpack. Without the proper visas, borders were a challenge, so he headed into the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador and Colombia to avoid checkpoints.

He spent about a week alone walking north on trails through the forest. In his stories, he’d recall impossibly large insects, and lush greenery that grew back overnight after he’d cleared a patch to rest in. Once, he was startled awake by a python falling out of a tree and onto his legs! A passionate wildlife lover, I’ve always dreamed of following in his footsteps and getting to know the Amazon rainforest intimately.

And the Amazon’s 3 million plant and animal species aren’t the only draw for me. My Indigenous Charrúan ancestors were mostly killed by colonial disease, and the rest were massacred during a 19th-century genocide. But millions of Indigenous people still call the Amazon biome home. I want to learn from them, about their customs and role as keepers of the rainforest. I used to think I had all the time in the world to make this trip, but now it feels like time could be running out.

What we’re losing in the fires will be difficult or impossible to replace: biodiversity, a major carbon sink, Indigenous peoples’ ability to live off their lands, and more.

Of course, the impacts of the fires are so much wider than my own worries and dreams. Sure, I feel like my world’s on fire, and the Amazon residents’ world actually is. But their losses are all of our losses. Their world may not feel like it’s ours, but it is.

Around the planet, Indigenous people act as champions and stewards of precious ecosystems. Case in point, the Amazon rainforest covers only 4% of the Earth’s land surface, but is home to about 10% of all known plant and animal species. It’s impossible to tally the number of animal casualties that must have resulted from the fires. Slow-moving creatures like sloths, turtles, and anteaters had no chance to escape. Wild-cat conservation group Panthera reported that at least 500 jaguars lost their lives or habitat in the fires. And, again, people live there too. In Brazil, the Amazon is home to 20 million people, including 400 Indigenous groups.

The Amazon rainforest also absorbs up to half a billion metric tons of C0₂ per year, and currently stores up to 200 billion metric tons of carbon in its plants and soils. When fires release that carbon and decrease the forest’s storage capacity, climate change accelerates. Much of what we’re losing in the fires will be difficult or impossible to replace: biodiversity, a major carbon sink, Indigenous peoples’ ability to live off their lands, and more.

The Amazonian fires garnered a lot of attention last summer, but it still wasn’t as much as they deserved. For a start, my colleagues in the media focused mostly on the blazes in Brazil, but not those in Paraguay or Bolivia. Over 4 million hectares of Bolivian woodland and savanna have burned this year, an area the size of Switzerland.

To stay updated on those fires, I followed the fundraising efforts of Bolivian eco-advocate Valeria Hinojosa. “The lack of media attention pushed Bolivia (and me) to rise up and make the world listen,” she told me in an interview. “As soon as I found out about the fires consuming thousands — and later millions — of hectares of nature in Bolivia, I added a donation page to my blog.” In a month, she raised over $200,000 from 4,500 donors. The funds covered the cost of supplying water tanks, gear for firefighters, and animal rescue, and there was still some money left to plant trees and provide solar panels to affected communities.

The news cycle fizzled out before the flames did, as humanity’s empathy moved on to other hot spots.

We need more grassroots efforts led by communities who know best what they need. When the media does spotlight crises around the world, it often doesn’t tell readers how they can help those at the frontlines. We need to do better.

The news cycle fizzled out before the flames did, as humanity’s empathy moved on to other hot spots. And the world might have paid even less attention: during the same period, Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo dealt with even more fires, which received minimal coverage.

Even with the attention the Amazon fires did receive, I feel like their causes are not well understood by the general public. While climate-change-induced drought probably played a role, the Amazon Environmental Research Institute says drought is insufficient to explain 2019’s increase in fire activity. Observers see evidence the fires were deliberately ignited to illegally clear forest and make room for cattle ranches and soybean crops used to feed livestock.

Brazil is the world’s largest beef exporter. Last year, the president of Brazilian meat-packing association Abiec predicted the country would export 1.8 million metric tons of beef in 2019. The World Bank says 75% of all deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon is in service of cattle ranching. In turn, deforestation and land use change are responsible for about a quarter of Brazil’s current greenhouse gas emissions, according to the World Resource Institute’s Climate Watch database. As recently as 2005, they were the source of close to 60% of emissions.

The World Bank says 75% of all deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon is in service of cattle ranching.

Personally, I haven’t eaten beef for 13 years. I stopped eating meat at 17, when I was cooking for myself for the first time. Initially, it was because meat was expensive and I didn’t know how to cook it. Over time, my choice was reinforced as I learned about the livestock industry’s impact on the environment.

If I did still eat meat today, I’d seriously reconsider it, knowing the true cost of a burger involved putting our planet’s biodiversity and climate at such risk. Beef is a major industry here in Uruguay, and an integral part of the culture. My parents have made it clear they’ll never give up meat, even when I’ve told them the current state of the environment has me hesitant to give them the grandchildren they so desperately want.

I stay tuned in to events in the Amazon by following Indigenous forest-protectors like youth activist Helena Gualinga in Ecuador. I hoped to finally visit the Amazon rainforest in March, but my planned trip to Gualinga’s homeland was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic. I’m still waiting for my chance to meet with people who dwell in the Amazon, and learn about their culture and customs. In the meantime, I hope to continue raising awareness of the problems they face.

Last year’s fires died out, but there’s no doubt they’ll be back. No matter their size in years to come, they’ll have a lasting impact on the ecosystems and communities in the Amazon, and on all of humanity — regardless of how far away we may be.

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