Why is the Amazon Rainforest Disappearing So Fast?

By Elyas Laubach and Henry Baratz

New data from multiple scientific studies has shown that the Amazon Rainforest is disappearing at rates not seen in 11 years. The Amazon Rainforest is the world’s largest rainforest and the largest river basin on the planet and home to 34 million people. It is the second largest carbon dioxide depository on Earth after oceans. In addition, the Amazon is the most biodiverse area on the planet; home to 1 in 10 known species, and one-fifth of the planet’s freshwater that flows into the ocean passes through the Amazon. 75% of the Amazon’s plants are unique to the rainforest and the 3,000 freshwater species that call the Amazon home is also the most of any river in the world. The forest is one of Earth’s most important ecological areas, covering roughly 7 million km2 and spanning 9 different South American countries.

Unfortunately, the rainforest is disappearing--fast. Since 1970, approximately 25% of the Amazon rainforest has been either chopped down and/or burned. Research from the National Institute for Space Research in Brazil states that already there have been “72,843 fires this year, an 80 percent increase from last year.” Although the deforestation rate has generally slowed since the 1980s, it has increased 30% from 2018 and reached an 11-year high in 2019. The deforestatinon in June of 2019 was 88% higher than in 2018, largely because of the fires that have raged on the edge of the Amazon since the summer. Data from the Brazilian Institute for Satellite Deforestation Monitoring Project (PRODES) of the Institute of Space Research has recently revealed that between August 2018 and July 2019, deforestation has demolished an area equal to the size of about 1.4 million soccer fields.

How did the fires even start? On August 20th, Brazil’s Minister of the Environment Ricardo Salles tweeted that dry weather, wind, and heat caused the fires to spread so widely. However, the fires were almost all at the edges of the Amazon, which would suggest that they weren’t wildfires, but deforestation fires that got out of control. As Rainforest Alliance--a non-governmental organization that promotes sustainable farming and protection of rainforests worldwide--spokeswoman and media outreach officer Brittany Wienke said, wildfires don’t usually happen in the Amazon: “in the dry season it still rains, it’s just not as rainy as in the rainy season...it’s pretty rare for fires to occur naturally.” She adds that the “incredible” number of fires were caused by “the confluence of many different factors but primarily...the Brazilian government's withdrawal of forest law enforcement.” This opened the door for “farmers and cattle-ranchers particularly, [who]...are taking advantage of these rolled-back protections…[by] cutting forests down to expand their own agricultural holdings…[and then] light[ing] fires to clear off the brush.”

In August, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro responded to the rapidly-growing fires and resulting public pressure by calling a 60-day halt on setting fire to the forest. Fires proceeded to die down by 35% during the month of September. Bolsonaro then proceeded to make unsubstantiated claims that environmentalist NGOs were purposely setting fire to the rainforest to make him and his administration look bad. These comments distracted the public from the fact that if funding is not returned to forest law enforcement, the agricultural industry--which Bolsonaro has promised to boost--will continue to take advantage of the opportunity to expand their land holdings. Recently, he also accused famous actor Leonardo DiCaprio of donating to NGOs Bolsonaro accused of setting fire to the rainforest.

The topic at the heart of this issue, however, is not whether Bolsonaro’s actions are right or wrong, but whether the farmers and cattle ranchers really need more land. The Rainforest Alliance promotes sustainable farming and Wienke suggests that the agricultural industry simply needs to use their land better. She suggests that farmers should “use less intensive methods that nurture the soil as opposed to exhausting it,” and that cattle-ranchers use a “more sustainable form of cattle ranching called silvopasture.” Silvopasture is a grazing method that combines trees and pasture, and it is much more sustainable and environmentally friendly that simple pasture grazing. In silvopasture, the cows feed on the pasture and create manure, which fertilizes the pasture and the trees, which in turn foster growth of brush and more pasture in addition to providing the cattle with shelter. Wienke said another solution to the deforestation problem would be to turn more currently forested land over into conservation areas, or giving control to the indigenous groups, adding that “people who live in the forest and whose life requires intact forest are likely to protect the forest and use it wisely, reducing the risk of fire.”

At Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, members of the Environmental Action Club are trying to help an international issue on a local level. Leader of the club Teresa Montoya said that “to make a change, [she] encourages people to attend the climate strikes/protests, compost, and reduce plastic consumption” as even these small steps, she mentions, can help create a larger change in the environment with deforestation, in particular the Amazon. As a resident of North America, where it isn’t directly impacting her, Montoya states that this issue is important to everyone, "because [humans] can’t tackle any other social issue without maintaining and protecting our home (the planet). This issue affects every single living organism on the planet and it is a crucial time in history where we need to take action now,” she said.

Amazon deforestation is a crucial issue that is largely being ignored on a local, national, and international level, and the fight continues as the forest continues to shrink at an alarming rate. The fate of the Amazon, the largest rainforest on the planet and a crucial safeguard against the greenhouse effect, remains unknown as it is burning minute by minute.

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