Fire and Life

By Donovan Makus

Many news stories could claim to be the centre of the summer news cycle. Someone is always fighting someone else, now with even greater efficiency. Some government is always busy putting down uprisings and protests, now presented in a new “Global Superpower” edition. Disasters continue to strike as they have in the past, be they natural or of the Russian nuclear mishap variety. However, few stories could match the visceral images of the Brazilian Amazon rainforest fires. There’s something about seeing the devastation left behind by a raging fire that inspires attention. Forest fires, as many Albertans can attest to, are not uncommon. One thing you may not realize is that forest fires are a key part of nutrient cycling and forest renewal; many species rely on them to free up sunlight and nutrients monopolized by large, mature trees. Given that the fires themselves are not a bad thing (unless someone happens to live in the forest), the questions begs itself: why are these fires so significant? The answer for why this year gained attention is that there are 77% more fires than last year, with more fumes as a result. Increased modern slash and burn agriculture, to accommodate new farms and development, also plays a part in the new focus. Brazil’s new President, Captain Jair Bolsonaro, has encouraged development since being elected in January, leading to an increase in activity. A man who once jokingly called himself “Captain Chainsaw” in the middle of fire season has taken a belligerent view towards the fires, initially blaming environmental not-for-profits, and fiercely fighting back against an aid package to help fight the fires. While he has, reluctantly, accepted the idea of taking action, resorting to the time-tested “send in the troops” strategy, he hasn’t totally embraced all possible measures. He continues to publicly resist the idea of international aid as a throwback form of colonialism, using the Amazon basin as a key economic driver. While some of the language used by rainforest proponents could easily be interpreted as offensive to Brazilian nationalists, the fires are still burning. In this kind of political environment, it’s no surprise the physical environment is also suffering.   

This leads us to the second question: why is having more fires a bad thing if forest fires are natural? Some reasons given have been overly alarmist. The Amazon is not the ‘lungs of the earth,’ and burning it down won’t reduce the supply of oxygen by 20% (a figure shared by major news outlets and politicians). As geologist Shanan Peters noted, we could burn absolutely everything except ourselves on the planet and the total oxygen would go from 20.9% to 20.4%. CO2 levels would double, which sounds alarming, but is also what we project would be the levels by the year 2100 if we continue to develop at the same rate. As of early September, there have been two fatalities and great property losses combined with the destruction of traditional Indigenous ways of life, representing another negative aspect of the fires. While the human losses are tragic, the ecosystem and planet wide impact of the fires should also be noted. These fires, through their unique placement, have broader impacts on our entire planet. 

“Diversity is our strength.” This simple statement echoes one of the most devastating aspects of the Amazonian fires, alongside the human cost. The Amazon rainforests represent one of the most biodiverse parts of the world. With potentially millions of species of living things, depending on your definition of “species” and with the greatest diversity of any ecosystem on the planet, the risk is high. Tropical moist rainforests like the Amazon contain both the most species per capita and also species you can only find there. If you were to gather 10 random species together, one of them would call the Amazon home. Now, with millions of species, the comeback presents itself: surely we could afford to lose a few of them? They can’t all be important if there are millions of them. While there are varying views of ecosystem resilience, it’s somewhat hard to triage species when the whole forest is burning down. The value of this diversity is a loaded debate. To some, the diversity is valuable for its extrinsic value. More species means more opportunities to find commercially and practically viable products. Some endemic beetle may be the secret to curing some difficult diseases, for example. For others, diversity shouldn’t be valued in dollars and cents, viewed as a source for exploration, exploitation, and extraction. Whichever view suits you, the key is to recognize the importance of this diversity and, in turn, recognize the Amazon. 

Given this situation, what can you do? World leaders have offered aid, but this has denigrated into a somewhat entertaining spectacle of President Bolsonaro and French President Macron engaging in a social media-fuelled feud that has descended to the level of President Bolsonaro indirectly insulting President Macron’s wife. While heads of state go back and forth on Twitter, you can take practical action. The obvious solution is to donate to someone doing work to deal with the problem of deforestation. If you’re on a budget, you can take more passive action by choosing household products that have the Rainforest Alliance or Forest Stewardship Council stamps, showing that those products are not made by destroying rainforests. You can also reduce your use of products hailing from deforested lands. Significant portions of the forest were lost to support cattle ranching, giving yet another reason to support Alberta beef producers. While it may be more difficult to source, mining for metals and precious stones also represents a significant threat to the Amazon, giving you another product to avoid. Whatever action speaks to you, remember that the best action is one you sustain. Once winter hits, the fires will fall off the newscycle, replaced by some other major news story; we’re entering a new hot season for both Canadian and American politics, after all. While the Amazon may not be the lungs of the earth and rainforests are filled with many stinging, biting, and otherwise dangerous species, we should still do what we can to protect them. 

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