A look at Amazon fires as climate worries mount

RIO DE JANEIRO — Fires that swept parts of the Amazon this year added to global worries about a warming climate, as well as the sense of urgency at the Climate Action Summit at the United Nations this week.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who has said he wants to convert forests to soybean farms and cattle pastures, is scheduled to address world leaders at the United Nations on Tuesday.

A look at the main issues and challenges surrounding the immense rainforest in Latin America:

Why is the Amazon important?

Scientists say the world’s largest rainforest, which is about 10 times the size of Texas, is a critical bulwark against global warming.

Trees store carbon absorbed from the atmosphere. The Amazon each year takes in as much as 2 billion tons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.

The Amazon’s billions of trees also release water vapor that forms a thick mist over the rainforest canopy. It rises into clouds and produces rain, affecting weather patterns across South America and far beyond.

The Amazon, 60 percent of which is in Brazil, is also home to 20 percent of the earth’s plant species, many of which are found nowhere else.

What is the impact of fire and deforestation in the Amazon?

In the past couple of months, fires across Brazilian forests spread at a pace unseen in years.

Satellite data from the Brazilian Space Agency has shown a sharp increase in deforestation and forest fires in the past year. In August, the agency issued an alert that fires in the Amazon had increased 84 percent in the first seven months of this year, compared with the same period in 2018.

Close to 20 percent of the Amazon had already been deforested, according to Thomas Lovejoy, a George Mason University environmental scientist.

Doug Morton, a NASA scientist, said fire releases carbon stored in Amazon trees. The carbon, Morton said, enters the atmosphere as carbon dioxide or methane, contributing to greenhouse gases that are causing a warmer, drier planet.

Some officials in Bolsonaro’s government question the alarming data, saying fires are an annual occurrence as ranchers and farmers clear land and that most of the vast Amazon remains intact.

What is Brazil doing about the Amazon?

Brazil was once heralded as an environmental success story. Stricter enforcement of environmental laws between 2004 and 2014 sharply curbed the rate of deforestation.

However, deforestation began to climb in recent years. Concern about the Amazon’s rainforest has mounted since Bolsonaro took office this year after campaigning on promises to loosen protections for indigenous lands and nature reserves.

Bolsonaro has said he wants to convert land for cattle pastures and soybean farms to boost Brazil’s struggling economy. His environment minister, Ricardo Salles, says millions of Brazilians live in the Amazon and that they must be able to make a living through agriculture and other industries.

Critics alleged Brazil’s new administration is weakening state environmental institutions and that it initially stood by as farmers set more fires this year. Amid an international outcry, Bolsonaro sent troops to aid in fighting the blazes and banned fires for land-clearing in the Amazon for 60 days.

What is the world doing about the Amazon?

Images of fires consuming parts of the Amazon and smoke shrouding skies above the forest alarmed many international leaders, particularly those in Europe who have invested funds in programs to protect the rainforest.

However, international concern about the Amazon was sidelined by acrimony between Brazil and European countries, jeopardizing hopes of global unity over how to protect a region that is vital to the health of the planet.

A personal spat between Bolsonaro and French President Emmanuel Macron dominated the dispute, but it also centered on Brazilian perceptions of alleged interference on matters of sovereignty, economic development and the rights of indigenous people. Brazil has said it will set conditions for accepting any aid from the Group of Seven nations, which in August offered tens of millions of dollars for firefighting and rainforest protections.

Are the fires just a problem in Brazil?

No. Brazil’s Amazon has received most of the international attention, but recent fires also caused devastation in other Latin American countries, particularly Bolivia. Most of Bolivia’s fires are in dry forests, prairies and farmland in its southeastern Chiquitanía region, although some have affected its Amazon area.

Authorities in Bolivia say farmers and ranchers start fires to renew pastures and clear land, but the blazes got out of control this year due to a drought and strong winds that the government attributes to climate change. Critics say a decree issued by the Bolivian government in July allowing controlled burns for agricultural purposes contributed to the disaster.

By Kerry Minor

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