Why the Amazon Is Burning, and Why We Should Be Concerned

2019 was a very hard year for the world's largest rainforest, the Amazon. From purposefully-set fires by cattle ranchers, illegal logging, and the growth of soy plantations, the Amazon rainforest is suffering with no consequences given to those who are harming it. Keep reading this blog to find out what exactly is happening in this beautiful forest, why it matters, and why we should be concerned.

Why Is the Amazon Important?

The Amazon rainforest is the world's largest intact forest, spanning nine countries and covering just over 2 million square miles of land. This large rainforest is home to 30 million people; an uncountable number of animals, fish, birds, and insects; and at least 40,000 species of plants. Of the species of plants, 75% are native to the Amazon. The Amazon rainforest also occupies the basin of the Amazon River, called Amazonia. The Amazon rainforest has upwards of 390 billion trees, of which there are 16,000 species! These trees store more than 100 billion metric tons of carbon, and take in almost one quarter of the carbon that is absorbed by all of the world's forests. 60% of the Amazon rainforest is in the country of Brazil, where the Amazon takes up 40% of the land.

What Is Happening to the Amazon?

The main concerns held by scientists, ecologists, climate activists, and many others are based on what is happening to the Amazon rainforest that covers Brazil. In the last 40 years, the Brazilian Amazon has lost more than 18% of its rainforest due to illegal logging, expansion of soy plantations, and cattle ranching. In fact, 3,769 square miles of the Brazilian Amazon suffered from deforestation between August of 2018 and July of 2019, a 30% increase from the previous year. To put it into perspective, 3,769 square miles is the equivalent of 2,412,160 acres of deforested trees and plants. In addition to this, nearly 9,653 square miles of forest were destroyed in August of 2019, nearly double the amount of rainforest that was destroyed in the entirety of the previous period. However, the deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon only makes up half of the deforestation of the whole Amazon; deforestation in countries like Bolivia and Peru is slowly increasing, and beginning to become a larger issue as well. The whole of the Amazon biome, which includes the rainforest and the basin, has lost 20% of its area to deforestation. The World Wildlife Fund, or WWF, estimates that 27% of the Amazon biome will be without trees by the year 2030.

Why Is This Happening?

This deforestation is due to the economic strategies of the countries that the Amazon covers. Cattle ranchers, loggers, and owners of soy plantations are the main cause of the deforestation of the Amazon, as this is how many people living in or near the rainforest make their living. Cattle ranchers cut down trees, and start fires to replenish the soil and clear brush and tree stumps to feed their cattle. However, these fires spread to untouched forest, and end up causing over 80% of the current deforestation rates, as well as threatening the people who live in the rainforest. Expansion and deforestation is encouraged because of the low cost of acquiring the land for cattle, which is then taken over by soy plantations after the cattle use up the grass of that area. This pushes the cattle ranches further into the rainforest, because they cannot go back and graze on land that is taken over by soya beans. Despite having easy access to this knowledge, many major fast-food corporations like Burger King, McDonalds, and KFC are supporters of Brazilian cattle ranches and soy plantations because of their inexpensive and plentiful beef and soya production. In fact, in 2018, Brazil was named the world's largest beef exporter, as the country exported 20% of the world's beef exports.

Cattle graze with a burnt area in the background after a fire in the Amazon rainforest near Novo Progresso, Para state, Brazil, on August 25, 2019 (Photo by Joao Laet).

This deforestation and occupation was considered illegal before the beginning of December of 2019, when the president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, legalized land grabbing of public land. Now that land grabbing of this public land is legalized, the deforestation can continue without any threat of consequence to those who take over the land. This means that illegal logging, cattle ranching, and the planting of soy farms can continue without any reprimand from the government. In fact, these are all encouraged, as a symbol of pride in the progression of Brazil and countries like Bolivia and Peru. Some people believe that conservation efforts and environmentalists are holding their country back, and that the Amazon should be developed to help the economies of these countries. In fact, some people who live and work near or in the Amazon believe that conservationists have no right to dictate what is done with their land, as many northern countries where the conservationists are from constantly tear down forests to develop the land. Many believe that the fires and deforestation are being exaggerated, as the Amazon is so extensive, and these loggers and cattle ranchers have barely made a dent in the vast rainforest. They claim that the exaggeration of the deforestation is political, bringing the entire world into the agricultural business of countries like Brazil.

Why Should We Be Concerned?

Despite the accusations that other countries should not concern themselves with the business of the South American countries that the Amazon spans, there are reasons for the worry that surrounds the conservation of the rainforest. Besides being the world's largest rainforest, and being home to millions of people, animals, and plants, the Amazon stores billions and billions of metric tons of carbon within its trees. When the trees are cut down, the years and years of buildup of carbon is released. The Amazon stores about 100 billion metric tons of carbon, which means that, if 10% of the forest is torn down, it will release about 10 billion metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere. That is one-third of the entire world's fossil fuel emissions for a whole year! Releasing such large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere can be dangerous, and many scientists agree that deforestation of the Amazon can severely affect temperature changes and rainfall patterns.

The deforestation can effect the rain and water supply for many countries in South America. But how? For starters, without the Amazon, that area of South America would most likely be a desert! Through a process called evapotranspiration, a large tree in the rainforest can release 1,000 liters of water into the air every single day. This means that, added together, the rainforest produces more water than the entire Amazon river holds. When these trees are cut down and that stored carbon is released, it leads to rising temperatures and changes in rainfall patterns. The Amazon provides much of the rainfall for the soy plantations and the cattle ranchers, and they are slowly cutting away at the sole reason that their farms and ranches exist in the first place. To add to this, deforestation also affects the flow of the Amazon river. The roots of the trees help maintain water in the soil and, when cut down, that water cannot be maintained. This causes excess surface runoff, reducing the volume of the river, causing soil to go into the river, and causing more flooding to the surrounding areas.

The Amazon rainforest is not just the largest rainforest on earth, but is the most important, too. Besides providing a living space for 30 million people, millions of animals, and billions of plants, the Amazon is also a storage space for major amounts of carbon. This cutting down and burning of the rainforest's trees does not just affect those living near it, but really affects people all over the world. Thankfully, there are so many people trying to end the deforestation of this great rainforest. If you wish to help stop the deforestation of the Amazon, visit websites like "Rainforest-alliance.org" and "Coolearth.org" to donate, or to learn more about what you can do to help end deforestation.

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