Eye on the Amazon

Australia and the Amazon: Two Terrible Tragedies With One Key Difference

Photo credit: Victor Moriyama / Greenpeace

We began this year with the devastating news that wildfires across Australia were destroying vast portions of the country. Australia has faced record high temperatures and prolonged drought – ultimately driven by climate change – which has resulted in wildfires that have ravaged everything in their path. The images of wildlife and people alike seeking refuge have been heartbreaking. The air quality is literally setting off fire alarms. Australia's Indigenous peoples' cultural and sacred sites are at risk. Experts estimate that over 1 billion animals have perished. According to The Guardian, the fires have consumed 10.7 million hectares of forests – an area larger than the country of Portugal – between June 2019 and January 2020.

We face a global climate emergency. One of the consequences of a warming planet is the increasing severity of both wildfires and those that are set by people. As climate change creates ideal conditions for fires to proliferate, the destructive cycle continues: fires become more common and more intense, releasing more carbon into the air, pushing us further towards climate chaos.

The devastation in Australia is reminiscent of last year's runaway fires in the rainforests of the Amazon and the temperate forests of California. They are clearly linked as well: the disappearance of the Amazon means less atmospheric moisture globally and a higher incidence of droughts, such as those increasing in severity across the western United States.

Various news outlets have noted that both the Australian and Amazon tragedies were related to climate change but failed to describe a key difference between them: the fires in Australia are almost exclusively wildfires, while those that ravaged the Brazilian Amazon were intentionally set by people, primarily for land speculation and agribusiness. The Amazon fires were criminal acts inspired by President Bolsonaro's anti-environmental rhetoric. Land speculators, farmers, and ranchers understood the president's message as a license to commit arson with impunity in order to aggressively expand their operations into the rainforest.

According to the most recent data from the Brazilian National Institute of Space Programs (INPE), 7.2 million hectares of rainforest burned in the Brazilian Amazon in 2019, an increase of 168% from 2018. Meanwhile, in neighboring Bolivia, 4 million hectares were incinerated by man-made fires in 2019, according to the NGO Friends of Nature Foundation. Fires in the Brazilian Amazon are closely linked to illegal deforestation, invasions, and violence in Indigenous territories. Invasions of Indigenous lands have sharply increased since 2018, leading to deadly clashes and arson aimed at clearing forests for cattle pastures. Deforestation on protected Indigenous lands in the Amazon peaked last year and was almost three times higher than the loss of trees in the region as a whole since 2008.

The Brazilian government can no longer be trusted to ensure the protection of the Amazon and its native peoples. Just this week, over 500 Indigenous leaders from across Brazil gathered in the Amazon to develop strategies in opposition to Bolsonaro's plans to open up Indigenous lands to mining and agribusiness.

Since the height of the Amazon fires, Bolsonaro promised "zero tolerance" for environmental crimes. But this is simply lip service to direct the spotlight away from his toxic policies and dangerous rhetoric. We are seeing a similar tactic from Australian Prime Minister Scott Morison, whose complicity in that country's disaster is linked to his government's climate change denial and its leading role in scuttling the recent COP25 climate negotiations.

Tragedies on the scale of Australia's current emergency are a direct result of climate change, which has been further intensified by last year's Amazon fires that released plumes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. As consumers, we must recognize our own complicity in this process. The Amazon is being destroyed by industries that produce commodities like soy and beef, much of which is exported to global markets with the help of international financial institutions. Political leaders like Bolsonaro and Morrison enable industries – from agribusiness to fossil fuels – to wreck our climate to our collective detriment.

Just as the devastation in Australia and the Brazilian rainforest are implicitly connected, our choices as consumers and constituents can either promote solutions or make the crisis even worse. Australia's unprecedented disaster – and another horrific Amazon burning season – could become frequent occurrences if we allow corporations and politicians to dodge accountability. We have a collective obligation to address the root causes of climate change and avoid the next global climate disaster. And this will leave little room for leaders like Bolsonaro and Morrison, who continue to prioritize power and profit over our safety.

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