As fires rage in South America, so too does the fight for sustainable agricultural methods.
This year, Brazil has experienced 76,000 fires, nearly double the amount they experienced last year—and, unlike the familiar forest fires on North America’s western coast, it isn’t due to climate change. According to Alberto Setzer, senior scientist at Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, 99 percent of Amazon fires are caused by humans.
The recent surge in fires this past week has formed a layer of smoke approximately 1.2 million square miles wide, spreading as far as 2,000 miles away. In the city of São Paulo, the smoke blotted out the sun, veiling citizens in darkness.
South America is accustomed to these fires, which are used to clear land for crops, but the rate at which these fires are spreading is of particular concern. In 1989, an issue of TIME magazine warned of the devastating effects that burning rainforests would have for the globe, claiming that more than 1 million species would vanish if these fires continued.
Thirty years later, the fires have not only continued; they have wreaked havoc on the ecosystem. The question that remains?
Why have the fires continued?
Traditional Agricultural Methods
Slash-and-burn deforestation is the root of the problem. Amazonian farmers have used this agricultural method for hundreds of years, clearing and burning forests to create farmland for crops. This method, however, is unsustainable and short-term.
Figure 1: Deforestation is destroying the Amazon Rainforest. Uncontrollable fires in the past week have damaged approximately 640 million acres of rainforest
Without the nutrients and rain cover provided by trees, the soil quickly loses its fertility, forcing farmers to abandon the land and clear and convert more forest for cash crops—such as coffee, bananas, soybeans, and cocoa—and cattle.
According to Andreas Chileno Rocha, a Bolivian farmer, rain would decrease the soil’s fertility on his cropland, forcing him to abandon it. He states in an interview, “We tried. We worked the land, bit by bit cutting down the forest. But it rained and rained and rained […] Now the only thing this land is good for is grass and livestock” (NRI).
Traditionally, this slash-and-burn farming was successful, as only a small portion of farmers used this method and let the soil recover before returning. Recently, however, less experienced farmers have migrated to the rainforests seeking work, and with more farmers pursuing farmland, the soil isn’t being given enough time to recover and more area is being cleared.
Yet burning forests is incredibly irresponsible because fires spread rapidly and uncontrollably. In addition, burning trees increases the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
Trees inhale and store carbon dioxide and then release oxygen; but when they are burned, the carbon dioxide they store for plant growth is released into the atmosphere, warming the planet. And the Amazon Basin stores approximately 100 billion metric tons of carbon—something we don’t want to release.
The Politics of Conservation
For years, conservationists have lobbied for the protection of the earth’s rainforests. With climate change rising, the rainforests will serve as essential tools to combat rising temperatures and erratic weather patterns.
But if we can’t save our rainforests first, they’ll never save us.
According to Carlos Nobre, senior researcher at the Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of Sao Paolo, for a long time, there were periods in which fires were prohibited in the Amazon, but farmers and cattle ranchers ignored these laws despite the resulting fines.
In Brazil, there are laws that highlight periods during the dry season when the use of fire is prohibited, but these laws are never followed, as the punishment is not severe.
To make matters worse, Brazil’s new federal government and president are encouraging slash-and-burn deforestation by urging the expansion of the agricultural frontier to boost Brazil’s economy.
Upon induction, Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, gave control to the Agriculture Ministry regarding which lands were to be protected. Since his presidency began, he has supported the deforestation of rainforests for agricultural land and has reversed the recent progress made over the years to reduce deforestation in the Amazon.
In response to allegations that he is contributing to the rapid deforestation of the Amazon and is behind the recent surge of fires in South America, Jair Bolsonaro claimed that environmental NGOs (non-governmental organizations) were to blame for the fires.
Slash-and-burn deforestation is not the only threat to South America’s rainforests. Illegal logging, soy plantations, and cattle ranching also pose serious threats to these diverse ecosystems, and with President Bolsonaro’s support for cattle ranching, its contribution to the deforestation of the Amazon (40 percent) will only grow.
Figure 2: According to Conservation International, 40 percent of deforestation is caused by cattle ranching and 20 percent by small-scale agriculture
Already, 20 percent of the Amazon Rainforest has been burned or logged. If another 20 percent is destroyed, scientists predict that the Amazon will suffer from a dieback loop, in which the forest desiccates and begins to burn on its own. If this happens, not only will South America suffer, but the entire world will suffer too.
The Amazon Rainforest does more than store carbon dioxide. The water released by its plants through evapotranspiration influences the world’s climate as well as the circulation of ocean currents, absorbing heat and cooling the planet.
Additionally, the Amazon produces between six and 20 percent of the planet’s oxygen and is home to 10 percent of all plant and animal species on earth. This biodiversity is vital to the planet because it prevents species extinction and provides a variety of resources for consumption, medicinal purposes, and other uses. In fact, 25 percent of the ingredients found in our medicines comes from rainforest plants.
In 2012, scientists found that deforestation over 30 years in the Amazon would ensure the extinction of 10 mammal species, 20 bird species, and eight amphibian species. By 2050, local regions will have 16 vertebrate species committed to extinction.
In order to prevent climate change from worsening and to prevent the loss of biodiversity on our planet, we must act swiftly. It all begins in the forests of South America.
Zero Net Deforestation
In 2008, at the Ninth Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, the delegates of 67 countries pledged zero net deforestation by 2020.
Now, in 2019, we couldn’t be further from this pledge.
Zero net deforestation refers to the reduction of global deforestation, recognizing that some deforestation is necessary and can be offset by forest restoration.
The Zero Net Deforestation Briefing provided by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) delineated a plan that included five initiatives:
- To integrate the principles of sustainable development into national policies
- To curb deforestation and reduce the loss of biodiversity
- To reduce carbon emissions from deforestation
- To reverse the loss of forest cover worldwide
- To stabilize soil, reduce water and wind erosion, and maintain nutrient cycling in soils
The first step to reversing the damage we’ve inflicted on the world’s rainforests is to implement a zero net deforestation policy. The second step is to modernize agricultural practices where slash-and-burn deforestation is still used.
Modernizing Agricultural Practices in South America
According to scientists, we are quickly approaching the point of no return. Once we lose the Amazon Rainforest, the battle against climate change will be lost.
To combat climate change, modern and sustainable agricultural practices must be introduced and employed.
The biggest issue the agricultural industry faces today is the loss of fertile soil. Productive farmland is often lost to erosion, salinization, waterlogging, tillage, and nutrient depletion. Regenerative and sustainable agricultural practices, which replenish the earth and prevent future degradation, should be employed on South American farms.
The following practices can be used to increase soil fertility:
- Using drip irrigation systems to reduce salinization, waterlogging, and water waste
- Employing regenerative agricultural practices—such as reducing tillage, supporting biodiversity, managing grazing, and increasing soil fertility
- Planting perennials to replenish soil and reduce erosion
Bolivian agricultural scientists have recently employed regenerative and sustainable agricultural practices to test the effectiveness of these methods.
To improve soil, they have implemented cover crops and fruit trees (which help reduce erosion); planted legumes to enrich soil with nitrogen; alternated crops; and increased biodiversity by planting different crops and trees and raising livestock on the same land.
Restoring the land is only half the battle. Access to technology, such as environmentally-friendly fertilizer, is also essential to increasing crop yield. Conventional fertilizers have high salt concentrations, leading to soil acidification, and contribute to global warming, as farmers often use too much fertilizer, which is pumped into the atmosphere as nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas.
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