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The Amazon Apocalypse? 

Highly publicised spats between international leaders, an emotive social media storm of condemnation, manipulated ideologies, misinformation, fake photos, fake news… What is the truth behind this year’s fires in the Amazon? Elton Cunha, based in Brazil, unpicks the tangle of misinformation, finding that the facts are serious enough not to need embellishment 

06 INPE Amazon deforestation

Image from Brazil's National Institute for Space Research (INPE), showing deforestation in the Amazon (Image: INPE)

In recent months the world has been appalled by the images and information emanating from Brazil, showing the outbreak of fires throughout the Amazon rainforest. Several world leaders, media personalities, artists and the national and international community have been moved to protest in support of one of the largest and most important biomes on earth.

Biomes are distinct biological communities that have formed in response to a shared physical climate, the term is a broader term than habitat and can comprise a variety of habitats. Some divide biomes into five basic types: Aquatic; forest; desert; tundra; and grassland.

But what is the Amazon?

Brazil is not the only country privileged to have territory spanning the Amazon biome. The territories of eight other countries are also partially covered by the Amazon forest, as follows: Brazil – 60 per cent; Peru – 13 per cent; and Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Guyana, Suriname and France (French Guiana) make up the remaining 27 per cent.

The Legal Amazon, the so-called Brazilian Amazon, occupies 4,196,943 million square kilometres of Brazil’s territory. The Amazon has the largest river basin in the world, covering around six million square kilometres and has 1,100 tributaries. Its main river, the Amazon, crosses the region to flow into the Atlantic Ocean at a rate of about 175 million litres of water every second, also making it the largest river by volume in the world.

Fires on Brazilian soil happen every year in all biomes, aided by the winter season and dry climate. However, burning is also encouraged by the farming industry to clear land for cattle pasture, cropland such as soybeans, land renewal for new crops and land grabbing (ie the appropriation of public land without payment and false documentation). Added to this is mineral exploration, which can destroy large areas to obtain its extraction objectives.
04 Deforestation area Km2 per

Rate of deforested area, by square kilometre, a year (Image: INPE)

This year, Brazil has experienced events outside the curve, which have generated an institutional and political crisis both within and outside of the country. Information, much of it propagated without consulting reliable sources, has been disseminated across social networks, newspapers and media. The consequences of the spread of this information have generated confusion and institutional gaffes. Even worse, we have seen information warfare and fake news.

While it is indisputable that large numbers of wildlife have been threatened by the blazes, social media abounded with fake images such as this one, which was debunked by Snopes and numerous other social media users (Twitter/Snopes)

07 from 1989

This widely disseminated image is actually of fires that took place in 1989

Unfortunately, we are living in a period of ideological struggles in Brazil that often stand above the collective good. While some are pointing fingers at each other, the Amazon is burning; rather than addressing the problem, this attitude of shifting blame is creating an operational blockade.The much-respected Director of the National Institute for Space Research (INPE), Dr Ricardo Galvão, was fired from the institution for disclosing data about above average burning rates in the Amazon. His dismissal was undertaken at the behest of President Jair Bolsonaro by the Minister of Science and Technology and former astronaut Marcos Pontes.

INPE's information is in the public domain and open to anyone who is interested, but it embarrassed the Brazilian Government to the point that President Bolsonaro criticised the data, dismissing it as exaggerated and ideologically biased. The consequence of this intervention was an even wider dissemination of the data – an information bomb that spread across the media like a tsunami.The intelligence sector of the Brazilian Federal Police released information alleging the possibility that several groups - including NGOs (of which there are more than 44,496 operating in the Amazon) or landlord/owners – had planned via WhatsApp chats to mark ‘Fire Day’ in order to: “Destabilise the government's image in the face of public opinion or even taking advantage of cuts in personnel responsible for supervision, financial cuts and the contingencies of the public budget to deforest and burn at will.”

In the midst of this imbroglio, Environment Minister Ricardo Sales attempted to relax environmental licenses in order to justify the development and strengthening of the Brazilian economy. He appeared on television shows and in newspapers defending his management stance, aligned with the thoughts of President Bolsonaro; these views are not always supported by all Brazilians.The Brazilian Government took too long to react in a practical and strategic way to the large fires in the Legal Amazon, while leaders of friendly nations and allies fought each other verbally on social networks and through TV and newspaper interviews. This highlighted the inertia and how firefighters, Brigadistas and the forestry and civil defence units had become overwhelmed in combating the flames in the affected Brazilian States.

Finally, President Bolsonaro ordered the Armed Forces (Navy, Army and Air Force) to reinforce firefighting units; other Brazilian states also sent military firefighters and equipment to help fight the blazes.Information from Brazil and other countries, replicated over and over again, exposed the problem, but also created a flood of mismatched information and bizarre images such as African giraffes and elephants, Australian koalas and Asian monkeys, in front of desolate burnt-out scenes, purporting them to be victims of the fires. Images that were up to 30 years old were disseminated, as were pictures of fires from other regions of Brazil.

The fact is, there are major criminally-set fires every year, and the Brazilian Government is responsible for turning a blind eye to the problems in the region. Brazil has some of the best environmental legislation in the world. But a lack of enforcement, understaffing, lenient judiciary and acute corruption, the theft of billions of dollars by previous governments (as discovered by Operation Car Wash) increasing world demand for ore, raw materials and food, allied to a thirst for unbridled profit, all compromise the future of the Amazon rainforest.

The Legal Amazon is in Brazil. But it is vitally important for the whole of humanity. What matters most? The survival of humanity with conserved and protected biomes? Sustainable extraction or our greedy, greedy consumerist lifestyle? Should we wait for the world to collapse before we work out how to survive the apocalypse?  

Elton Cunha, 06/09/2019
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