South America’s forests
Bolsonaro and beyond: why South America is scorching, and what can be done about it.
In April 2019, climate activist Greta Thunberg uttered the immortal lines ‘Act like our house is on fire. Because it is.’ By August, those words rang all too true as wildfires swept the globe from Siberia to Sevilla. As the skies turned black with smoke over São Paulo, the media began reporting fires in the Amazon rainforest. The internet was awash with condemnation of Brazil’s President Bolsonaro, with questions about the images used to illustrate the story, and with pundits saying the fires weren’t anything exceptional. Then the media storm swept away, leaving the firestorms raging.
So are the fires in 2019 – many still burning at the time of writing in October – anything out of the ordinary? Why is a damp, humid rainforest on fire anyway? And what can people far from the flames do to help?
Fires still being set in blazing Bolivia
- Firefighters in Bolivia are tackling conflagrations that have burned an area larger than Costa Rica. Several national parks and Indigenous territories have been affected.
- Many Indigenous and civil society groups are calling for an end to laws that allow burning.
- I spoke to ecologists and biologists about what is being lost, and what the chances of recovery are for affected areas. Some did not want to be named, as the political situation is tense right now in the run up to Bolivia’s October elections.
- This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.
Despite over six weeks of firefighting, the infernos destroying Bolivia’s forests continue to spread. 5.3 million hectares (about 13.1 million acres) — an area larger than the whole of Costa Rica — have been destroyed, and about 40 percent of that area was forest. A perfect storm of factors — from an unusually dry year, probably linked to climate change, to a new law allowing burning of forest lands — have combined to make this one of the worst years this century for forest fires in the megadiverse nation.
But are these fires out of the ordinary?
It’s Not Just Brazil’s Forests That Are Burning, Bolivia Is on Fire Too
While the burning Amazon rainforest in Brazil has dominated international news coverage, over a million hectares of Bolivia’s unique Chiquitano dry forest has also been destroyed in recent weeks. Like in Brazil, protesters blame the government for the disaster and say it isn’t doing enough to put the fires out. For weeks they have been demanding president Evo Morales asks for international aid and repeals environmentally damaging laws, as in the meantime volunteers have tried to battle the blaze themselves.
So far, three times more forest has been destroyed in the South American country in a matter of weeks than was destroyed in the whole of 2017. Having charred much of the unique Chiquitano forest, the fires now threaten globally unique species in three national parks. Experts say it will take over 200 years for the Chiquitano to recover – not accounting for the effects of climate change.
The burned areas are especially rich in wildlife, with many species unique to the area. Bolivian jaguar scientist Alfredo Romero-Muñoz calculated that the area burned in the Chiquitano so far would be home to 300-500 jaguars. He broke down in tears when he told me.
No solo arde Brasil: los incendios en Bolivia amenazan a la población y a la vida silvestre
Entre el 18 y el 25 de agosto se quemaron más que 1,000 000 hectáreas del bosque Chiquitano en Bolivia. Eso es más bosque del que normalmente se destruye en todo el país en tres años. Según los expertos, se necesitarán al menos dos siglos para reparar el daño ecológico causado por los incendios. Más de 500 especies están en peligro por las llamas.
El bosque seco Chiquitano en Bolivia, o Chiquitanía, era el bosque seco tropical sano más grande del mundo. Ahora no está claro si conservará ese estatus.
It’s not just Brazil’s Amazon rainforest that’s ablaze – Bolivian fires are threatening people and wildlife
Up to 800,000 hectares of the unique Chiquitano forest were burned to the ground in Bolivia between August 18 and August 23. That’s more forest than is usually destroyed across the country in two years. Experts say that it will take at least two centuries to repair the ecological damage done by the fires, while at least 500 species are said to be at risk from the flames.
The Chiquitano dry forest in Bolivia was the largest healthy tropical dry forest in the world. It’s now unclear whether it will retain that status. The forest is home to Indigenous peoples as well as iconic wildlife such as jaguars, giant armadillos, and tapirs. Some species in the Chiquitano are found nowhere else on Earth. Distressing photographs and videos from the area show many animals have burned to death in the recent fires.
Torching Earth’s Lungs: Bolsonaro’s Environmental Policies Set Scene for Catastrophe
Donald J. Trump is the global poster-boy for trashing the climate and demolishing human rights. But focus too hard on Trump’s frenzied, shiny circus and you may miss a bigger threat: the ferociously far-right and anti-environmental president a few thousand miles further South.
Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has been dubbed “Tropical Trump,” but this tag does not do him justice. A captain under Brazil’s brutal military dictatorship, Bolsonaro entered politics when the regime fell in 1985 – but didn’t leave his authoritarian roots behind.
Las elecciones presidenciales en Bolivia marcarán el rumbo ambiental del país
Las próximas elecciones presidenciales en Bolivia, que se celebrarán en octubre, ofrecen una nueva oportunidad para conservar su asombroso patrimonio natural. Las políticas anteriores en este sentido han sido contradictorias y algunas han causado impactos negativos en áreas protegidas y poblaciones indígenas.
Además de analizar dichas medidas, en un artículo publicado esta semana en Nature Ecology and Evolution, pedimos que los debates presidenciales dediquen tiempo a la política ambiental en un país con fuertes valores pronaturaleza. También queremos que la retórica verde se corresponda con la acción real.
EU holds the key to stop the ‘Notre Dame of forests’ from burning
Last week, a tearful Greta Thunberg begged the EU to act on the climate and ecological crises we are facing. “It’s OK if you refuse to listen to me,” she said, “I am, after all, just a 16 year old schoolgirl from Sweden. But you cannot ignore the scientists or the science… I beg you, please, do not fail on this.” The EU officials present gave her a standing ovation.
Today, the EU has a chance to act on her message. Scientists are asking the EU to demand tougher environmental standards from Brazil in ongoing trade talks. They explained their concerns in an open letter in Science signed by 600 EU scientists and 300 Brazilian Indigenous groups. They hope that they will not be ignored.
Message to the EU: you have the chance to stop fuelling devastation in the Amazon
The effects of European consumption are being felt in Brazil, driving disastrous deforestation and violence.
But the destruction can end if the European Union demands higher environmental standards on Brazilian goods. Hundreds of scientists and Indigenous leaders agree: the time to act is now, before it’s too late.
In an open letter published today in the journal Science, more than 600 scientists from every country in the European Union (EU) and 300 Brazilian Indigenous groups asked the EU to demand tougher standards for Brazilian imports.
Climate and ecological crises
We scientists must rise up to prevent the climate crisis. Words aren’t enough
As scientists, we tend to operate under an unspoken assumption – that our job is to provide the world with factual information, and if we do so our leaders will use it to make wise decisions. But what if that assumption is wrong? For decades, conservation scientists like us have been telling the world that species and ecosystems are disappearing, and that their loss will have devastating impacts on humanity. Meanwhile, climate scientists have been warning that the continued burning of fossil fuels and destruction of natural carbon sinks, such as forests and peatlands, will lead to catastrophic planetary heating.
We have collectively written tens of thousands of peer-reviewed papers, and shared our findings with policymakers and the public. And, on the face of it, we seem to have done a pretty good job: after all, we all know about the environmental and climate crises, don’t we?
It’s Time for Scientists to Rebel and Demand Climate Action
The time has come for scientists to break the law. In the scientific journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, we recently explained why we – as conservation scientists – are risking arrest to protest inaction on environmental disasters. We hope our colleagues will join us.
Scientists have spent decades trying to warn the world of worsening climate and ecological crises, and offering alternative pathways for humanity. Unfortunately, this has not slowed our trajectory, let alone turned it around; climate breakdown is happening even faster than predicted. Scientists have been out-spent and out-maneuvered – while we have written policy briefs, fossil fuel companies have splashed the cash to lobby governments. The playing field that scientists have been allowed onto is far from level.
Nature is not just nice to have, it sustains our very existence.
Today the Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services or IPBES launches a global assessment of the state of nature. The findings are stark; we are already in the sixth mass extinction and are eroding the life support systems of this planet. Drastic and devastating consequences will be seen in my lifetime unless we change course. This is an existential crisis every bit as dangerous as climate breakdown, and intimately connected to it in multiple ways. The IPBES report is set to be every bit as shocking as October’s IPCC report on climate breakdown. Solving the climate crisis alone is not enough; if we keep destroying nature, we will go down with it.
Climate breakdown is not someone else’s problem
The science-fiction writer Douglas Adams had a great idea for how to make something completely invisible. You generate a ‘someone else’s problem’ field around it. That way, every time someone looks at the thing, whatever it is, all they see is someone else’s problem, and they completely ignore it. I think that this is what we do when we think about the climate and ecological crises that are unfolding around us. These are huge problems, but they are also conveniently invisible. I’m not just talking about the fact that we can’t see the carbon dioxide in the air, or that species go extinct before they are even named by science; it goes deeper than that.
With a Rebel Yell, Scientists Cry ‘No, no, more!’
Adrenaline makes experiences hyper-real. Everything seems to move in slow motion, apart from my heart, which is so loud that I am sure people can hear it even over the traffic.
It’s 11:03 on a sunny November morning in central London. As the green man starts to shine, I walk into the middle of the road and sit down. On either side of me, people do the same. There can only be about 50 of us sitting on this pedestrian crossing, and I murmur ‘are we enough?’
‘Look behind you,’ says a new friend.
Climate’s last stand: Why Extinction Rebellion protesters are breaking the law
“A 4 degrees C future is incompatible with an organized global community,” climate and energy professor Kevin Anderson once told Grist.
Even if we cut emissions by 3.5 percent a year after 2020, we’ll hit 4 degrees Celsius warming by the end of this century. Just let that sink in for a minute. When babies born now are in their 80s, there could be no human civilization left to speak of. The Amazon rainforest is likely to die at 3-4°C of warming. And the corals? They’ll be long gone, dying out at 2°C. Currently, perversely, terrifyingly, global emissions are still rising.
If that is what we are facing, why are we all carrying on as normal? Well, some people aren’t. Extinction Rebellion is a UK-born group committing civil disobedience…