This year, there were approximately 40,000 fires burning in the Amazon—the world’s largest tropical rainforest. To discuss the causes, predicted effects, and potential solutions of these deadly fires, The Medium sat down with Monika Havelka, an associate professor in UTM’s geography department.

To begin, Havelka confirms that there has been a drastic increase in the number of forest fires in the Brazilian Amazon, about “80 per cent more than last summer.” She explains that while “forest fires in temperate areas like California and British Columbia are usually caused by accidents but are accelerated and magnified by climate change,” the fires burning the Amazon “have been deliberately set.” Cattle ranchers have incurred the most damage as “80 per cent of the deforestation of the Amazon” can be attributed to land being cleared for raising cattle.

There is a political component to this tragedy as well. Havelka describes how “the fires have increased dramatically since January of this year, when Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right populist, took power.” Bolsonaro “campaigned on a ‘pro-business’ platform and promised to weaken the Amazon’s environmental protections—protections that have been effective at reducing deforestation over the last few decades—and open up the Amazon for development.” Leaked documents also suggest that Bolsonaro’s “government intends to strategically block conservation projects in the Amazon.”

 The detrimental effects of these fires are high in magnitude and vary. Since “tropical forests are not naturally adapted to fire,” the fires can alter the Amazon rainforest’s “composition, structure, and recovery potential.” Havelka stresses how important the Amazon is to the entire planet: it “produces about six per cent of the world’s oxygen, stores a massive amount of carbon, and acts as a ‘biotic pump’ that moves air and atmospheric water around the globe.” The destruction humans inflict through “deforestation and burning releases these carbon stocks, impairs the ability to store future emissions, and disrupts the function of the forest in the global climate system.”

The consequences are not limited to the climate. Havelka describes how “the Amazon is a source of tremendous biodiversity capital” which is threatened by the fires. The Indigenous residents of the Amazon will furthermore “be displaced and lose their way of life.”

When asked about what is being done to combat the damage, Havelka paints a grim picture. She states that the “protections that were in place are being rapidly dismantled—giant steps are being taken backwards, not forwards.” For example, just recently, “the Brazilian ambassador announced that Brazil would reject a donation of $22.2 million to fight the fires because it perceived the donation as political ‘interference’” at the G7 meeting in France.

 Havelka remarks that while Brazil’s current government is at fault, “other countries are quietly abetting these policies” as well.  She explains that although “most of the cattle ranching in Brazil is for the domestic market, increases in exports are what’s driving the current boom in deforestation.” Havelka also states that “investment by U.S. and European finance companies is critical in supporting Brazilian agribusiness [and] these banks and investment companies bear a big responsibility for what is happening in the Amazon.” Amazon Watch, a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting the Amazon rainforest, “reports that American investors own about $1 billion in stock in Brazil’s largest meatpacker—and the stock price has roughly tripled since January.”

Students can help in many ways including making smart consumer choices, spreading awareness, and voting. Havelka acknowledges that since “Canada is a pretty minor buyer [of beef sourced from Brazil], we don’t really need to worry if the burger we buy in Mississauga was raised on destroyed rainforest.” However, reducing meat consumption does have “positive effects for the environment.” One of the most effective strategies according to Havelka is to “be informed, talk about the issues—with your friends, on social media, through advocacy groups—and vote.” By “let[ting] politicians, leaders, Google algorithms know that climate change and other environmental issues matter to you, that these issues affect what you buy, where you invest your money, and how you vote,” you can play a role in protecting one of our planet’s most important assets.

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