By Lauren Rearick
At 3 p.m. on Wednesday, August 21, darkness fell over São Paulo, the largest city in Brazil. For one hour, the mid-afternoon sky of the seventh most populated city in the world was shrouded in smoke, resulting in a scene that some on social media compared to the apocalypse.
Brazil’s National Institute of Meteorology attributed the smoke and resulting darkening to unprecedented wildfires currently raging in the Amazon rainforest, Buzzfeed reported. As experts warned, mid-afternoon darkness is just the beginning of potential consequences from the fires that have grown large enough to be spotted from space.
The issue gained viral prominence after celebrities and popular social media accounts urged people to take action. Zoë Kravitz reposted a tweet that asked why billionaires and media outlets weren’t rushing to cover the fires with the same urgency as the fire that threatened Paris’s Notre Dame cathedral earlier this year. Actor and environmentalist Leonardo DiCaprio reposted a call to action from the Rainforest Alliance. Other celebrities, including models Adriana Lima and Alessandra Ambrosio, who are from Brazil, helped signal boost the crisis with reposts of their own.
Wildfires are a common occurrence in the Amazon rainforest, particularly during the dry season, Reuters reported, but this year, the rainforest has experienced a record breaking number of blazes. The INPE, Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, has detected 72,843 current fires, Reuters reported, and environmentalists blame the relaxed environmental policy of the country’s President, Jair Bolsonaro for the spike, CBS News reported.
Bolsonaro took office in January 2019; since then, the INPE noted a marked increase in the number of wildfires. The president has fought back against reported claims that his lax environmental policies encouraged an increase in deforestation, telling reporters on Tuesday, August 20, that it was “the season of the queimada,” a period in which farmers clear land with fire, CBS News reported. Bolsonaro also claimed without any proof that “foreign-backed nonprofit groups” started some of the fires as a personal attack against him.
But according to ecologist and National Geographic Explorer-at-Large Thomas Lovejoy, there’s only one thing to blame for the fires: deforestation.
Carlos Durigan, the Director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Brazil Program, explained to MTV News that it is common for Amazonian people, both Indgenious and non-indengious, to rely on burning a section of land for farming, but that agriculture practice is usually focused on a localized and small area, and is often done in keeping with practices that maintain and support the rest of the forest. It is when groups like cattle ranchers clear vast swaths of forest with little regard to the ecosystems that things can and do become more dire.
If these fires continue at their current rate, experts are concerned about potential environmental impacts and the displacement of nearly one million Indgenious peoples that call the rainforests home. “Rainforests are essential to our planetary health as they provide a wide range of biodiversity and other ecosystem services, including keeping carbon locked in land,” Alex Antram, Rainforest Trust conservation outreach manager, told MTV News. “Uncontrolled anthropogenic (human caused) fires quickly release stored carbon into our atmosphere, damaging global ecological processes. The Amazon alone produces over 20 percent of Earth’s oxygen and its preservation is vital. Without the defense of the largest rainforest on earth, our planet will be left increasingly vulnerable to the climate crisis which threatens all species, including us.”
More than half of the earth’s plants and animals call the rainforest home, Karen Vacco, assistant curator of mammals at the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium told MTV News. She said that a loss of these creatures could have a potentially “devastating” impact on the environment, and noted that rainforests slow climate change by taking in carbon dioxide. Along with a loss of animals, Durigan warned that neighboring areas could experience air pollution which may result in sickness, and that the farmers and people which rely on the rainforest for their livelihood may experience a loss of income.
Under normal circumstances, rainforests are able to recover from wildfires, Antram said. But this year’s wildfires are “unprecedented” and Antram, along with Laurel Sutherlin, spokesperson for Rainforest Action Network, believe our best way forward is preservation. “The climate crisis is here, now, today,” Sutherlin said. “If we want to leave a livable world for future generations the only proportionate response is to drastically transform our current fossil fueled economy and take every action necessary to protect irreplaceable treasures like the Amazon, and that means standing up for the land rights of the indigenous people who live there."
For those that want to help preserve the rainforests, Antram recommended finding an organization to support: Rainforest Trust, Rainforest Action Network, Amazon Watch, and the Rainforest Foundation are just some of the many charities you can donate to. If you don’t have the monetary means to help, Antram said that changing your daily habits to be more environmentally friendly is also a great place to start: Try purchasing environmentally friendly products, supporting companies that don’t rely on deforestation, reduce or reuse your use of paper and animal products like meat, and encourage politicians and organizations to get involved in preservation efforts through social media. .