Guest editorial

The magnitude of the current fires in the Amazon rainforest, a count of 74,155 as at Tuesday last, has raised global anxieties and this is as it should be. Environmental and other groups that monitor the world’s forests have said that this year’s fires in the Amazon are 84 per cent more than there were last year so naturally there must be concern.

Lest we forget, the Amazon rainforest is the world’s largest, clocking in at 2.124 million square miles, and is referred to as the lungs of the earth. While a huge section of it, some 60 per cent, is in Brazil, Amazonia, as it is called, also expands into other South American countries: Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana. It should also be noted here that all forests, including rainforests, tend to have fires at least once a year, particularly during July/August when it is extremely hot and dry. Dried brush or undergrowth is combustible, but more often than not fires are started by humans either carelessly, or deliberately. People camping in the forest might light a fire and not put it out correctly when leaving. Or they could be passing through and carelessly toss away a still-lit cigarette butt. Sadly, however, many forest fires are set deliberately by humans pursuing livelihoods by way of logging, mining or farming.

As far as the Amazon rainforest is concerned none of the above-mentioned commercial activities is palatable. No one has to be a forestry expert to recognise that if we keep cutting down or burning trees we will eventually run out of trees. The depth of the global catastrophe that would ensue does not even bear imagining.

What makes this even more of a savage paradox is that rainforests are not fertile grounds for the growing of commercial crops. It is the ash left behind by burning that provides the nutrients plants need. But when that section of land is leached of its nutrients, farmers find it easier to burn more than to find ways of revitalising that soil. The lack of recognition that this is a cycle that has to end is perplexing. Obviously, we cannot eat trees, but we do need them, and in vast quantities, to breathe. And if we cannot breathe then food is of no use to us.

This year’s fires in the Amazon rainforest, mainly in Brazil, have garnered attention for more than one reason. Yes, there are more fires than there were last year, but much of the consternation arose because Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro was guilty of being a modern-day Nero. In fact, he might just have been worse than that unpopular Roman emperor, since history claims that Nero made immediate efforts to fight Rome’s fire, but was vilified because he was distrusted. According to reports, Mr Bolsonaro’s reaction to the fires that had been burning for more than three weeks was lacking prior to this week’s G7 meeting in France.

French President Emmanuel Macron had tweeted last week that he would be urging world leaders attending the meeting to discuss the fires. Now one would have expected such a tweet to come from Mr Bolsonaro, or that he would have been pleased at what was clearly an offer of support. Instead, he basically told Mr Macron to mind his own business, tweeting that Mr Macron was seeking “to make personal political gains in an internal matter for Brazil and other Amazonian countries. The sensationalist tone he used does nothing to solve the problem.”

It was Mr Bolsonaro who was doing nothing to solve the problem as he had claimed at various times that Brazil did not have the resources to do so and had blamed environmentalists and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) of starting the fires to make him look bad; a baseless claim.

The truth is that Mr Bolsonaro is not eco-friendly. Long before he was elected, he had criticised Brazil’s environmental regulations and law enforcement agencies. On his campaign trail, he had promised to scale down environmental laws, making it easier for loggers, ranchers and miners to exploit “the riches of the Amazon”. He had also spoken of opening up a highway through the Amazon, getting rid of Brazil’s Ministry of the Environment and barring NGOs like Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund from the country. It has been posited by environmentalists that the Brazilian president’s public non-eco-friendly rhetoric might have emboldened the fire starters.

It was only after being thoroughly criticized and condemned on a global scale, including by European leaders who threatened to tear up a trade deal, that Mr Bolsonaro moved to mobilise the Brazilian army to help combat the fires. Furthermore, despite Mr Bolsonaro’s blustering that the fires in the Amazon rainforest were a “local” problem and a “South American” one, the G7 leaders and others have pledged funds to help with fighting them.

Neither Mr Bolsonaro, nor any of us for that matter, own any part of the earth. We are all mere stewards minding it for posterity. It behoves all of us then, to take care to leave it a little better than we found it.

— Courtesy Stabroek News

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