The Amazon Fires: An Environmental Justice Issue

Image: Victor Moriyama / Greenpeace

You might’ve seen recent news stories about the Amazon rain forest fires, and you may have wondered what the implications for our environment are. Some will say that forest fires are part of the natural cycle of the ecosystem, and they wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. However, one of the main issues with the current Amazon fires is that a large amount are being set intentionally. From January to August 2019 alone, the number of fires in the region was 145% higher than in the same period of 2018. This is not a reflection of the natural cycle of the Amazon, and it calls for immediate action. Deliberate forest fires are destroying biodiversity, impacting the ecosystem, and displacing indigenous communities. Taking all of these factors into consideration, the Amazon forest fires become an environmental justice issue.

Why are these fires being started?

We cannot address the origins of the devastating Amazon fires without first acknowledging the rampant deforestation in the region. Deforestation, driven largely by logging and agriculture, has been encouraged by the Brazilian government in order to increase economic benefits from cattle ranching and croplands. This deforestation has negative environmental impacts on biodiversity and the local ecosystem, and it also leads to the displacement of indigenous families that call the Amazon their home. In 2018 alone, Amazon deforestation resulted in the loss of over 3,000 square miles of forest. According to Greenpeace, 75% of this year’s hot spots were located in areas that were once forest. These deforested areas are a magnet for forest fires, making deliberate forest destruction a huge contributor to the current Amazon fires.

While deforestation may be causing “accidental” forest fires, a large portion of current fires in the Amazon are being set intentionally. There has been a vested interest in clearing the forest for cattle ranching and growing crops, and this interest has been supported by Brazil’s recent anti-environmentalist policies. After logging parts of the forest to harvest timber, ranchers are deliberately setting fire to these areas to make them more accessible to cattle. Oftentimes, indigenous territory is deliberately targeted with the intent of illegally taking over the land for large-scale farming operations.

Who is this affecting?

When these fires destroy parts of the Amazon, they are also destroying homes of thousands of indigenous people throughout the region. The rain forest serves as both home and livelihoods to many indigenous communities. When these fires ravage their territories, they are not reimbursed or helped with relocation expenses. They are pushed out of the only homes they’ve ever known and left to fend for themselves. 

Indigenous people have always protected and served our environment; they are often the ones on the frontlines of any environmental crisis. Despite their environmental activism, these marginalized communities tend to have the least amount of protection – when their homes are flooded or burned down, they are left with no where to go. 

What are the environmental impacts?

  • Loss of Biodiversity: the Amazon contains 1 of 10 species known on Earth. These fires are threatening one of the most biodiverse regions on our planet.
  • Deforestation: the Amazon already has appx. 15% deforestation, and these fires are only going to increase that amount.
  • Displacement: this rain forest is home to hundreds of indigenous tribes, and their homes and livelihoods are at risk due to these fires.
  • Carbon Sequestration: the Amazon is reported to be responsible for a significant amount of the world’s carbon sequestration, so deforestation caused by forest fires will lead to higher levels of carbon being present in the atmosphere.

The Amazon forest fires are not only affecting one of the world’s most biodiverse ecosystems, they are also displacing marginalized indigenous communities throughout the region. We cannot sit back and watch while these fires irreversibly damage the Amazon and the people living within it –  this is an issue of environmental injustice, and we must amplify the voices of indigenous communities to ensure they are being heard and action is being taken.