The Amazon Is Burning. How Did We Get Here?

What led to the fires raging at a record rate through one of the world’s most important natural resources, and is there anything we can do about it?

The Amazon Is Burning. How Did We Get Here?

The Amazon rain forest makes up half of the world’s tropical forests.

Photo by Gustavo Frazao/Shutterstock

The Amazon is in serious trouble.

The plight of the world’s largest rain forest was thrown into sharp relief this week after Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, which monitors fires via satellite imagery, reported that it had detected nearly 40,000 fires in the Amazon region this year, an 80 percent increase compared to the same period in 2018.

That means the current fires are burning at a pace that is faster than has been seen in years, and the media took notice.

CNN reported that the wildfires in the Brazilian rain forest were set by cattle ranchers and loggers who want to clear the land, according to environmental organizations and researchers. And that they had been given the green light by Brazil’s pro-business president, Jair Bolsonaro.

Under international pressure, President Bolsonaro earlier this week first blamed nongovernmental organizations for igniting the Amazon blazes to make his government look bad. By the end of the week, Brazil’s Environment Minister Ricardo Salles said that the government was creating an Amazon task force and congress was gearing up to take a closer look at the cause of the fires.

The fires are currently burning in the northern region in the states of Rondônia, Acre, Pará, and northern Mato Grosso, but the smoke has reached as far away as São Paulo, with images of a city darkened by a smoke-filled sky surfacing on social media this week.

Just a little alert to the world: the sky randomly turned dark today in São Paulo, and meteorologists believe it’s smoke from the fires burning *thousands* of kilometers away, in Rondônia or Paraguay. Imagine how much has to be burning to create that much smoke(!). SOS — Shannon Sims (@shannongsims) August 20, 2019

“The increase of more than 80 percent this year compared to the same period last year . . . it is an environmental crime,” said Simone Scorsato, executive director of the Brazilian Luxury Travel Association, a group of Brazilian hotels and tour operators that promote authentic and sustainable travel experiences to the South American country.

Scorsato was among numerous representatives of Brazil’s travel industry that expressed anger, sadness, disappointment, and concern this week as the Amazon blazes raged on.

“Since the election of [Brazil’s] conservative president, Jair Bolsonaro, there have been moves to weaken or outright undo important environmental protections for the Amazon. Sadly, he is known as ‘Captain Chainsaw’ and it seems he believes the forest itself is only valuable if it is cut and sold on international markets, and the land opened up for agriculture, mining, and other types of extractive activities,” said Jeremy Clubb, director of Rainforest Cruises, a company that operates numerous cruises along the Amazon River.

“It would appear his administration denies that deforestation has much to do with climate change,” added Clubb.

The Amazon is considered one of the most important resources on Earth. Its 1.4 billion acres of rain forest make up half of the planet’s remaining tropical forests, according to the World Wildlife Fund. And it is home to one in 10 known species in the world.

According to WWF, “There is a clear link between the health of the Amazon and the health of the planet. The rain forests, which contain between 90 and 140 billion metric tons of carbon, help stabilize local and global climate. Deforestation may release significant amounts of this carbon, which could have catastrophic consequences around the world.”

In other words, deforestation has a double impact. It reduces the carbon emission offsetting qualities of the Amazon’s flora, while at the same time releasing more carbon into the atmosphere.

Can travel hurt or help?

At times like this, travelers might feel conflicted about whether they should proceed with plans to visit the Amazon, or anywhere in the world for that matter, as concerns mount about the potential environmental impact of travel.

While we can’t make that decision for you, we can offer some insights. When it comes to visiting Brazil and the Amazon itself, the majority of hotels and operators in the region report that the flames are not raging in traditional tourist regions.

“Although the burned areas are large, they are far from tourist areas,” said Scorsato. “I see no direct problems in traveling to Brazil and South America.”

Sean Benner, global product manager for tour outfitter G Adventures, noted that tourist travel within South America has not been greatly impacted yet since the regions of the Amazon that are burning are remote and not highly visited by tourists. But, he cautioned, the “smoke could become an issue for larger centers like Manaus, which is the biggest city in the Brazilian Amazon and a hub for business and travel along the Amazon River.”

Clubb said that as of Wednesday, he had started receiving a number of emails and phone calls from booked clients expressing concern both for their trip and for the Amazon as well.

Brazil’s travel industry is worried, and rightfully so, that the fires will ultimately take a toll on travel to and within the region. If tourists stay away, they argue, it could worsen the problem.

“The reality is that a big driver of some of these fires is economic motivation. One of the best ways to protect our natural resources is to show the local governments that they have more money to be gained by protecting them than by destroying them,” said Gavin Delany, CEO and founder of Stride, a search and reviews site for tours and adventure trips.

“There are multiple ways to do that including having more eco-tourism dollars go to the area so that local and government landowners have a way to make money from preserving pristine rain forest, rather than hurting it,” added Delany.

He noted that travelers can help by staying at eco-friendly jungle lodges as well as by traveling with local guides who showcase the destination through a sustainable lens when exploring the Amazon rain forest.

Andrea Ross, director of U.S. operations for sustainable travel outfitter Wild Frontiers, was equally hopeful about the power of tourism to help combat the problem. “Tourism and tourism dollars are powerful, and if increasing visits to the region can convince the government that tourism has more potential than farming, then we can potentially turn this around and create more awareness and responsibility,” said Ross.

What else can be done?

Beyond supporting eco-tourism efforts in the Amazon, there are other ways to help or at least potentially lessen the motivation for and cause of the fires, according to those who work in the region and are personally invested in it.

“The biggest help would be to stop eating beef, as cattle ranching is devastating the Amazon and all tropical forests across Latin America. This burning practice is a common ranching strategy to increase pasture lands by force,” said Richard Leonardi, Latin America specialist for Wild Frontiers.

Rainforest Cruises’ Clubb echoed that sentiment and added that people who cherish the Amazon and would like to see it preserved should avoid anything made from tropical hardwoods. “There really is not a sustainable way I know of to harvest that type of wood,” said Clubb.

Clubb also suggested backing organizations that support the indigenous communities that rely on the Amazon for their livelihood, such as Survival International. Additionally, Rainforest Cruises works with an organization called Rainforest Trust (related in name only), which is focused on purchasing and protecting forest land and assisting native communities to acquire titles to their land, which can serve as an effective conversation strategy, noted Clubb.

Others observed that the fires in the Amazon serve to raise awareness about climate change and the impact we can all have.

“Travelers can support organizations that are actively drawing carbon out of the atmosphere, to help mitigate the climate crisis and reverse global warming,” said Michael Edwards, managing director of North America for Intrepid Travel, which offers carbon offset programs through its Intrepid Foundation initiatives.

Edwards encouraged travelers to research responsible travel providers when booking a trip, particularly using companies that are carbon neutral, give back to and empower local communities, support and protect the local environment and its wildlife, and advocate for sustainable changes in the industry.

For Clubb, the hope is that the fires, devastating as they are, will be a wake-up call for the world.

“When I started Rainforest Cruises back in 2011, I really wanted to help bring attention to the challenges facing the Amazon through sustainable tourism. It’s really sad for us to see the state of affairs now,” he said. But, he added, “We need to try and remain optimistic that humanity will come to its senses and make practical choices regarding the environment. I am happy to see that there has been some international outcry in support of the rain forest, and I also pray that Brazil’s political class will listen.”

>> Next: Ethical Travel Is Hard to Get Right: Here Are 5 Things to Consider

Michelle Baran is a deputy editor at AFAR where she oversees breaking news, travel intel, airline, cruise, and consumer travel news. Baran joined AFAR in August 2018 after an 11-year run as a senior editor and reporter at leading travel industry newspaper Travel Weekly.
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