Our world is burning, one forest at a time: Forest fires in Amazon, Chiquitano continue as hostile governments look away

Irreversible climate change demands urgent attention

Amazon Fire
Image Courtesy: EPA

The Amazon rainforests are still burning. International news organisation Reuters reported that there is an 83 percent increase from last year- the highest on record since 2013. Distressing pictures and videos of the region on fire and covered in smokes have caught the attention of social media users across the world. The fire is large and subsuming that it can be seen from the space too.

Brazil declared a state of emergency over the rising number of fires in the region. So far, just in this year, almost 73,000 fires have been detected in Brazil by its space research center, National Institute for Space Research (INPE).  Starting in the Amazonian rainforests, the fires have impacted populated areas in the north, such as the states of Rondônia and Acre, blocking sunlight and enveloping the region in smoke. The smoke has wafted thousands of miles to the Atlantic coast and São Paulo, according to the World Meteorological Organization.

Between August 18 and August 23, as many as 8,00,000 hectares of the unique Chiquitano forest were burned in Bolivia. This forest cover is more than what is usually destroyed over a period of two years. As per some experts, it will take at least two centuries to repair the ecological damage done by the fires and as many as 500 species are at the risk of getting burnt. This forest is known to be the largest healthy tropical dry forest in the world. Not only is the forest home to indigenous people, but also home to iconic wildlife such as jaguars, giant armadillos and tapirs. Photographs have emerged that show that many of these animals have been burnt to death in the recent fires.
The region that has come under the impact of the fire comprises of farmlands and towns as well, and thousands of people have been evacuated and many other affected by the smoke. While basic supplies like food and water are being sent to the region, children are being kept home from school in many district where the condition of air pollution is becoming worse.

While the media has focussed on Brazil, the situation of cities such as Bolivia is deteriorating.

In Bolivia, significantly, the fire has broken out just a month after Bolivian President Evo Morales announced a new “supreme decree” aimed at increasing beef production for export. Twenty-one civil society organisations are calling for the repeal of this decree, arguing that it has helped cause the fires and violates Bolivia’s environmental laws. Government officials say that fire setting is a normal activity at this time of year and isn’t linked to the decree.

Morales has repeatedly refused international help saying it’s the country’s internal matter and has been able to send only three helicopters to supposedly tackle the raging fires. Though he argues that the fires are dying out in some areas, they continue to wreak havoc in other areas and have now reached Bolivia’s largest city, Santa Cruz de la Sierra. Many believe that the fires could have been put out much sooner with international help.

On the other hand, in case of Brazil, international news organisations such as The Guardian have placed the responsibility of the fires squarely on the government. An opinion piece published in Guardian says that the fires have, “human activity” at their root. The piece says that the Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and his “extremist” Environment Minister, Ricardo Salles, have not “merely permitted these devastating fires, but have encouraged and fuelled them.”

The same piece notes that among the President’s many extremist views is “climate denialism as stubborn and extreme as any prominent world figure, if not more so.” The speed and aggression with which the eight month old Brazilian government has carried on the task of destroying the Amazon rainforest, one of humanity’s most cherished possessions in its fight against climate change, has surprised his most virulent critics as well. It is alleged that all this is so that the agriculture industry can exploit the long preserved rainforests. The destruction of the forests is inevitably linked with the contempt for the indigenous communities who have long fought to preserve these forests and stand at a grave risk to be displaced as an aftermath of this man-made disaster.

Reportedly, Bolsonaro’s choice for his Environment Minister, Ricardo Salles even exemplifies the “radical and even violent anti-environmentalism fueling these fires.” Previously found guilty of indulging in administrative impropriety to support mining companies, was selected by Bolsonaro to serve his cabinet.

While that is the situation in the Amazon, things are grim in India too. The number of forest fires shot up from 4225 to 14,107 in the period from November 2018 to February 2019 as per the Real Time Forest Alert System of the Forest Survey of India (FSI).

The Forest Alert System is part of the Large Forest Fire Monitoring Programme that was launched by the FSI on January 16, 2019 using near real time data from the SNPP-VIIRS satellite.

In February 2019, the parliamentary standing committee on science and technology, environment and forests criticised the forest departments of the five states for ineffective utilisation of the forest fire prevention funds in its report Status of Forests in India.

While India loses Rs. 1,176 crore a year to forest fires, a mere Rs. 45-50 crore is allocated per annum under the Forest Fire prevention and Management Fund, which remains unspent.

Nearly 24 per cent of the meagre forest fire prevention funds were not released and thus, remained unspent in the last two financial years, shows the data provided by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) in January 2019 in the Lok Sabha. Out of Rs 50 crore allocated during each year — 2017-18 and 2018-19 — Rs 35 crore and Rs 38 crore were released respectively.

In fact, while forest fires increased by 125 per cent between 2015 and 2017, the Centre has constantly reduced its spending on averting them since 2015-16. The amount of money released has decreased from Rs 43.85 crore in 2015 to Rs 34.56 crore in 2017, revealed the India State of Forest Report, 2017

These fires should be treated as disasters so that disaster management authorities can play a major role in preventing them. The National Forest Commission of 2006 too suggested that all fires that burn an area larger than 20 sq km, should be declared a state disaster.

The new Real Time Forest Alert System of India, that lists potential fire spots across the country, must be taken seriously by the state forest departments. In fact, FSI, which is in charge of the system, had issued as many as 2905 fire alerts to the Karnataka forest department in the last week and most of them were in the Bandipur Tiger Reserve which faced forest fire in February, 2019. But these were not taken up seriously by the government.

The state forest departments have undoubtedly an important role in dealing with this disaster and must refer to the most comprehensive report on “Forest Fires and its Effect” presented to Parliament in 2016 for the action plan and strategies to curtail forest fires as advised by the parliamentary standing committee on science and technology, environment and forests recently.

As in the case of Brazil and Bolivia, India too elected a government that is hostile and apathetic to climate change and indigenous people, for a second term in June 2019. Not only has the Indian government expedited the process of displacement of indigenous communities, it has also significantly diluted environmental protection laws.

With leaders such as these at the helm of policy making at a time when the world is seriously juggling with issues of climate change and disasters, one is compelled to emphasise the need for a global movement to protect the environment and indigenous communities.

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