What’s at stake as the Amazon burns

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ByTebany Yune

For the past few weeks, numerous fires in the Amazon rainforest have torn through acres of jungle. The fires have produced so much smoke that NASA could clearly see and photograph it from space. Residents living within the region saw their skies darken in the middle of the day, as if it was night.

The Brazilian State of Amazonas declared a state of emergency due to the smoke and fires.

The devastation from the fires has crushed the hearts of many who value the rainforest for its beauty, biodiversity, and production of oxygen. The loss of the Amazon jungle isn't just a sad sight to see; it's a killing blow to the ecosystem and the people who depend on it.

The Flora and Fauna of the Amazon

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The Amazon houses a plethora of plants and animals that are unique to the jungle. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the Amazon houses at least 10 percent of all known species on the planet: 40,000 different plant species; 3,000 fish species, and over 370 types of reptiles. This is why the Amazon rainforest is considered the most biodiverse place on Earth — there's just no other place so rich with nature.

The jaguar, harpy eagle, sloth, pink river dolphin, macaw, capybara, and green iguana are just a handful of species that live in the jungle. Different plants, such as tropical ferns and cacti, have adapted to grow practically mid-air to live in areas with little soil. Vines weave among the trees to create the jungle's characteristic, dense environment. They also serve as a food source and a means of travel for the local wildlife.

The WWF has also noted that the Amazon is incredibly large — about two-thirds the size of the U.S. — and plays a huge part in maintaining the global ecosystem. Rainwater collected by its river, the Amazon River, accounts for about 15 percent of "the world’s total river discharge into the oceans."

This lush ecosystem has been, at a rapidly increasing pace, cleared out for plantations and pastures for cattle. Without the healthy canopy of trees to retain moisture and protect the land, The New York Times reported, the mining, logging, and deforestation efforts in the area could eventually turn the jungle into a savanna.

The Amazon's Impact on the Atmosphere

The effects of the loss of the Amazon rainforest won't be contained to South America, either. The vast jungle, with its lush greenery, has been a vital buffer against the effects of climate change. The rainforest plays an important part in trapping and storing carbon dioxide found in the atmosphere, reported the Washington Post.

"The Amazon, which spans 2.12 million square miles," stated the publication, "sucks up about a quarter of the 2.4 billion metric tons of carbon that global forests absorb each year."

The destruction of the rainforest would not only weaken the Earth's ability to clean the atmosphere, it would also risk releasing all that trapped carbon dioxide back into the air. This could accelerate global warming and make it almost impossible to fight against.

Global warming could increase temperatures all around the Earth. The higher temperatures might create drier regions, which can fuel wildfires. The wildfires and loss of forests will continue to released once-trapped carbon and contribute to global warming. The planet, agencies like NASA fear, could be trapped in a cycle that continuously feeds global warming.

The Indigenous People of the Amazon

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Animals and plants are not the only ones hurt by the destruction of the Amazon. The indigenous tribes living in the area have been persecuted and targeted by groups with an interest in developing the jungle. Even reservations and protected areas are not safe. Just last month, an indigenous leader was stabbed to death as his village was invaded by miners.

According to the Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin, there are at least 350 ethnic groups that live in the Amazon. These groups rely on the forest to provide subsistence and medicine to support their lives. Some of these groups have also been 'uncontacted' — meaning they've had little to no contact with another civilization. Indigenous rights groups believe these tribes should be left alone to live their lives. But people with an interest in developing the jungle have reportedly killed members of these uncontacted tribes with little fear of retribution.

With so much of their lives and traditions dependent on the rainforest, the Amazon's indigenous population have been coming together to fight against the slaughter and destruction of their homelands. It's a fight for the right to exist as the new Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, has continued to dismiss indigenous rights and encourage development of the Amazon.

During a march in protest of the government's harmful policies, Célia Xacriabá, of the Articulation of Brazil's Indigenous Peoples (APIB), said their movement "is not only symbolically important, but also historically and politically significant."

"We call on the international community to support us," she said in a statement to Amazon Watch, "to amplify our voices and our struggle against today’s legislative genocide, where our own government is authorizing the slaughter and ethnocide of indigenous peoples."

"This is also an opportunity to join our voices to denounce this government’s ecocide, where the killing of mother nature is our collective concern."

'This could still get much worse.'

The Amazon has weathered fires in the past, including natural wildfires. But researchers have noted that the sudden onset of some of these fires is unusual. Both the Washington Post and The New York Times have pointed out that the appearance of some fires coincided with plans made by local farmers, who called for a "day of fire."

These farmers, reportedly given confidence by President Bolsonaro's enthusiasm for clearing out the Amazon, have brazenly increased their efforts to expand their farmlands.

"Natural fires are very rare in the Amazon, so all, or almost all, the fires we are seeing are set by humans," said Mikaela Weisse, manager of Global Forest Watch, to The New York Times.

Dr. Ane Alencar, science director at the Amazon Environmental Research Institute in Brazil, appeared to agree in an additional comment to the Times.

"What I can say with absolute certainty is that there is a very strong relationship between deforestation and fires," Dr. Alencar said. "This isn’t a wildfire."

"I’m concerned," she continued. "We are at the beginning of the fire season. This could still get much worse."