Fire Alarm

September 6, 2019
Smoke rises from the Amazon near Porto Velho, Brazil, on August 25.
CARL DE SOUZA—AFP/GETTY IMAGES

On the afternoon of August 19, smoke and ash filled the sky over São Paulo, Brazil, blocking the sun. The smoke was coming from the Amazon rain forest, hundreds of miles away. There, a record number of fires were raging. Some parts of the rain forest had been ablaze for several weeks, with little done to stop them.

Brazil’s space research center, the Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais (INPE), uses satellites to monitor fires across the country. On August 25, the INPE reported that it had spotted 80,626 fires in Brazil so far this year. That’s a 78% increase over the same time period in 2018. It’s the most fires the INPE has seen in Brazil since it started tracking them in 2013. Many of them are in the Amazon.

As photos of São Paulo’s darkened sky spread on social media, the fires sparked global outrage. Protesters gathered in cities around the world, demanding that leaders take action.

BLACKOUT In the Brazilian city of São Paulo, heavy smoke blocks the sun on August 19.

ANDRE LUCAS—PICTURE ALLIANCE/GETTY IMAGES

Global Crisis

The Amazon is the largest rain forest in the world. About 60% of it is in Brazil. It’s home to millions of species of plants and animals and 30 million people. The Amazon is also important to the health of the planet. Its trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and replace it with oxygen. This helps slow climate change.

JOE LEMONNIER FOR TIME FOR KIDS

“Hundreds of thousands of acres of Amazon rain forest burning to the ground—that’s a real tragedy for the air we all breathe,” Moira Birss told TIME for Kids. She’s with Amazon Watch, a conservation group based in California.

Experts believe the fires were set intentionally. In general, it’s against the law to start a fire in the rain forest. But it’s not uncommon. Farmers regularly do so, clearing the land so they can plant crops and raise cattle for beef production.

LOOK DOWN This satellite image was taken on August 15. It shows part of the Amazon rain forest on fire in southwestern Brazil.

MAXAR TECHNOLOGIES/AP

Since 1978, some 289,000 square miles of Amazon rain forest have been destroyed. That’s a land area larger than the size of France.

Deforestation peaked in the early 2000s. Then, in 2004, the Brazilian government began to crack down on illegal fires and logging. This greatly slowed tree loss in the region.

But the new president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, campaigned on a promise of reduced environmental protection. Since Bolsonaro took office, in January 2019, the Brazilian government has rolled back efforts to prevent illegal deforestation.

“We’ve had eight months without any type of concrete action in defense of the Amazon,” says Rômulo Batista. He’s with Greenpeace Brazil.

SPEAK UP Protesters gather at London’s Brazilian embassy on August 23.

ISABEL INFANTES—AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Taking Action

Brazil has been sending soldiers to battle the fires. The country plans to send 44,000 troops to the region.

On August 24, world leaders met for the annual Group of Seven (G7) summit. They agreed to a $20 million aid package to fight the blazes. But at press time, Bolsonaro would not accept the aid. On August 26, he tweeted that G7 leaders were treating Brazil as if it didn’t have the freedom to make its own decisions.

G7 leaders also discussed a long-term plan to prevent deforestation and plant new trees in the Amazon. “The lung of our whole Earth is affected,” German leader Angela Merkel said at the summit, “and so we must find common solutions.”

How to Help

Here are three things you can do to help protect the Amazon.

  1. Raise money for groups such as Rainforest Alliance and Amazon Watch. They’re working to raise awareness and change laws.

  2. Write letters. Share your opinions with politicians. Tell companies to make sure their practices don’t harm the environment.

  3. Take a good look at your own habits. If we reduce the amount of meat we eat and paper we use, we can reduce deforestation.

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