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As forest fires rage, experts worry about the future of the Amazon

As forest fires rage, experts worry about the future of the Amazon

As of Thursday, there are more than 165,000 fires burning in the Amazon rainforest. The alarming part, however, is that a significant number of them — more than 75,000 — are burning in Brazil.

The Amazon spans more than 5.5 million square kilometres, is home to roughly 40,000 plant species, 1,300 bird species and 2.5 million species of insects. And it is in crisis, experts say.

And what's making it worse, some experts say, are various economic and environmental policies by the Brazilian government under the leadership of President Jair Bolsonaro.

"This is the time of year when farmers set fires for cultivation and farming," said Christian Poirer, program director at Amazon Watch. "It's not unusual. But there's been an 84 per cent jump between this year and last year, exceeding 70,000 fires. That is a direct correlation with Bolsonaro's policies and his rhetoric."

With Brazil holding roughly 60 per cent of the Amazon rainforest, many are deeply concerned about what effects this will have both ecologically and environmentally, particularly on the future of climate change.

A man works in a burning tract of Amazon jungle as it is being cleared by loggers and farmers in Iranduba, Brazil, on Tuesday. Farmers generally set fires at part of their farming practices, but the number has increased significantly this year. (Bruno Kelly/Reuters)

Bolsonaro has opened up the rainforest for more development. He's also transferred responsibility for the demarcation of Indigenous lands to the Agriculture Ministry, a move that some compare with a fox guarding a chicken coop.

"If you compare to last year's numbers, in the first seven months, there's been a 60 per cent jump in deforestation," Poirer said. "What we're seeing here is a direct result of mismanagement — the intentional environmental mismanagement by this government."

Bolsonaro has also been accused of turning a blind eye to illegal practices by farmers and those looking to make money from tearing down trees.

"It's extremely dangerous in that it gives carte blanche to illegal foresters, to land-grabbing mafias, and illegal miners, who are now operating with impunity," Poirer said. "And we see fires as a result of that."

And what's worrying is that the consequences don't just end at Brazil's border.

The Amazon's importance

The Amazon is a unique and important part of Earth's ecosystem. It has a large influence on not just its immediate surroundings, but it also exchanges a large amount of energy and water with the atmosphere.

"The Amazon rainforest is somewhat anomalous in that it is the biggest system of its kind on the planet in terms of how it feeds itself water," said Kai Chan, a professor at the University of British Columbia's Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability.

It works like this: the trees of the Amazon suck water out of the forest floor. In turn, every leaf releases water into the air — think of it as sweating — and then that water travels through the atmosphere, creating what some term "rivers in the sky."

Sunlight is seen over the lake of Samuel Hydroelectric Dam in theAmazon rainforest near Porto Velho, Brazil, on Wednesday. (Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters)

Finally, clouds form, it rains and the process starts over again. It's called "evapotranspiration."

The problem is, disruption of this process can have consequences thousands of kilometres away. So, as fires burn and more and more of the trees are lost, its balance is threatened.

"The feedback cycle isn't just sustaining rainforest, but affecting the rain cycle elsewhere," Chan said. "If it breaks down, it will have major implications … it's a massive issue."

Losing trees, Chan explains, means less moisture and more flammability in the wood and biomass that results.

'Sustaining forests is crucial'

And this also has an impact on climate change.

"We are very concerned about these fires," Stephane Dujarric, spokesperson for the United Nations Secretary-General, said Thursday. "Both for the immediate damage that they are causing, and also because sustaining forest is crucial in our fight against climate change."

The forests of the world act as carbon sinks, absorbing carbon dioxide. In the case of burning forests, carbon dioxide gases are being released while at the same time, the trees that were once carbon sinks are forever lost.

This GIF shows forest fires in the Amazon over a two-week period from Aug. 8 to Aug. 21.

And there's a fear that we are nearing a tipping point, that left unchecked, more deforestation will turn Earth's lush Amazon into a savannah, with drier conditions and grasses replacing the leafy canopy of trees.

"If we lose a few more percentage points of rainforest, we're at risk of losing this whole system," Chan said. "And if we do reach that tipping point and the Amazon starts to shift toward being more savannah-like, that will affect precipitation ... it will have a major impact on the global scale."

Both Chan and Poirer said that action is needed, both on a governmental scale and an individual scale.

If Bolsonaro is foregoing Brazil's role in preserving the Amazon in order to make way for economic prosperity, they say, countries have the power to stop imports.

"This is not just a made-in-Brazil problem," Chan said. "We're contributing by consuming products from these actions."

Already, Germany froze roughly $51 million that was to be used for sustainability projects in the Brazilian forest. Norway also suspended its $47 million in contributions to the Amazon Fund, a Brazilian organization dedicated to fighting deforestation.

"We cannot allow the irresponsible and reckless government of [Brazil] to destroy what is essential to Brazil and to all this planet," Poirer said.