My father moved to Itacoatiara, a small town neighboring Manaus, capital of the state of Amazonas, in 1987 and for five months the Amazon Rainforest was his home. As we read about the most recent fires in the region, now three decades later, my dad paints me a picture of a completely different Amazônia.
For someone who’s childhood dream was to be a biologist, the Amazon was my father’s heaven on Earth. He tells me about the constant feeling of being observed by some hidden creature under leaves, in the margins of lakes, behind bushes or at the top of tall trees, of being utterly submerged by greenness, and of looking up and feeling so small. He recalls the imposing, beautifully-mysterious personality of the woods, with its horror-type pitch black nights, and the vastness of the Amazon River: “It’s like it never ended. Never.”
In the forest, the most common mode of transportation available was unreliable old wooden boats. In one of his rides, my dad witnessed the “Meeting of the Waters”, a phenomenon that occurs when the rivers Rio Negro and Rio Solimões touch, but don’t mix. This is due to their contrasting colors, compositions, temperatures and density. He wishes he had a camera to capture magical moments like these to show my brother and I, yet, at the same time, he’s glad to have shared a private relationship with the forest. He says that with experiences like these, if the eyes forget, the heart will help remember again.
My dad mentions noticing several trees with red spots all over their trunks, which he later learned were a sign of fresh air and good oxygenation in the area. “It was as if the trees were trying to call attention to themselves,” he told us,“making their own propaganda for us to recognize their value.” Oh, and the rain! Such was the abundance of rain in Manaus, every single day, always at 3:00 pm, rain was guaranteed. With the rain came the carapanã mosquitoes, thousands of them, and though he tried to keep track of how many there were, it was an impossible task. He also used to count the number of fish and fish species and found it funny when he realized there were more fish and mosquitoes than people living over there.
Taking part in a local soccer team, Peñarol, he tells me that more than half of his fellow teammates were local natives, and one of them, Manuel Tobias, was his first friend. He believes the people he met were part of the forest, just like the forest was a part of them, “They knew all of its secrets… They respected it not because of its size, but because it was their home and they needed it to survive.”
Thirty-two years have passed and they still need the Amazon to survive. And so do we.
However, on August 12, 2019, a state of emergency was declared by the state of Amazonas due to the rising number of fires throughout the rainforest. This month of August has been marked by fires spreading out through many other states, such as Mato Grosso, Pará, Rondônia and Roraima, as well as in Brazil’s neighboring countries, Paraguay, Peru and Bolivia. We have reached a point where the current situation of the Amazon has become an absolute global crisis.
Environmentalists, scientists and climate change activists have expressed serious concerns about the irreversible consequences of the record burning rates in the Amazon. Often referred to as the “Earth’s Lungs,” it is responsible for 20% of the planet’s oxygen supply. The forest’s rich and diverse ecosystem is at risk, with millions of species of fauna and flora endangered, the lives of more than one million indigenous people threatened, while residents of the entire northern part of the country are developing several respiratory problems. In fact, the massive loss of the largest forest in the world is harmful to the entire globe–without our most valuable natural resource to absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide, global warming only becomes more severe. Yet, for around 16 days of extensive burning, there was close to no media coverage about all that was going on.
It was only after São Paulo, located 2,700 kilometers away from the rainforest, felt the effects of the fires on August 20 that Brazil and the world started paying attention to the issue. The skies of the great metropolis went dark at around 4:00 pm, ash and smoke fully covered the sun and the day became night. These unusual skies were the result of the contact between particles released in the air during fires in the vegetation of the Amazon and cold waves from the south, creating an optical anomaly. According to the National Institute of Space Research (INPE), there has been an 84% increase in this year’s deforestation rates compared to 2018, which explains the wildfires and the darkened sky over São Paulo. The smoke in the affected area can even be seen from outer space, as NASA reported.
Well, how did we get here?
Many blame president Jair Bolsonaro for the critical stage in which we find ourselves. Since his election, he has implemented controversial environmental policies and expressed strong pro-business opinions regarding the Amazon. Some of his actions include denying deforestation data findings to the public, encouraging the practice of deforestation by farmers and loggers for economic profit, and cutting budgets for the protection of the land. During an interview, when questioned about how to reduce environmental pollution and increase preservation, his suggestion was that people only evacuate every other day.
Two recent episodes involving Germany and Norway reflect how worried the international community is with the negligent ways in which the Brazilian president has been operating. Both countries have suspended their contributions of a total of 288 million reais (around 71 million dollars) to the Amazon Fund because the Brazilian government hasn’t fulfilled its sustainable development obligations previously agreed upon in 2008, when the fund was created. Some of Bolsonaro’s groundless accusations and reactions to foreign leaders voicing their concerns have been:
“Why the huge pressure on the Amazon? Because they want the Amazon.”
“Norway? Isn’t that the one who kills whales up there in the North Pole? Who explores oil there too? It has nothing to offer for us.”
“The Norwegian government should take the blocked money to help German Chancellor Angela Merkel reforest Germany. As if her country (Merkel’s) were any example to the world in the matter of environmental preservation. ”
Bolsonaro does not take responsibility for the crisis and has instead blamed NGOs for the August wildfires, with no evidence at all to support his claims.
As the days pass, criticisms of his government only intensify and millions of enraged people all around the world manifest their disgust, anguish, and despair on the streets and online in the face of reality. With the Brazilian Armed Forces having to intervene on August 24 to help fight the fires, my father is unable to recognize the Amazon he once fell in love with when he was just my age. As for me, I in turn fell in love with his never-ending stories of the forest, dreaming of someday travelling there myself, but realizing the chances of this happening only get lower by the minute.
In times like these, it’s easy to feel helpless and hopeless, or perhaps even an extreme distrust and revulsion for neglectful politicians and human-led environmental destruction. I think that’s what my dad feels the most right now, along with millions of other people, too. After all, humans were the ones who started the fires,“What are we doing? What have we done?” says my dad,“That’s why I’ve always preferred talking to animals than to people.”
If you too feel powerless, don’t. There are many ways we can help the Amazon, be it by educating yourself, sharing your knowledge with others, changing small habits to more environmentally-friendly ones, advocating for urgent action, or supporting charities and organizations.*
We’ve needed the Amazon for all this time, now the Amazon needs us.
* Links for charity donations: