It is hard to escape the Amazon fires in the news. It’s an environmental issue that has the world shocked. Major politicians from all the Western powers are involved. Aid budgets are stretched to support firefighting measures. We’ve been thinking about it too, and looking at the effect of deforestation on the remaining rainforest.
A rainforest shouldn’t burn out of control. It is dark and damp. The sun rarely dances on the forest floor. It’s nothing like the hot and dry ecosystems in Australia or California. There, wildfires are an increasing natural hazard. But in a rainforest? It just shouldn’t happen.
Sadly, this is a human made disaster. Humans started these fires to clear land for cultivation. The effects of deforestation that has continued unabated for decades has caused the conditions that allow these fires to spread. The only way to repair the damage is by changing our behaviour.
Deforestation in history
The early European settlers in New Zealand chopped down trees at an amazing rate. It is often cited as the high watermark for rampant deforestation. Reports from 19th Century explorers describe a land thick with impenetrable forest. Modern visitors find rolling fields and farming communities across the country.
Any visitor to New Zealand can find maps showing the alarming drop in forest coverage from 1840 to 2000. It’s a compelling image, showing the brutal damage humans can inflict. That damage amounted to an astonishing 8 million hectares of thick forest. This all happened in around 100 years: the blink of an evolutionary eye.
The effect of deforestation in New Zealand are stark. The landscape is changed entirely. In that new landscape, some new species thrive and many native species have become extinct. It only takes a few decades to undo millennia of gradual, evolutionary change.
Efficiency in destruction
Amazingly, the deforestation of New Zealand is nothing compared to what is currently happening in the Amazon. Since 1970, we have removed almost 80 million hectares of Amazon rainforest. That’s ten times the destruction wrought by European settlers in New Zealand, in less than half the time.
Trying to make 80 million hectares a relatable figure is not easy. It’s hard to fathom what 80 million rugby pitches looks like. The entirety of the United Kingdom is less than a third of that size. It’s like chopping down a rainforest the size of Turkey.
That scale of destruction represents an enormous amount of suffering, for animals and people. Thousands of species, untouched for millennia, are now extinct. Deforestation puts thousands more on the brink of extinction. Fellow humans, living in indigenous communities for centuries, are losing their homes overnight. A sizeable percentage of the oxygen producing power of planet earth is gone.
To clear rainforest on this scale, you need to be efficient. The most efficient way to destroy a rainforest is through a technique called slash and burn.
Slash and burn
First, the slash. Loggers chop down everything within the selected parcel of rainforest. This leaves only roots and ground level vegetation. This biomass stays in place until the last moment before the rainy season. By this point, it is all dried out.
Then comes the burn. Everything in the selected area is set on fire. All the natural vegetation is burnt. The roots, the vegetation, rodents and insects are all part of the blaze. The idea is to create a layer of nutrient rich ash, which will then become farmland.
Although a common practice, this process doesn’t work well in the Amazon. The soil itself is not nutrient rich. Instead, the rainforest relies on a constant cycled of self-regeneration. Leaves grow, die and fall to the ground. They are then broken down by organisms in the soil. The roots then soak in the same nutrients through the soil, and the cycle continues.
But the effect of deforestation by slash and burn is to rob the soil of these recycled nutrients. After the burn, soil fertility only lasts for a few harvests. Tropical rains wash away the nutrients that remain. There are no more leaves to fall to the ground, and no organisms in the soil to break any matter down. The soil becomes infertile and useless to the farmers. So, the farmers leave it for dead and move onto the next plot.
The effect of deforestation on the remaining rainforest
It makes sense to believe that losing 10% of the rainforest means losing 10% of its benefit. If we take away 1,000 trees, it follows that we must only lose the benefit of those 1,000 trees? In fact, this is not the case. The effect of Amazonian deforestation on the environment is far worse than the sum of its parts.
This is due to the way in which the rainforest is being destroyed. It is not a gradual assault on the rainforest from the outside in. Farmers carve out farmland from the inside. To service these farms, governments build roads and highways through dense rainforest. Sometimes only small islands of rainforest remain, surrounded by agricultural land and roads.
The effect of the rainforest multiplies as you go deeper into its heart. The canopy is denser, the light darker, the temperature cooler and the air more humid. Each time we cut away a new parcel, we create a frontier between the rainforest and the outside world.
The new fronteirs
In these borderlands the temperature rises and the humidity drops. Fungi, abundant in the damp and dark depths of the rainforest, retreat away from the dry and hot farmlands. With less fungi, the rate of decomposition of dead plants slows. Dead foliage piles up and becomes a tinderbox, increasing the risk of any fire spreading.
Deep in the rainforest, the trees are thick, tall and dense. These giants thrive in humid environments. In the drier climate near the farmlands, they fail to soak in the water they need to survive. They die. In their place grow new tree species, more adept to live in the hot and dry temperatures. These species are lower in wood-density, meaning lower oxygen production.
As the flora changes, so too does the fauna. The sudden climatic shift means the animals must retreat deeper into the rainforest. If that is not possible, they die. Many Amazonian species are already extinct. The IUCN estimates that around 9,000 further species are at a significant risk of extinction. These species include the Hyacinth Macaw (above) and the Uakari Monkey (below). Any extinction is a tragedy, and we have looked at endangered species in previous articles. But the density of animals at risk in the Amazon makes it a huge concern.
The effect of deforestation on the Amazon basin
The situation becomes more grave the worse the fires get.
The rainforest is critical for supplying the oxygen we breathe. For every tree lost to the fire we lose some of that oxygen producing power. At the same time, the combustion of the fire creates CO2. That is only the start.
There are countless living creatures in the rivers of the Amazon basin. These creatures all omit CO2 of their own. The oxygen producing power of the rainforest more than off-sets this CO2 production. But there are serious concerns about how long this will continue.
Scientists fear that we are approaching a “tipping point”. This is the point at which the Amazon becomes so hot and dry that self-reparation is impossible. At this point, the Amazon collapses and will be set on a path to total destruction. In place of the rainforest will be a Savannah.
This may seem like a dystopian nightmare. Something far enough off that it is improbable ever to happen. A problem that future generations will put their minds to. Again, this is not the case.
Some scientists have put this tipping point at 20-25% deforestation. As of 2018, we hit an estimated 19.9%. Time is running out.
What we can do
1 – Target the products
No-one is destroying the Amazon for fun. There is a financial imperative. You are that financial imperative. Cheap beef, paper and palm-oil based products are killing the world’s rainforests.
Stop Eating Beef. The vast majority of the land cleared in the Amazon is for beef production. Cattle ranchers and soybean farmers make up a huge proportion of cultivated land.
Before you ask, cattle feed accounts for 90% of soybean production, so soy lattes aren’t the problem. The most effective way you can fight Amazonian deforestation is to stop eating beef.
Only use recycled paper. There is plenty of paper already in circulation. Don’t use paper if you don’t need to. And if you do, buy recycled. For us, this means that anything you buy in our shop is delivered in recycled and recyclable packaging.
Say no to palm oil. The Amazon is not alone. Deforestation in Indonesia is also happening at an alarming rate. Many of the problems mentioned in this post are true of Indonesia. The primary cause is palm oil. Check the ingredients of the food and beauty products you buy. You can use this recent report to find which brands to avoid.
2 – Voice your concern
Petitioning governments sends a clear signal. The World Wildlife Fund has launched a petition calling for an end to deforestation. The petition targets the governments of countries in the Amazon Basin.
Sign up here.
3 – Reduce your use of fossil fuels
In part, climate change bears responsibility for the Amazon fires. Temperatures in the Amazon basin and worldwide continue to rise, increasing the risk of wildfire. The deforestation described in this post is made worse by this continuing change.
We know that using less fossil fuels reduces our impact on the environment. Support companies providing renewable energy, or demand that it is part of the grid in your area.
Oh – and ditch the car. Ride your bike.