Forest Fires in Amazonia

What's behind the flames?

Since 2018, pictures and articles that testify the severity of the fires in the Amazon rainforest go around the world. Social media are covered by hashtags, such as #PrayforAmazon, #SavetheAmazon or #AmazonFires. For the first time, the issue has made it onto the agenda of the G7 summit in 2018 and 2019. However, fires in the Amazon rainforest are a recurring phenomenon rather than a novelty. So how come that the current situation in the Amazon is gaining so much international attention? And which role do we and our consumption patterns play in this context?

Slash-and-burn in Amazonia – no new phenomenon

Amazonia, the lowlands of the world’s most water-rich river, extends to both sides of the equator and is home to the world’s largest contiguous rainforest area. About 60% of the forest is located on Brazilian territory, but Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, French Guyana and Ecuador also contain parts of the "lungs of the earth". Pressure on Amazonia’s ecosystems and the indigenous population living in and from the forest has been increasing ever since the industrial revolution. The situation has particularly sharpened since the economic development of the region in the 1960s. In the mid-1970s, the Brazilian military which had seized power in 1964 and would be able to hold it until 1985, started colonizing Amazonia with the construction of the "Trans-Amazonica" road. Even nowadays, most deforestation is happening along such roads.

Systematic slash-and-burn of large forest areas

In the 1990s, the rate of forest clearings rises significantly with the expansion of cattle farming and the cultivation of soy. In addition to the creation of farmland, the construction of settlements and roads as well as the exploration of mineral resources leads to the gradual destruction of Amazonia's rainforests, which mainly affects the indigenous population.

The main reason for this lies in the consumption patterns of the societies in the Global North. We create the markets for goods such as meat, biofuel or tropical wood and in doing so, support the exploitation of Amazonia.

Who is responsible? What is our role in this?

Without a doubt, the current president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, has significantly contributed to the extensive fires in Brazil: instead of combatting illegal logging and land grabbing, he announced an extensive amnesty. In 2019, he only allowed firefighting measures after several EU states, such as France and Ireland, had expressed their refusal to sign the Mercosur trade agreement. However, 2020 is again a record year in the number of fires. Since his inauguration, the indigenous population has become the target of recurrent attacks along with physical violence and hostilities constantly increasing. State institutions in charge of the demarcation of indigenous areas have been systematically weakened and lobbyists from large landowners have been appointed to lead key authorities. During a government meeting in April 2020, the environment Minister recommended to take advantage of the media focus on the Covid-19 pandemic to “pass the cattle through”, to change all the rules and simplify norms “without the Congress”, but using executive powers instead. With the ratification of the trade agreement, the rainforest and indigenous people will continue to suffer under the presidency of Bolsonaro.

But forests aren’t solely burning in Brazil, but on Peruvian and Bolivian territories as well. Time has come to scrutinize the responsibility that societies of the Global North should bear within these developments. As the second largest market for Brazilian consumer goods and raw materials, the role of the EU is of great significance. The direct causal link between our consumption patterns and the current situation in Amazonia can no longer be overseen as our consumption is acting as a fire accelerant. While the consequences for the global climate are becoming ever more drastically evident, parts of the global community seem to acknowledge the global responsibility. When offering €20 million emergency aid to Brazil in 2019, the G7group recognised the importance of the Amazon rainforest on the one side. On the other hand, however, it must be clear that this is not about money: the Brazilian government has not accepted the money.

What is missing instead is the political will: that of the countries in the region to decidedly tackle issues of forest logging, land grabbing and mining, but also that of countries in the Global North to reduce imports of critical goods and resources. Instead of strengthening the very same powers that profit most from the destruction of the rainforests, we have to change consumption patterns and import regulations - and above all, we have to redefine the value of the rainforest. 

What is different today? Where does the international attention come from?

  • The number of fires that have been set at the same time has never been this high. Between January and July 2020, 40,436 fires were counted in Brazil. All fires were illegal and more than 453,000 hectares of forest were burned.
  • Awareness for the connection between rainforest destruction and climate change is growing.
  • The international community is becoming more and more sensitive for such developments. Constant verbal aggression of the Brazilian president Bolsonaro towards the indigenous population, his repeatedly expressed view that only cleared areas are productive as well as his claim to advocate for the interests of great land owners and the agricultural lobby raises international concern.
  • Since 2019 at least, the fires contain a clear political message to Bolsonaro from the agricultural lobby: we thank the president for standing up for us and express our gratitude by setting as many fires as possible, to show that we are ready to work the lands. Many fires were set simultaneously, in agreement of the farmers amongst themselves.
  • Currently, almost 20% of the original Amazon region has been destroyed. Scientists project that when 25% of the area is destroyed, a tipping point will be reached, changing the regional climate so much that the rainforest will start turning into a savannah. As a result, it would also lose its carbon absorption capacities as well as climate regulating function.

    COICA, the indigenous partner association of Climate Alliance in Amazonia, has published an open letter in which they declare an ecological and humanitarian emergency. They further state:  

    “We request and summon the unity and solidarity of all the Indigenous Peoples of Abya Yala and the world to testify, denounce and end the genocide and ecocide that the peoples are suffering in the ancient territories of the Amazon Basin.”

    Further on, they lament the incompetence and the lacking will of the Bolivian and Brazilian state to protect the population – peasants and indigenous peoples. They request the UN and the High Commissioner for Human Rights to take immediate measures to fight the current fires and prevent future ones, as well as the international community to support and stand with the victims. Climate Alliance members have passed a declaration of support calling for solidarity with indigenous peoples during international conference in Rostock.

    They have also initiated a campaign to collect donations for the indigenous communities who are directly affected by the fires.

    Help our partners in Amazonia!

    Donations with the reference “Fires in Amazonia“ can be transferred to the following bank account of the Climate Alliance:

    • GLS Gemeinschaftsbank eG
    • IBAN:  DE 73 4306 0967 8038 4090 01

    Being a non-profit association, the Climate Alliance is able to issue a donation receipt. Please contact Thomas Brose for further information: t.brose(at) 

    Call to suspend EU trade negotiations with Brazil

    On the 17 June 2019, more than 340 civil organisations called upon the EU to suspend the ongoing negotiations about the Mercosur agreement. Both Climate Alliance’s European secretariat and Climate Alliance Austria have signed the joint letter. Explaining the worsening situation in Brazil with regards to human rights and the environment, the document urges the EU to send a clear message to President Bolsonaro by rejecting any free trade agreement under the current conditions. Ending human rights violations and deforestation, as well as committing to concrete climate protection measures should be the premise for a continuation of the negotiations.

    On 8 October 2020, a resolution against the Mercosur agreement was adopted at the Climate Alliance General Assembly, amplifying the voices of 1853 member municipalities asking their governments not to sign the agreement.

    If you want to discover how you personally can develop more sustainable consumption patterns, check out our overdeveloped website.

    Foto: Victor Moriyama / Greenpeace