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Burning Earth’s Biggest Rainforest

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Burning Earth’s Biggest Rainforest

The world watched over the summer as large swaths of the Amazon rainforest roared with uncontrollable flames. While many demanded swift action, it was quickly apparent there are no simple solutions.

Learn the why behind the headlines.

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The hymn of the Brazilian state of Rondonia takes pride in the region’s famously beautiful skies. “Blue, our sky is always blue,” it says. “May God keep it unrivaled, crystal, pure, and always keep it that way.”

Yet, during the summer, a haze of thick smoke blanketed Brazil.

The South American nation always has fires during its annual dry season, but they have been more widespread this year. Alarmingly more. Satellite data from the Brazilian Space Agency revealed a sharp increase in deforestation and forest fires over the past 12 months. In August, the agency issued an alert that blazes in the Amazon rainforest had increased 84 percent in the first seven months of 2019 compared with the same period in 2018.

“The smell is of barbecue, caused by vast swathes of the world’s largest tropical rainforest going up in flames,” Metro reported. The news outlet added that “the blazes have created a layer of smoke estimated to be 1.2 million square miles wide that spreads across Latin America to the Atlantic coast.”

More than a thousand miles southeast of the flames, the megacity of Sao Paulo experienced what felt like a terrible omen on August 19.

“Sao Paulo was blackened for around an hour…after strong winds and a cold front brought in smoke from forest fires burning in the states of Amazonas and Rondonia, more than [1,700 miles] away,” BBC reported. “Sao Paulo resident Gianvitor Dias [described] what it was like in the city during the smoke-filled blackout…”

“It was as if the day had turned into night,” he said. “Everyone here commented, because even on rainy days it doesn’t usually get that dark. It was very impressive.”

Some portrayed the scene as “apocalyptic.”

As the smoke spread, so did reports of health impacts—particularly among children and elderly. The number of people treated for respiratory issues during the blazes increased sharply at the Cosme e Damia Children’s hospital in Porto Velho, the capital of Rondonia.

Elane Diaz, a nurse in Porto Velho, spoke about respiratory problems while waiting for a doctor’s appointment at a hospital with her 5-year-old son Eduardo.

“The kids are affected the most. They’re coughing a lot,” Ms. Diaz said. “They have problems breathing. I’m concerned because it affects their health.”

As the crisis continued to develop, more people questioned: At what point has the situation simply gone too far? Are any solutions simply too little, too late? What are the long-term ramifications of incinerating such a vast amount of rainforest off the planet?

“Scientists warn that if enough of the forest is lost, it could enter a spiral of collapse. This is an outcome with global consequences, and if we cross this threshold of deforestation, it could be a point of no return,” Vox stated.

While the Brazilian government has reported it has contained the worst of the blazes, the record fire season continues. Exactly how to solve the crisis remains a contentious open question.

Core Issue?

The threat to the Amazon, what some call “the lungs of the planet,” ignited a bitter blame game. Tensions particularly flared between Brazil and Europe, which accused the South American nation of neglecting its commitments to protect biodiversity.

At the height of the fires, some politicians found themselves on the same page as sports superstars, who used their global social media followings to call for action to preserve the rainforest.

Soccer’s five-time world player of the year Cristiano Ronaldo tweeted a widely cited figure of how much oxygen the rainforest emits: “The Amazon Rainforest produces more than 20% of the world’s oxygen and it’s been burning for the past 3 weeks. It’s our responsibility to help to save our planet.”

The French president and many others reported the same figure.

Clearly, the fires in Brazil are a dire problem, and everyone who spreads this 20 percent figure has noble intentions. Yet it is factually inaccurate and distracts from the core of the problem. The Atlantic explained: “The Amazon is a vast, ineffable, vital, living wonder. It does not, however, supply the planet with 20 percent of its oxygen.”

Quoting biochemist Nick Lane, the magazine wrote: “Even the most foolhardy destruction of world forests could hardly dint our oxygen supply, though in other respects such short-sighted idiocy is an unspeakable tragedy.”

Most scientists do not link Brazil’s uptick in fires to climate change—despite many political statements and widespread news coverage on that point.

Yet these blazes are manmade.

The Chicago Tribune stated: “The current fires in the Amazon are not wildfires. They are manmade and are mostly set illegally by landgrabbers who are clearing the forest for cattle ranching and crops.

“Deforesting the Amazon is a long, slow process. People clear the land by cutting down the vegetation during the rainy season, letting the trees dry out and burning them during the dry season. Fully clearing the dense forest for agricultural use can take several years of slashing and burning.”

Casting these “landgrabbers” as the villains of this story is easy to do. Yet most of these farmers and ranchers are just trying to eke out a living.

A National Geographic reporter spent time with one such family. He said they are “the most environmentally destructive people I have ever met. They are also some of the nicest. They are a family trying to survive in a very hostile environment through often brutal, hard work. Their view and understanding of the problems the Amazon faces are, therefore, very different than mine. I see the Amazon as an extraordinarily valuable, cathedral of life that should be cherished and protected at all costs—the world needs it, we all need it. [The head of the family] sees the Amazon as a vast, regenerating resource that allows him to feed his family. After talking extensively with him I realized his respect for it was as deep as my own, he just saw it very differently.”

For Brazil as a whole, agriculture is hugely important. It is the world’s leading producer of coffee. Same for oranges. It produces over twice the amount of this citrus fruit than the United States, which is in second place. It is also the main producer of the tuber crop cassava and a leading grower of beans, corn, cacao, bananas and rice.

Brazil also has one of the world’s largest livestock populations (at more than 200 million) and slaughters more cattle annually than does the U.S.

In fact, agriculture makes up 6.6 percent of the nation’s GDP. While this may seem like a small number, the U.S. amount for the same figure is just 0.9 percent. Also, nearly 10 percent of Brazilians work in this sector.

For a nation struggling to find its economic and political footing around the world, slowing down agriculture growth is a tough pill to swallow.

Shortsighted Practices

Taking economics out of the equation, forest clearing in the Amazon is alarming for many reasons. It had decreased 80 percent following a peak in 2004 and now is back with a vengeance.

Why is this trend troubling? Tropical forests harbor many species of plants and animals found nowhere else. They also contain enormous stores of carbon as wood and other organic matter.

Doug Morton, a NASA scientist, said there is now “an uptick in the pressure against the remaining Amazon forest, to expand agriculture production in areas that are the leading edge in the deforestation frontier.”

“Most of the richness and productivity we associate with the Amazon is bound up in the living organisms in the ecosystem” NASA reported on its website.

“Layer upon layer of plants, animals, fungi, and bacteria that are spread throughout the forest endlessly recycle the ecosystem’s nutrients. The infertile soil is not well suited to farming, and when the forest is cleared to make way for farms, farmers face the dilemma of how to enrich the soil. In a part of the country where millions of people earn less than $100 per month, expensive soil additives and fertilizer aren’t options. Instead, farmers clear cut the forest and set it on fire in order to turn the nutrients locked up in the forest biomass into a soil-fertilizing ash.”

The NASA article continued: “This slash-and-burn method of agriculture is never more than a short-term solution. Typically, within a few years, the initial influx of nutrients from the burned forest is used up. ‘I think people are very similar whether they are in Texas or Pará, Brazil,’ said ecologist Daniel Nepstad of the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts. ‘People are looking to maximize the profit of their land in the short term; they don’t look too far down the line.’”

Global Problem

When all the dynamics of this crisis are considered, any initiatives serve only as temporary solutions. The problem is as thick as the Amazon forest itself, and no one seems to know exactly how to penetrate the thinking of those initiating the fires and accomplish a permanent solution.

The implications can be devastating. For a wake-up call it helps to be reminded that the Sahara, Earth’s biggest desert, was itself once lushly forested.

Will mankind’s inaction turn Earth’s biggest rainforest into a 2-million-square-mile desert? That is one answer not worth finding out.

The Amazon, however, is not the only place where massive land fires are raging. For example, NASA has called Africa the “fire continent” that is home to at least 70 percent of the 10,000 fires burning worldwide on an average August day, though the agency says the number of fires is consistent from year to year.

Angola had almost three times more fires than Brazil over a period in August, according to NASA satellite imagery, which indicated around 6,000 fires in Angola, more than 3,000 in Congo and just over 2,000 in Brazil.

Though Angola and Congo dominate in numbers of fires, they often occur in sparsely wooded savannas and on fields cultivated by small farmers, making them less of a concern for deforestation than those in the Amazon, said Sally Archibald, a professor at Wits University in Johannesburg.

Tosi Mpanu Mpanu, chief negotiator for the Africa Zone at the 2015 United Nations climate change conference, said agricultural practices known as “slash and burn” need to be better managed, citing the over 3,000 fires in Congo.

“It is a great threat to our forests,” he said of the technique used by farmers in Congo and elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa. “You need a global ambitious program, or you train people to use other practices for people to go into intensive agriculture. You have to organize these small farmers by giving them fertilizer, seeds.”

No More Destruction

Solving the forest fire problem means teaching farming on a multinational scale. Yet this can seem impossible. When has a “global ambitious program” ever been successful?

Yet, unknown to almost all, this is precisely what the Bible says is going to happen—and soon.

In his book Mounting Worldwide Crisis in Agriculture, author Dale L. Schurter explained: “The Bible paints an exciting picture about some of the tremendous and wonderful changes that will occur in coming years.

“At that time, society will be agriculturally oriented. Farming and gardening, orchards and vineyards, livestock and poultry husbandries will be so popular that even city dwellers will want to take part. But not in the way so many do today, ‘playing at’ farming just to gain tax benefits.

“Rather, people in tomorrow’s cities will want to have their own gardens and small orchards just for the pleasure of working with the soil, of being close to God’s Creation, and of growing part of their own food.”

The Bible describes that, in this new world, nations “shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Mic. 4:3).

Mr. Schurter continues: “Instead of making instruments of destruction for a war-oriented society, men will make instruments of peace, and society will become agriculturally oriented, productive and service-oriented—excited about serving our Creator, family and neighbors. Agriculture will be a respected profession, and many, many people will be engaged in it: ‘But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid: for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken it’” (vs. 4).

Few understand the importance God has placed in His Word about the role of proper agricultural practices in the world prophesied to come soon. The words “every” and “his” in the last Bible verse quoted imply all heads of families will have access to their own land acreage and be trained to properly grow food for their households. These practices will be based on agricultural laws originally established by the God who made all of it.

The words “none” and “afraid” are also reassuring within the same agricultural context, pointing to the absence of anything that can instill fear or hinder man’s process of peacefully cultivating the land—including destructive fires.

Only then, the wishes sung in the state hymn of Rondonia will be fulfilled for the entire planet: God will make sure to “keep it unrivaled, crystal, pure, and always keep it that way.”

To learn more about this coming agricultural transformation, read Mounting Worldwide Crisis in Agriculture.

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