A tale of two wildfires: the Amazon Rainforest and the Congo Basin

Image credit: NASA FIRMS

When NASA released satellite imaging of the Brazil forest fires on the 24th August, it quickly became apparent that Brazil was not the only country set alight. The image, taken from NASA’s Terra Satellite, displays red bands of fire in Brazil, around Bolivia’s border with Brazil and a large band across Central Africa. Emerging from the panic surrounding this image however, experts have come forward to highlight that not every wildfire is quite so detrimental to the environment.

The severity of the fires across the Amazon rainforest has initiated a global outcry about the management of wildfires in Brazil. However it is not just Brazil, Bolivia and Central Africa are experiencing high levels of wildfire too. Are the fires in Sub-Saharan Africa caused by the same practices as those occurring in South America? And are they as damaging to our planet’s health?

The Amazon rainforest is located in the Amazon basin, spanning across nine countries in South America. This wet tropical rainforest is not only an important local ecosystem but carries great global significance too. It is an important source of oxygen and carbon dioxide reservoir, making it commonly termed the ‘lungs of the earth’. In addition to this, it is home to an unparalleled amount of biodiversity. News has recently exploded with reports that Brazil, home to around 60% of the Amazon rainforest, is experiencing thousands of uncontrolled forest fires. With the Brazilian Amazon witnessing its highest rate of wildfires in a decade, concerns were raised on why this was happening and the implications it has on the environment.

Between July and October, most of South America experiences its dry season, including the Amazon rainforest. During this time, often initiated by naturally occurring events such as lightning strikes, forest fires are not uncommon. However, many environmental activists have reason to believe that this year is different. They believe the main cause of the widespread fires is due to farmers and loggers attempting to free more land for practices including cattle pasture and soy production, along the major roads in central Brazilian Amazon.

This common practice, slash and burn, describes the process of people chopping down trees and vegetation, burning the logs and allowing the ash to fall for the fertilisation of future crops. This process of deforestation has quite a detrimental effect on the whole rainforest. Not only does it result in the loss of our main source of exchange of carbon dioxide and oxygen, it is also releases damaging amounts of the greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, accelerating climate change.

Furthermore, it is unsurprising that this loss of land has led to a surge in the number of species on the endangered list and threatens many others with extinction. Unfortunately, the risk of extinction does not stop here, with indigeneous tribes suffering greatly too. Reports have highlighted that from the 15th-20th August, fires broke out in 131 Brazilian indigeneous reserves, including the home to the Awá indigenous people, the most endangered tribe in the world. This has forced many to flee and leave the land they are dependant on.

Ultimately, many Brazilian organisations believe the rise in wildfires in Brazil started with the recently elected President Bolsonaro. From this change in presidential leadership, they have witnessed a reduction in the enforcement of fines for breaking environmental regulations, and in turn, the rate of deforestation has doubled. 

Sadly, the fires across the Amazon rainforest do not stop at the borders with Bolivia’s small share of the rainforest burning too. Organisations initiated wildfires to expand farmland in Bolivia which has become uncontrolled, catching in the Chiquitano dry forest and finally reaching their share of the Amazon rainforest. Once again, the blame has been placed heavily on the government, as for years many have criticised current policies that enable organisations to perform controlled fires for the expansion of farmland. 

This apparent mismanagement, which favours economic gain over the sustainability of the Amazon rainforest, is under important scrutiny and demands for change are becoming louder. Hearing these global concerns, the president of Bolivia, Evo Morales, has accepted international help. Nevertheless, with the fires already reaching indigenous Chiquitano communities and the protected national park in the Gran Chaco, a lot of damage has already been done.

Across the globe, the savannah land of Angola, Zambia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo are facing approximately three times more wildfires than the Amazon Rainforest. The comparative lack of coverage and international aid and support can potentially be explained by the fact that the wildfires in Central Africa are a largely carbon neutral process.

This comes down to the type of vegetation that is being set alight, with the Congo basin comprising of dry bush rather than dense moist rainforest. Here, the land is set alight at the end of the dry season in preparation for the wet season. After the savannah land has been burned, the germination and regrowth of the bush begins again. By the beginning of October, the landscape is transformed for another year, and locals of the land rely heavily on this technique to renew the land. This same practice is not actually necessary in the Amazon rainforest, and it can in fact take decades for the land to recover. Moreover, there is very little land being left to regrow in the Amazon rainforest, with most wildfires initiated with the intent of replacing the land for agricultural practices. 

Despite the wildfires in Central Africa being a part of a natural cycle of regrowth and renewal, just like the Amazon Rainforest, nature is increasingly under threat. The frequency and amount of wildfires are gradually increasing, meaning greater deforestation and a lessening of the air quality. Due to this, the relatively carbon neutral process is starting to shift off-balance. Although the wildfires in Africa are not yet as big a concern as those in South America, if left uncontrolled they could be. Implementing laws and educating the public about the importance of these very different ecosystems are some of the fundamental steps we need to take to ensure that they survive for future generations.

This post was written by Olivia Matthews and edited by Hollie Marks

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