Fires in the Amazon: What You Need to Know, and What You Can Do

Aug 26, 2019

Beyond being essential to the planet, the Amazon is one of our favorite destinations—and one of yours, if response to the trips we’ve featured in the region is any indication. So we’ve been distraught by reports in the news and on social media over the past two weeks about fires raging in the area. We took a closer look, and this is what we found.

What’s happening?

Put simply, the Amazon region is seeing a dramatically increased number of fires this year. Most international attention has focused on Brazil, where, according to Brazil’s own National Institute for Space Research (INPE), the number of fires is up 85% over this same time last year. But neighboring Bolivia is suffering from record fires as well—so severe, in fact, that they doubled in size between Thursday and Sunday. Fires are worst in Brazil’s Rondonia region and in Bolivia’s Chiquitano forest.

Why is it happening?

That’s complicated. Fires aren’t a natural phenomenon in the Amazon; they’re used as a means of clearing the land and preparing it for agricultural cultivation. And in fact authorities generally agree that the majority of the fires in question have been started by farmers in the regions. In some instances, that can be legal; but in many cases it isn’t. And sometimes it can be illegal but the laws aren’t enforced.

Also worth noting: Most of the fires in question aren’t in old-growth forest. They’re on Amazon-adjacent land previously cleared for agricultural use. That means they’re part of the legacy of deforestation, but they don’t, for the most part, represent new deforestation in and of themselves.

So they weren’t caused by climate change?

No. But climate change can make such fires more damaging and harder to control. Call it a vicious circle: the clearing of the forest—done primarily for economic development—makes the region drier, which in turn makes it more vulnerable to the start and spread of fires. Which, again in turn, reduce the amount of forest cover. INPE has estimated that Brazil loses “more than one-and-a-half soccer fields worth of rainforest … every minute of every day,” according to CNN.

What are the politics?

Also complicated. And different in Brazil and Bolivia.

You’ve no doubt heard quite a bit of criticism of Jair Bolsonaro, who was elected Brazil’s president last year. He campaigned on promises to boost the country’s economy by, among other things, opening the Amazon to development; and since taking office, his administration has reportedly cut environmental budgets and scaled back enforcement of logging and mining regulations in the region. Loss of forest cover in the Brazilian Amazon has accelerated by nearly 40% year-over-year since Bolsonaro took over in January 2019.

Bolsonaro’s reaction to the fires has likewise been laissez-faire—until last Friday, when several European leaders including French President Macron and German Chancellor Merkel, convening for the G7 summit in France, leveled very public criticism at Brazilian leadership, and raised the specter of economic sanctions. Bolsonaro reversed course and said he’d send 43,000 troops to the region to fight the fires.

Bolivian President Evo Morales has also opened land for agricultural development, though not just to agribusiness: one of his first major acts upon taking office in 2006 was a land reformation act that redistributed 77,000 acres to poor and indigenous farmers. Some 87% of the Bolivian fires, like those in Brazil, are believed to have originated with farmers clearing land—illegal, but common.

Morales, too—embroiled in the final months of a controversial reelection campaign—has been reluctant to acknowledge the severity of the fires; but on Sunday he suspended his campaign and said Bolivia would accept international aid to fight them.

In the latest development, on Monday, world leaders at the G7 conference offered $20 million in aid to help fight the fires in Brazil. On Tuesday, Brazilian president Bolsonaro—who’d previously declared his country lacked funds for the effort—derided the offer as representing a “colonial mentality,” and refused to consider aid until French President Macron apologizes for his part in recent exchanges between the two.

What can we do to help?

First, make a donation to one of the organizations directing aid to the suffering regions. There are many; we’ve identified a handful here. If you want to go another route, be sure to do some due diligence so you know the aid’s truly going to the right place.

Second, plan a trip to the Amazon. The fires are far from the places most travelers go; and the money you’ll spend during your visit provides an important alternative source of revenue to the region.

How can I stay informed?

Many news organizations are following developments closely. Here are  some pages to watch:

CNN’s ongoing coverage.

The New York Times’s coverage.

AP coverage.

You can also find resources on social media, such as Bolivia native @waterthruskin, who’s been aggregating and directing followers to aid organizations.

One word of social media warning, however: Check sources before retweeting or sharing photo posts; a number of inaccurate images have been spread by some big accounts in the last week, including those of Christiano Ronaldo, Leonardo DiCaprio, Madonna, Jaden Smith, and Chilean President Sebastián Piñera. The misfires haven’t been malicious or even, apparently, intentional—and in fact the images in question do depict real fires in the Amazon region. It’s just that they’re old photos—a few years old in some cases, a few decades old in others. Again, accuracy matters, and basic fact-checking goes a long way.

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