Their Eyes Were Watching the Amazon

By Miles Bolton

Amazon Rainforest. PC: WikiCommons

The world watched equally stunned and dismayed as the Amazon burned at an unprecedented rate this past summer. Unlike the burning of the Notre Dame or the California wildfires, the recent fires in the Amazon are no accident. Brazil’s current president, Jair Bolsonaro, encouraged cattle ranchers, miners, etc. to burn down parts of the rainforest in the name of industrial progress. Given that these fires were politically coordinated rather than the result of unpredicted environmental catastrophe, the international community was unable to act on the crisis in a meaningful way. Bolsonaro rejected any offers of foreign aid to mitigate the flames engulfing the Amazon, denouncing foreign interference as being derived from a “colonial mindset”. 

There have been 80% more fires in the Amazon this past summer as compared to summer 2018, as a result of Bolsonaro’s policies. In terms of total area affected by the fires, around 2140.428 square kilometers of forest have been burned since January, which represents a 39% increase in the deforestation rate of the Amazon. The fires were recently quelled as heavy rains over the Amazon ceased the destruction that was left unmitigated as the world watched. It’s crucial that South America--with the aid of the international community--steps up conservation and reforestation efforts in the years to come given that Bolsonaro’s assault on the Amazon is far from over. 

Image taken by NOAA satellites on August 13th, 2019. You can visibly see the smoke rising from the Amazon. PC: NOAA

Bolsonaro campaigned on the promise to weaken the Amazon’s environmental protections in the interest of industry and it should be of no surprise that the 3 Brazilian states with the highest increases  in fire occurrences are all governed by Bolsonaro’s allies. There were over 73,000 fires across Brazil this year and around 40,000 were set ablaze from within the Amazon rainforest according to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research. We cannot afford to let this trend continue and there has been some success in the past in reducing Amazon’s deforestation rates. From 2004 to 2012, deforestation rates fell from a record annual loss of 27,722 square kilometers in 2004 to 4,571 square kilometers thanks to the combined effects of a moratoria on soy and cattle farming, close monitoring, and law enforcement. Unfortunately, the pace of deforestation has been ramped up with a renewed, malicious vigor under the rule of Bolsonaro.

Ivan Duque, Columbia’s president, recognizing the unparalleled value of the Amazon rainforest and the need to take action organized a meeting in Leticia, Columbia with leaders from Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Suriname, Guyana, and Brazil to discuss the crisis in the Amazon. The purpose of the meeting being “to foster a space for regional dialogue to advance the protection and sustainable use of this region, which is essential for the survival of the planet” according to Duque. This meeting culminated in the creation of the Leticia Pact. The Leticia Pact serves as the foundation for a regional agreement between South American countries to share and consolidate resources and information in order to help protect the Amazon and the interests of the region. While this agreement lacks sufficient specificity to dispel any fears regarding the state of the Amazon, it’s still an important step in shifting responsibility from the international community to regional leaders. Bolsonaro is sure to reject and initiate conflict at any mention of international action in the Amazon due to its colonial history is rightfully leery of U.S/European interests. Despite this with the advent of the Leticia Pact and the resulting regional coalition maybe there will be a better chance at limiting the impact of Bolsonaros policies on the Amazon. It’s hard to say what will come of this alliance as there as has been no concrete action or plan outlined as of yet. 

Aerial view of the Rio Negro. PC: WikiCommons

How Important is the Amazon?

The alliance formed by the Leticia Pact cannot afford to sit idle as Bolsonaro wages war against the Amazon. The Amazon alone, accounts for 40% of global rainforest area (5.3 million square kilometers), hosts 10-15% of global land biodiversity, and stores an estimated 150-200 billion tons of carbon. Additionally the Amazon plays a tremendous role in the filtration, recycling, and distribution of water resources in the region. The Amazon River makes up 15% of the global freshwater output into oceans and 70% of the water resources of the La Plata River Basin (Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia) are derived from the Amazon.

Additionally the forest itself acts as biotic pump and exerts tremendous influence over weather patterns and rainfall in the region through local evaporation and condensation. The term biotic pump refers to the phenomenon where local evaporation and condensation can affect atmospheric dynamics. Losing stretches of forest will not only result in declines in biodiversity and carbon sinks but lessen the moisture recycling capacity of the region. Researchers from field and model, losing 40% of the Amazon rainforest will result in a 12% reduction in wet-season rainfall and a 21% reduction in dry season rainfall across the Amazon basin. Even more troubling are recent tipping point estimates for the Amazon. Researchers performing model experiments using the CPTEC climate model by have shown that if the Amazon were to lose 25-40% of it's total area is would enter a desiccation feedback loop where the Amazon would gradually transition to drier savanna like habitat due to loss of ecosystem function (moisture recycling capacity, biotic pump) and the cumulative effects of climate change. Thus far, 20% of the Amazon has been lost, as Bolosonaro and global corporations are bringing the forest closer and closer to entering a potential desiccation feedback loop.

Sun beaming down on the Amazon River PC: WikiCommons

Checking in with Árboles Sin Fronteras

In the interest of ensuring that media coverage corroborates Latin American accounts of the crisis, I contacted Manuel Szwarc of Arboles Sin Fronteras to get his take on the Amazon crisis. 

Árboles Sin Fronteras (Trees Without Borders), a South American NGO founded in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 2010 by Manuel, dedicated to providing community based environmental education and reforesting sectors of Argentina and parts of South America with native trees and shrubs. They have a location in Guayaquil, Ecuador as well which was established in 2013.

I used to intern for Árboles Sin Fronteras when I was studying abroad in Buenos Aires in 2015 and have kept in touch in Manuel ever since. The state of Amazon is incredibly disheartening however there are a lot of inspiring environmental organizations in South America working hard to preserve and restore native ecosystems, so I want to shine a light on some of the great work currently being done by Árboles Sin Fronteras.

Manuel working with local students. PC: Árboles Sin Fronteras

Translated by Miles Bolton

Bolsonaro initiated a new stage of the continued degradation of the Amazon, in this case with an increased pace and magnitude, according to the NISR (Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research). During August alone, they had burned over 2.5 million hectares. August 10th and 11th were dubbed “The day of fire” for farmers looking to expand Brazil’s agricultural frontier further into the Amazon rainforest. 

Environmentally conscious organizations are reacting against the effects of Bolsonaro’s policies as something must be done to counteract the consequences. 

In Argentina, several dozen environmental organizations have met to discuss the best way to mitigate this environmental disaster and what steps must be taken. From the meetings, it was decided that a public communication campaign was a important first step to denounce the burning of the Amazon and Bolsonaro’s policies and to hone in on the weak policies and regulations that allow for criminal deforestation without consequence because current environmental laws aren’t being enforced in a meaningful way. 

The cost-benefit relationship isn’t proportional;

Citing a government panel report on climate change “projected impacts on forests from climate change including increased intensity of storms and forest fires may push the Amazon into a forest dieback loop”

There are two main reasons for the increase in forest fires:

  • Climate Change

  • Human activities

In 2019, in Bolivia, forest fires affected more than 5 million hectares, according to FAN (Friends of Nature Foundation). The Chiquitania region lost 3.9 million hectares and the Amazon region of Beri lost 1.2 million hectares. 

In Peru, according to Global Forest Fires Watch (using NASA data) they detected 22,000 individual fires set to expand agriculture in the Amazon, known by ROCE, generate an alteration in ecosystems, destroying the habitat of wild animals and weakening trees that are able to survive the burns. 

In other areas of the planet, such as Switzerland, they have experienced 12 times more forest fires this past year than the previous 10 years. In the United Kingdom, they experienced 6 times more forest fires this year as compared to the previous year and in Siberia more than 500,000 hectares were burned this year.

Argentina has experienced an increasing number of wildfires as well, in recent months Cordoba, Mendoza, Santiago of the Estero, Chaco, Formosa, Corrientes, and other parts of the country has seen an uptick in wildfires. From 2005 to 2017 more than 8 million hectares were affected by wildfires in these regions. In the provinces of Salta, 112,766 hectares were lost to fire in the year 2018 alone. 

Results from the meeting of environmental organization in Argentina

  • Collect 1,000,000 to demand the correct application of the law to protect native forests. 

  • Develop a reforestation program to plant 1,000,000 native trees. 

  • Protect 1,000,000 hectares of native forests. 

Students hard at work. PC: Árboles Sin Fronteras

Arboles Sin Fronteras (Trees Without Borders) Projects in Development

Planting 1000 saplings for the Miyuyoc (Jujuy) Community: we are starting to prepare saplings using native seeds from the Jujuy region for a small population of indigenous people (Nation Omaguaca) that reside in Jujuy. Germination workshops will be developed for children and adults in the community. 1000 trees will be planted in an arid area to help reforest the area and improve the water retention capacity of the soil.

Reforesting schools: during the 2019 planting schedule a minimum of 640 native trees/shrubs in education spaces in the Buenos Aires province. Workshops will be held for 240 volunteers from the Telefonica Foundation in Argentina and a minimum of 560 students and teachers and will reach more than 3,000 direct beneficiaries of the educational communities. This reforestation project has the goal of creating biological corridors to accommodate higher levels of biodiversity so that they can be developed as educational arboretums.

Natural Reserve of Pilar: Planting workshops will be held in the Pilar Natural Reserve to develop Siemens Foundation volunteers seeking to limit the growth of invasive plants that affect the reservation. 

Urban Nursery: In our nursery we will develop and teach indigenous peoples how to properly germinate seeds from various species to use for replanting projects at schools, parks, and nature reserves.

The endangered Red Fan Parrot doing it's best Dr. Evil impression. PC: WikiCommons

Get Involved

It's never too late to get involved in conservation efforts, donate to South American NGOs to support the battle against deforestation.

Follow this link to donate to Árboles Sin Fronteras:



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