Forest Fires, Climate Change and Deforestation in South America and Africa

Active forest fires in Central Africa are greater than the Amazon fires, and have a potential to be more dangerous, Greenpeace has warned.

Termed “the fire continent” by NASA, Africa is home to at least 70% of fires burning worldwide, during the global fire season between June and September.

The fires, which spread from Angola to Gabon, are close to the Congo Basin, the second-largest tropical rainforest in the globe, which spans the Democratic Republic of Congo, Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Cameroon and the Central Africa Republic. Like the Amazon, the Congo Basin absorbs a large percent of the earth’s carbon dioxide, and is responsible for abating the negative effects of climate change.

The Global Forest Watch shows massive fires currently burning in Central and Southern African nations. Fires in both continents are as a result of “slash and burn” farming where land is cleared using fire. The farming method requires natural vegetation to be cut down and burned to clear the land for cultivation. Rainforest Saver describes it as a form of “shifting agriculture” that rapidly leads to poverty, infertile lands, climate change and the destruction of the rainforest, including wildlife. Once farming strips the soil of its nutrients, rendering it infertile, farmers move to a new land area and repeat the process.

The worst of Africa’s fires is contained in Angola, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique, Madagascar and South Africa. Although fires in Central Africa have not spread to the Congo Basin forest area, fires in South America have spread to the Amazon rainforest, prompting problems for the people and the biodiverse wildlife for whom this is home.

Slash and burn techniques have been criticised by experts. Many, including World Agroforestry and Rainforest Saver, have published environmental alternatives to slash and burn. “The richness of the rainforest is in the trees”, Rainforest Saver has argued. However, with the Amazon rainforest burning, the earth is losing a big part of its richness, including its biodiversity. Despite African forest fires being substantially higher in number, the global focus on the Amazon rainforest stems from a concern that the fires there have not been controlled, unlike African fires.

Working on Fire, under South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs, writes that: “Fires are, and always have been, a part of the South African landscape. They occur as a natural phenomenon in grasslands, woodlands, fynbos, and sometimes in indigenous forests.

“About 70% of the ecosystems covering South Africa are fire-adapted. They need to burn to maintain their ecological integrity. But because of human activity, there is a need to manage fire in a manner that is appropriate for the land-use and land-type while maintaining natural processes and patterns as far as possible.”

Despite similarities in agricultural techniques, fire management in both regions is the difference between safe and unsafe forest fires.

“There are fire management questions in these (African) ecosystems, but fire is part of their ecology,” Sally Archibald, a professor at the School of Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences, at The University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, said.

“In South America, the equivalent non-forest woodlands have been largely converted to soybean agriculture already, but in Africa they are largely untransformed.

“The main message is: yes we have a lot of fire, but it’s not bad and can be very good for the ecology. We don’t know how many deforestation fires we have but the best evidence is that our forests are not decreasing, they are in fact increasing.”

While the slash and burn farming practice was sustainable in the past, rising population makes it impossible to abandon burnt land for two decades while it replenishes its nutrients. Other problems associated with rising population, such as rising temperatures, decreased rain from climate change and industrialised practices create the perfect circumstances for slash and burn fires to burn out of control.

Experts, consequently, are now focused on the Amazon’s forest fires, over Africa’s fires. “The question now is to what extent we can compare,” opined Philippe Verbelen, a Greenpeace forest campaigner.

Last month, French president, Emmanuel Macron, voiced concern that the Central African forest fires were not receiving as much media attention as the Amazon forest fires. In the same month, the G7 nations pledged $20 million to the Amazon fires, sending fire-fighting aircraft and firefighter volunteers.

Bolivian authorities have warned that fires in the Chiquitania forest area have left more than a quarter of the country under “extreme risk from the forest fires”. The fires have also destroyed parts of the Amazon and Bolivia’s Pantanal region which borders Bolivia, Brazil and Paraguay.

Bolivian President Evo Morales, who previously rejected international help, has last week, accepted foreign aid efforts.

“Any cooperation is welcome, whether it comes from international organisations, celebrities or from the presidents who offered to help,” he said. He also recently cancel his re-election campaign to join the firefighting efforts.

Data from Brazil’s Space Research Centre (INPE) proves there has been an 83% increase in forest fires in the Amazon since records began in 2013. “The number of forest fires is higher in the Amazon regions most affected by deforestation practices, as fires are one of the main tools used for deforestation, including by farmers,” Greenpeace said.

“Forest fires and climate change operate in a vicious cycle: as the number of fires increase, so do greenhouse gas emissions, increasing the planet’s overall temperature and the occurrence of extreme weather events, such as major droughts,” the NGO continued.

Morales criminalised the slash and burn farming practice last month, despite his very government permitting it in the first place to create revenue from expanding agro-business in Bolivia.

“This month’s devastating fires are the all-too-predictable consequence of the Morales government’s decree authorising new land claims on cleared land”, said Carwil Bjork-James, an anthropology professor at Vanderbilt University.

The Pan-Amazon indigenous organisation COICA has accused Morales and Brazilian president, Jair Bolsorano, of “gutting every environmental and social strategy” designed to protect the Amazon, for the benefit of huge capitalistic profit.

In response to the President Macron’s concerns, President Bolsorano accused the French president of treating the Amazon region “as if it were a colony”.

“We cannot accept that a president, Macron, unleashes unreasonable and gratuitous attacks on the Amazon, nor that he disguises his intentions behind the idea of a G-7 ‘alliance’ to ‘save’ the Amazon, as if we were a colony or a no-man’s-land,” Bolsonaro tweeted.

Western arguments against South America’s governmental policies in the Amazon has led to criticisms of ‘environmental colonialism. South American governments are sceptical about environmental aid and advice from Western governments, because of the West’s unethical history with environmentalism.

By prioritising financial gain over global environmental concerns, the United States and Western Europe saw great economic successes in the twentieth and twenty-first century. Under European colonisation, for example, 21.7% of Africa’s tropical rainforest was deforested. Today, US President Trump continues to deny climate change as a real problem, attempting to repeal 84 climate change regulations that stem the profits of ultra-wealthy American businesspersons.

The Amazon forest fires reveal a great global power shift, with the fate of the planet resting on the survival of a continent that the West has historically plundered and destroyed for its benefit. How South America responds to the protection of the Amazon in the future will be a great determining factor in whether we can survive, and even reverse climate change.