The Amazon is not the only place on fire this month, as industrial agriculture causes devastation across the tropics
August 2019 is a record breaking fire season across the tropics. Most of us saw the disturbing satellite images from the Amazon shared on social media over the last week, our collective horror and sorrow echoing through the chambers of Twitter and Facebook.
What makes it particularly disturbing is the fact that these are not accidental wildfires, but intentionally lit fires in order to clear land for cattle and soy. On a more sinister level, it has been reported that some of these fires were criminally lit by ranchers in order to clear indigenous people off their land.
But this is not unique to the Amazon. Fires around the world are started by companies and land owners to clear forest lands for agriculture on a regular, annual basis. Indonesia similarly experienced the worst fires in years this month, declaring a state of emergency on August 1st, deploying thousands of military and police personnel to 6 provinces of Sumatra and Kalimantan to douse the fires. Smog pollution blanketed Borneo and parts of the Malaysian peninsula — causing the worst air quality since the terrible fires in 2015. Those 2015 fires have since been estimated to have caused the premature death of approximately 100,000 people. Where we work on the Malaysian side of the border, 1,500 hectares of forest was lost this month in the Kuala Baram region.
Many of the fires in Indonesia and Malaysia are deliberately lit. In the context of oil palm, slash-and-burn methods are the quickest and cheapest way to clear land of unwanted vegetation and peat. These fires similarly displace indigenous people and set the lungs of the planet ablaze. The fires have been labeled Indonesia’s ‘national embarrassment’, as the smoke and haze literally flies in the face of Indonesia’s zero deforestation pledge.
In Brazil, Bolsonaro is allowing deforestation and land conversion for the simple reason that cleared land is worth more than forested land. As Alexandria Symonds writes in the New York Times, “While campaigning for president last year, Mr. Bolsonaro declared that Brazil’s vast protected lands were an obstacle to economic growth and promised to open them up to commercial exploitation.”
These fires are a symptom of unchecked capitalism as much as a symptom of (and contributor to) climate change. About 40% of global forest loss can be attributed to the production of cattle, soybeans, oil palm and rubber. This is part of a large structural problem that values money above all else, and a huge disconnect between the immediate economic goals of rapidly developing nations and the global fight against climate change. Forests are an essential component of regulating global temperatures; we simply cannot cap global warming to 1.5 degrees if these annual food production fires are allowed to continue unabated.
What you can do to help
There is much work to be done. At The Borneo Project, we urge our supporters to talk about these issues face to face with friends and family, as well as on social media. You might be surprised how many people haven’t made the link between the contents of their pantry and climate change, how industrial agriculture sparks extreme weather events.
A shift in global consumption patterns could and should accompany gut-reaction outrage. Try to buy food that was grown locally, and place special attention on avoiding palm oil, which is present in about 50% of supermarket products. The easiest way to do this is to purchase whole, rather than processed foods. Or you can check out a more extensive list from the Orangutan Conservancy here.
It is estimated that 80% of the damage done to the Amazon is for the production of beef and dairy, as well as soy grown to feed those cattle. Avoiding beef and dairy products, and limiting meat consumption in general, is a straightforward way to limit demand and reduce your carbon footprint.
Indigenous communities are working to protect their land on the frontlines and probably also in a community near you. Consider giving money to an indigenous-led group and look up indigenous-led initiatives near you. For a full list of organisations combating the root causes of these forest fires in the Amazon and Asia, go to this guide from One Health Productions.
Don’t get upset, get organized. Participate in the Climate strike from Sept 20-27 2019. Young people have been leading the way, but we all need to participate and get involved. We are in a dire situation, but we can turn this ship around if a critical mass of concerned citizens decides that enough is enough. As Rebecca Solnit put it, “Inside the word emergency is ’emerge’; from an emergency new things come forth. The old certainties are crumbling fast, but danger and possibility are sisters.”