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Burning Amazon — World’s lung under threat

Martin van Nierop responds to the reports of widescale fires in the Amazon that have made headlines in the international media. He relates his experience of visiting the Amazon and the people he met there. Van Nierop reflects on the direct consequences these fires have for those communities and the far-reaching impact on climate change in South Africa and worldwide.

During the past few days the news has been filled with stories about fires raging in the Amazon forest, particularly in Brazil, South America. Should we, living across the Atlantic Ocean on the southern part of Africa, be worried, or even care?

I was like most South Africans who had heard of the Amazon Jungle and had seen it only in movies and documentaries. It was a remote and abstract concept. Then I had the opportunity to visit Columbia a year ago and it all became very real. The mighty Amazon Jungle, which I first saw from my flight from Bogota (the capital of Colombia) to a small town on the banks of the mighty Amazon River – Leticia – stretched as far as the eye could see. Unbelievable in scale.

The mighty Amazon Jungle … stretched as far as the eye could see.

We had the opportunity to take a boat trip down the Amazon River where we encountered freshwater dolphins. We saw the mighty trees, the abundance of birds and a mind-boggling variety of plants. We met with indigenous Amazonians.

The Amazon Rainforest seen from a boat on the Amazon River // Martin van Nierop

I was most struck by the people who were struggling to come to terms with living in the 21st century. One family invited us to spend the day with them, at their house in town and also on their small farming plot in the jungle on the outskirts of the town – half an hour’s walk apart from each other. They had burnt the patch in order to make it possible to plant the crops they needed for subsistence.

Burning parts of the Amazon for farming has been going on for a long time. The difference now is the scale. More than 60% of the Amazon has disappeared or is threatened by human expansion.

A recently burnt patch of forest to make way for subsistence farming // Martin van Nierop

The Amazon has been described as one of the lungs of the Earth, producing oxygen and absorbing carbon dioxide. Now, with the burning of the forests, this process is being reversed, using oxygen and producing carbon dioxide. And it is this excess of carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) that is responsible for climate change.

More than 60% of the Amazon has disappeared or is threatened by human expansion.

So, I care about the fires in the Amazon for two reasons. The livelihoods of many indigenous people (some of whom I met) are affected by the wellbeing of the Amazon Jungle. Secondly, the fires of the Amazon will no doubt accelerate climate change, thereby causing severe weather conditions like the recent drought that threatened Cape Town’s water supply. Climate change is a global threat that is also having a direct impact on our lives here in South Africa.

As the bishops of Latin America say in their latest document (22 August 2019): “We want to express our concern about the seriousness of this tragedy, that is not only of local impact, not even regional, but of planetary proportions.”

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.

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Martin van Nierop
Martin van Nierop has a PhD in Chemical Engineering from the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. He is the Managing Director of Gondwana Environmental Solutions, an environmental consultancy based in Johannesburg. Martin has had more than 15 years of experience in the environmental field. Recently he has written environmental articles for the Jesuit Institute.

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