Why Amazon Rainforest is Burning and How You can help reduce It

The Amazon rainforest, located in South America, a part of the Amazon biome in the Amazon basin which spans over 7m km2, encompassing 5.5m km2  spread across eight nations- Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, and Suriname, and French Guiana -with Brazil solely occupying more than 60% of it, is the largest tropical rainforest in the world.  According to a research, entailing the analysis of more than 100 experts on 1170 surveys, published in the journal Science, the Amazon rainforest has almost 390 billion trees classified into 16,000 species, making it the world’s most diversified forest. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF), a leading organization in wildlife conservation, claims that Amazon -more than 75% of which is rainforest-consists of one in every 10 known species on the planet earth, 40,000 plant species, 3000 freshwater fish species and more than 370 types of reptiles.

Amazon rainforest
Source : commons.wikimedia.org

Wildfires in Amazon and Brazil

Wildfires in the Amazon rainforest takes place every year during dry season. However, this year it has caught a large number of eyeballs, including many scientists, environmentalists and NGOs, with Brazilian National Institute for Space Research releasing data, based on their satellite findings, reporting at least 75,336(as of Aug 30,2019 ,more than 88,816) forest fires-46,000 in Brazil- from January to August 23, 2019 in the country followed by Nasa’s support to INPE’s findings, and the fact that smoke from fires darkened city Sau Paulo which is located more than 1700 miles away from the forest.  More than 3,500 sq miles area of land in the Amazon biome has been lost to fires this year. Not limited to only Brazil ,surge in fires were  reported in Bolivia, Paraguay and Peru, with 2019 fire counts within each nation of over 19,871 , 11,397 and 6,901, respectively, as of August 30, 2019 by INPE. The situation has turned alarming since the wildfires in the Amazon rainforest is increasing continuously since INPE kept track of fires in the Amazon forest. The number of fires detected by reference satellites of INPE, from January 1 to August 30, in all the 13 countries in South America, eight of which constitutes the Amazon rainforest, shows the intensity of the situation, revealing a record number of fires -1,88,721 - in 2019 which is highest since 2010-when 297,396 fires had been recorded.
Number of fires recorded by MODIS satellites by INPE
Source:Screen grab of INPE data
The figure is evident that there has been an increase of almost 72% in Brazil and 80% in Bolivia when compared to last year over the same period of time.

INPE has made available the data of wildfires from 1998.There had been 45,765 fires detected in Brazil by INPE’s satellites in 1998, while 88,816 in 2019 over the period of January  1 to August 31- almost a two-fold increase in the pattern ,with year 2005 marking a highest and year 2000 a lowest count with 145742, 36639 respectively.

What are the actual reasons behind wildfires?

Here is a big question: How can there be so many fires in a rainforest?  You may argue that fires are lit in dry season. However, experts claim that even dry season, the rainforest cannot catch fires easily; the vast majority of these fires are human-lit. Alberto setzer, a senior scientist at INPB, by sending an email to CNN,  estimates 99% of the fires result from human actions, either on purpose or action. Deforestation over the years by famers or by the government to enhance development and infrastructure, climate change and many political factors have been the main causes for the destruction of forest by wildfires. Let us look into them in detail.


Deforestation has been the biggest cause of the wildfires, as well as climate change, in the Amazon biome. According to INPE, deforestation rate has surged up 88% over the year, causing a whopping jump in the number of fires while drawing comparison to last year’s record in the same period. WWF claims that both the Amazon’s forest and freshwater systems are at risk. Since the year 2000, rainfall has declined across 69% of the Amazon forest. It estimates that 27% of the Amazon biome- which contains the Amazon rainforest and its adjacent regions , other ecoregions which cover most of the Amazon basin- will be without trees by 2030 if the current rate of deforestation continues. The Amazon forest has already lost 17% of its land in the last 50 years due to deforestation, forest degradation for cattle ranching and other infrastructure and development works. So, why deforestation happens? Following are the supreme causes.

Agriculture and Cattle Ranching

Deforestation is largely due to land clearing for agriculture purposes, particularly cattle ranching but also soybean production,” claims Rachel Garrett, a professor at Boston University who is into studies of land use in Brazil.

Now the question is: how is land cleared in the forest? One of the most used methods to carry out deforestation is slash-and-burn method, also known as fire-allow cultivation. This method involves cutting and burning of trees in an area in forest to create the field called swidden. In the beginning of this process, trees are chopped down, months before dry season, followed by leaving its slash to dry, right before the rainiest part of the year. Then, the biomass is burned, turning the field in a nutrient-rich layer of ash which makes the soil fertile, as well as temporarily eliminating weed and pest species. After few years- three to five years- the plot's productivity decreases due to depletion of nutrients along with weed and pest invasion, compelling the farmers to abandon the field and move over to a new area. The time it takes for a swidden to recover depends on the location and can be as little as five years to more than twenty years, after which the process can be repeated. According to an estimation in 2004, in Brazil, 5,00,000 farmers each cleared one hectare of forest per year since farmers following this process have to move from one cultivation area to another.   

Agriculture is one of the most important components for Brazil’s economy. Brazil is the second largest producer of soyabeans-which is one of the major reasons to wildfires in the Amazon forest - in the world, and about 80% of the soy grown in the Amazon is used for animal feed, According to Global Forest Atlus.

Cattle ranching  is the most devastating reason for deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. World Bank in a report says cattle ranching accounts for 80% of all the converted land in the Amazon rainforest. Brazil’s cattle herd spiked from 158 million heads in 1996 to 219 million in 2016, making it the world’s largest beef and poultry exporter, with China biggest , and Hongkong, Egypt and Russia being other large importer of beef from Brazil. 

It is evident that Soy still does not serve as big as a major cause as cattle ranching. However, it is an underlying cause since soy feeds cattle herds. Fires are ignited to clear land for cattle ranching , eventually taken over by soy plantations. This handover happens since soy has spiked land prices in the region, allowing cattle ranchers to sell plot to soy developers for larger earnings. With these, they expand their herds into larger plots into newly deforested land elsewhere.

Other Causes

The main cause of deforestation is agriculture (poorly planned infrastructure is emerging as a big threat too) and the main cause of forest degradation is illegal logging. We’re losing 18.7 million acres of forests annually, equivalent to 27 soccer fields every minute.WWF says.

Logging, mining and infrastructure works for development like Trans-Amazonian Highway in the region of the rainforest are also major causes for deforestation. According to a study , unrestrained deforestation, along with the construction of new highways, could expand wildfire risk in the Amazon by more than 70 percent by 2100, even inside protected areas and indigenous reserves that have relatively intact forests.

 Climate Change

Have you ever contemplated or even though what happens when a tree is cut down or burned? It will, as you know, release the carbon it was storing; a source to absorb carbon emission vanishes with the tree losing its existence. Now imagine, if you could, the consequences if a forest containing large number of trees- and an ecosystem- burns. It is  impossible to accurately determine how much carbon the Amazon rainforest may emit amidst a great number of fires burning continuously. However, it certainly leaves a bad impact on our environment and ecosystem. It is apprehensive that such a huge loss, if continued for some years, in the Amazon forest will be greatly visible across globe. Nasa claims that the planet's average surface temperature has risen about 1.62 degrees Fahrenheit (0.9 degrees Celsius) since the late 19th century, a change driven largely by increased carbon dioxide and other human-made emissions into the atmosphere. The Amazon rainforest itself is a great source, and drives much of rain. But, as the rainforest in burning for years, there is a substantial amount of decline in the rainfalls in the Amazon- 69% since 2000, as per WWF.   

Scientist claim a rise of 4 degree Celsius could destroy 85% of the Amazon forest, and even modest temperature rise could kill 20-40% of the forest in the period of 100 years. WWF in an article says,” Climate change threatens to disrupt this network of water and the forests wildlife depend on. River areas are vulnerable to changes in rainfall and warming temperatures. Drying forests are less able to stabilize soils and protect freshwater sources and crops. As the climate changes, wildlife and plants need intact stretches of forests to transition to more suitable habitats”. Along with deforestation, climate change is the biggest cause for the increasing and frequent number of droughts in the Amazon rainforest. A report by Mongabay, a non-profit environmental science and conservation news platform, reveals that three “100-year” droughts are taking place in the span of just 10 years in the Amazon rainforest, demonstrating the severity of the situation. Again there is far-cry when a drought happens, atmospheric temperature increases in that ecosystem, adding, directly or indirectly, fuels to many fires in the forest,  killing many species.     It is to be understood there is a cyclic process in which both the components are affecting each other, damaging the environment.

Political factors

For this year’s wildfires in Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, the president of Brazil , is receiving criticism from environmentalists and leaders across the world. He has been accused of framing policies so as to allow industrialization and logging in the forest in Brazil, gaining agricultural interests. Bolsonaro has reduced the budget of Brazil’s environmental enforcement agency by $23 million since he assumed office in January 2019. Deforestation in the Amazon rainforest has grown up by 60% since 2014. Brazil owns almost 60% of the Amazon forest. Agriculture has been an important pillar of its economy, and many political leaders, over the years, in the country have used the forest to fight economic crises; Bolsonaro has done this with even greater intensity.

Does it produce 20% of world’s oxygen?

There is a globally popular perception about the Amazon rainforest that it produces 20% of the World’s oxygen. Is it practically possible? There is 21% of oxygen in the environment. It means that if the Amazon rainforest burns completely, we will be out of oxygen. However this is nothing but a plane myth,  whose origin is not known. Scott Denning, professor of atmospheric science, Colorado State University, writes in an article  , “Nearly all free oxygen in the air is produced by plants through photosynthesis. About one-third of land photosynthesis occurs in tropical forests, the largest of which is located in the Amazon Basin. But virtually all of the oxygen produced by photosynthesis each year is consumed by living organisms and fires. Trees constantly shed dead leaves, twigs, roots and other litter, which feeds a rich ecosystem of organisms, mostly insects and microbes. The microbes consume oxygen in that process. Forest plants produce lots of oxygen, and forest microbes consume a lot of oxygen. As a result, net production of oxygen by forests – and indeed, all land plants – is very close to zero”.

Why the Amazon Rainforest is Important

Around 30 million people live in the Amazon, including over 300 indigenous groups. It is important to realize that people have been living in the Amazon, most of which is covered by rainforest, for thousands of years and are dependent on the existence of a healthy forest. The Amazon forest is the most biodiverse place on earth- home to 10% of all the known species on planet Earth. The loss would be visible to the globe if even a portion of Carbon’s contain, 90-140 billion metric tons, is released as it would accelerate global warming significantly; already did a great damage.  The Amazon also pumps about 7 trillion tons of water per year into the atmosphere, and its forests recycle 50%-75% of annual rainfall back into the atmosphere.

Can you do something?

You can stop eating beef, especially if you are from China or Hongkong, largest importers of beef from Brazil. Brazil is the largest exporter of beef in the world; It exported 2,025,000 metric tons of beef in 2018. You can teach farmers to use better techniques than slash-and-burn which may result in, by not-so-skilled farmers, wildfires. Not many can contribute directly, but you can make  a contribution financially to a trusted organization to play your part. You can avoid using your vehicle- which will also help your pocket remain a bit heavier- and walk. You can stop, or reduce if necessary,  practicing anything which you feel affect environment in any anyway.

Some may discard the importance of all of this, citing that they do not live by the Amazon. It is important to understand that wildfires are neither confined to Brazil nor the Amazon; it is a global phenomena. 28,252 wildfires have been detected, using MODIS satellites, in India during January 1 to Jun 16 2019- a three- times increase from 2011. Above all, as a responsible citizen, we are all required to understand that environment, or the importance of trees, a tree is a tree no matter where it stands , is not bound to any geographical or country’s boundary; it serves humanity and does not seek to identify who it is serving. We should also try to extend our support in the same way. John Muir beautifully quotes,”In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks”.


  1. Complete in and out explanation of amazon rainforest condition and what we can contribute .Your hardwork is visible.keep writing Pourush Gupta

  2. That's too much information, keep writing pourush!


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