The complexity of the Amazon fires

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TWH – For many Pagans, an ecological disaster occurs both materially and spiritually. Many Pagans understand the planet Earth as Creator and Creation and generally reject the idea that humans have dominion over nature.

Brazil, in the tropics of the Southern Hemisphere, has different seasons from countries in the temperate Northern Hemisphere. Its nature spirits probably differ as well- and they are under threat with the clearing of the land, perhaps retreating, perhaps departing. The current fires demand attention to understand the social and political effects that are driving, what many feel, is a spiritual affront at a time of climate crisis.

The history of the Amazon fires is complex. The forest fires broke out or were set in the Amazon rainforest during July and the early part of August. But they became vast in coverage and effect. In two days from August 20 to August 22, Brazil reported over 5,000 fires, Bolivia over 1,500 fires, Peru about 1,000 fires, and Paraguay almost 500. These fires burned 4.76 million acres of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil and 2.5 million acres in Bolivia. The Brazilian fires threaten one million Native peoples. They threaten three million species of animals, birds, insects, and plants. The Bolivian fires threaten 500 species of animals.

The Brazilian space agency has reported that in 2019, 74,000 fires occurred in Brazil. In 2018, it reported only 40,000. July and August tend to be Brazil’s driest months. This year, however, has been only slightly drier than the norm.



The number of fires in Brazil is less than what occurred in 2007, and from 2004 to 2012 deforestation dropped by 70%.

Lightning strikes cause “natural” fires, but not these types. The majority of fires burning are a result of “slash-and-burn” farming.  In this type of farming, vegetation is burned and fields are cleared. Then farming and grazing begins. This farming or grazing can only last few years until the soil is depleted. People then move on to another field and the cycle begins again. The Brazilians call this process the “queimada” or burning.

Slash-and-burn farming clears forest land and already-existing farmland. It can sustain itself with small numbers of humans present. As those numbers increase, it ceases to be sustainable.

According to the New York Times, most, but not all, of the fires in Brazil are occurring in already-existing farmland. An unknown number of these farmland fires are spreading to adjoining forests. An unknown amount of forest land is burning to clear it for farming or grazing.

Several other important facts that have been left out of much the reporting is that 80% of the Amazon rainforest remains, and at least half of that is protected under current federal Brazilian law. Presently about 18-20% of the rainforest is at greatest risk of being deforested.

The last functioning “lung?”

Some reports have suggested that the Amazon rainforest as the “lungs of the planet”; but many some see this personification flawed.

According to Dan Nepstad in NPR interview with Audie Cornish on these claims,

“That’s a little misleading. There’s a lot of big, old trees, and they respire a lot. Just like people have to breathe in oxygen, those tree trunks also have to breathe in oxygen, and all of that dead wood, as it rots, is taking up oxygen- much better to focus on the Amazon as a cooling system for the planet. You know, really, every time a little droplet of water leaves a leaf and goes into vapor, it’s absorbing energy and it’s cooling things down. And the Amazon is so big that if we lose it, it’s going to change the way air and energy move around the planet, and that means our climate will change. For me, that’s something that really ties us to the health of the Amazon wherever we are on the planet.

Nepstad is the president and founder of the Earth Innovation Institute, who is one of the world’s leading experts and has studied the Amazon for more than 30 years. He was also a lead author of a recent Assessment Report of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report.

His assessment is that is difficult to know from satellite imagery how much of the Amazon rainforest is actually burning. Satellites can only pick up smoke that makes it up through the canopy and into the atmosphere. The majority of fires are either out in the open or occurring in already damaged areas of forests–like those that have subjected to slash-and-burn methods of clearing.

Fire detection from MODIS between 15 August 2019 and 22 August 2019 – Image credit: NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens, using MODIS data (public domain)


But that assessment does not mean that things are not serious. The Amazon rainforest is the largest remaining virgin forest on the planet. Six hundred years ago, the Eastern Woodlands of the US were heavily forested and comprised a “lung” for the planet. Two to three thousand years ago, Northern Europe still possessed large virgin woodlands and yet another “lung.” Other large virgin forests covered other parts of the planet. “Progress” depended upon clearing all these forests.

The BBC reported that Brazilian farmers feel that people are asking them to remain in a state of poverty and arrested development. Other countries have already cleared their forests. Vanderley Wegner stated, “We have to develop the Amazon. More than four million people live here, and they need development too, it’s a constitutional right of every Brazilian citizen.”

Farmers long ago destroyed those other “lungs” to make the US and Europe wealthy and powerful. That power allowed the global North to conquer the global South. Once in control, the North developed the South to benefit the North.

That legacy of imperialism informs a real debate about climate change. People from the global South argue with the global North about who should pay to fix the problem. The global North has produced the carbon currently in the atmosphere. The global south fears that efforts to limit their carbon use will condemn them to eternal poverty and backwardness.

Brazil and Bolivia

The emerging economic powerhouse, Brazil, already has the largest share of wealth in Latin America. Bolivia ranks as the second poorest country in Latin America.

Brazil had a left-of-center government from 2002 to 2016. During this time, it had rapid economic growth and protected the Amazon rainforest. Brazil became a model for growth with environmental protection. In 2014, Brazil entered a recession. It has yet to emerge from that recession. Evidence of corruption began to mount. The combination of factors led to Jair Bolsonaro’s electoral victory.

During his right-populist campaign, Bolsonaro argued that environmental and indigenous protections obstructed economic growth. He has charged that the Paris environmental accords threaten Brazil’s sovereignty. Bolsonaro has cut the funding for Brazil’s environmental ministry by 25%. Since he took office, enforcement of environmental regulations has dropped by 20%.

Bolsonaro has accused also accused NGOs of starting the fires to bring shame to Brazil. There is no evidence to support that statement.

Some people have called him, “The Trump of the Tropics.” He calls himself “Captain Chainsaw.”

In Bolivia, meanwhile, Evo Morales who is a left-populist, has been a somewhat eco-friendly, President. In 2010, Bolivia passed a law that gave rights to all living beings. In this period, Bolivia has seen economic growth, decreased inequality, and balanced budgets. Morales’ political base lies with poor farmers. As a result, he has engaged in a policy of giving land to poor farmers.

The poverty of rural peasants, in both countries, has driven the opening up of land for farming and ranching. That opening up has increased deforestation and the progress of climate change.

Bolsonaro has used right-populist nationalism to justify his actions against the environment. According to the New York Times, Bolsonaro has referred to concern about the Amazon as “environmental psychosis.” Echoing concerns about colonialism, he also told a group of international reporters, “The Amazon is ours, not yours.”

The last few days

At first, Bolsonaro has claimed that Brazil lacked the resources to fight the fires. On August 23, Bolsonaro announced plans to mobilize the army to fight Brazil’s fires.

In an interview with Michael Shellenberger, for Forbes Magazine, “I don’t mind the media frenzy as long as it leaves something positive,” said Nepstad, but it has instead forced the Brazilian government to over-react. “Sending in the army is not the way to go because it’s not all illegal actors. People forget that there are legitimate reasons for small farmers to use controlled burns to knock back insects and pests.”

According to the New York Times, The G7 proposed a $22 billion aid package to help pay for fighting the fires in the Amazon. In a Tweetstorm on August 27, Bolsonaro rejected the offer and accused Emmanuel Macron of France of insulting him. On August 28, Bolsonaro spoke to reporters about his conditions for accepting $22 billion in aid. These conditions include Macron withdrawing his “insults” and acknowledgment of Brazilian sovereignty over the Amazon rainforest.

For many, spiritual concern is palpable and parallels the real concern of the damage the Earth is experiencing. NASA has posted an animation of the spread of carbon monoxide from August 8 through August 22. The color red indicates more carbon monoxide.

Beyond spiritual actions such a the Ritual for the Healing and Preservation of the Rainforests written by the late Michael Thorn, the website, CNET, describes some material actions to help:

Donate to Rainforest Action Network to protect an acre of the Amazonian rainforest.

Donate to the Rainforest Trust to help buy land in the rainforest. Since 1988, the organization has saved over 23 million acres.

Reduce your paper and wood consumption. Double-check with Rainforest Alliance that what you’re buying is considered rainforest-safe. You can also purchase rainforest-safe products from the alliance’s site.

Reduce your beef intake. Beef found in processed products and fast-food burgers is often linked to deforestation.

The World Wide Fund for Nature (known as the World Wildlife Fund in the US and Canada) works to protect the species in the Amazon and around the world. is a search engine that plants a tree for every 45 searches you run.

Donate to Amazon Watch, an organization that protects the rainforest, defends Indigenous rights and works to address climate change.

Donate to the Amazon Conservation Team, which works to fight climate change, protect the Amazon and empower Indigenous peoples.

Amazon Conservation accepts donations and lists exactly what your money goes toward. You can help plant trees, sponsor education, protect habitats, buy a solar panel, preserve Indigenous lands and more.

Contact your elected officials and make your voice heard.

Donate to One Tree Planted, which works to stop deforestation around the world and in the Amazon rainforest. One Tree Planted will keep you updated on the Peru Project and the impact your trees are having on the community.

Sign Greenpeace’s petition telling the Brazilian government to save the Amazon rainforest and protect the lands of indigenous and traditional communities.