The great nonfire of the Amazon

You probably have heard about the Amazon rainforest in the last two years on mainstream media. The news in 2019 is the same in 2020 – that this great forest is burning, and the Brazilian government has done nothing to stop it. However, this is not an accurate take on reality.

The first thing is the amount of people in the forest. The news talks about the Amazon as if it was a huge Garden of Eden, composed mostly of tall trees, exotic birds and maybe one or two native tribes taking care of them, as guardians of mother nature. However, more than 25 million people live in the Amazon (and that is only the Brazilian part of it). These people do not live in huts – 80 per cent live in cities, like Manaus, which happens to have 2 million inhabitants. These people need hospitals, schools, jobs… We cannot treat them as if they were animals in a zoo.

When politicians like French president Emanuel Macron raise debates about “giving the Amazon protected international status,” like he did in 2019, what does he propose to do with the 25 million Brazilians who live in the forest? The Amazon is not a painting to be preserved in a museum – it has millions of actual people living there, and maybe they do not want to be lumped in with the damaging stereotype of natives in a hut.

The Brazilian National Secretary for Native’s health, Silvia Waiapi (who is of indigenous origin), is a voice for many Amazon inhabitants who want progress for their regions. She said in an interview last year: “[I want] Native Americans to be the authors of their own lives. I do not want them to depend on other people or NGOs telling them what the best way to live their own lives is (…) Why should I be condemned to live the rest of my life cold and hungry in the middle of the forest because I am a native? Since I am indigenous, does it mean I do not have the right to study? Does it mean I do not have the right to develop?”

Secondly, you probably do not hear the comparison of the number of fires in the forest in recent years to the historical average. For the past two years, the news has been the same: the Amazon rainforest is on fire. Two years ago, Bolsonaro formed the first Brazilian right-wing government in decades. It is only since then, the media has truly been “interested” in the Amazon.

The truth is every year the forest has fires and this has not changed since Bolsonaro took over. If we look at the official statistics, the month of August in 2019 and 2020 had nearly half the number of fires which compared to the same month in 2010, 2007 or 2005 (90 thousand fires, against 50 thousand). The total number of fires in 2019 were below the average for the past 20 years. Despite that, media continues to make a huge fuss about “the Amazon burning” – and ignoring the data demonstrating a clear improvement.

Every time the Amazon rainforest is in the news, these two key facts are omitted. The media never consider the real needs of 25 million Brazilians living within the forest, nor do they talk about the true scale of the fires happening there. It seems some politicians and journalists are simply not interested in the real Amazon beyond it being part of a convenient and inaccurate political point.

They defend a stereotype they have in their minds, that can help them achieve their political goals. For instance, a trade deal which has taken 20 years to negotiate was about to be signed between the EU and Mercosur last year, when France decided to block it; blaming the state of the Amazon. The Amazon has become an easy and unquestioned subject to justify any position – as people are too concerned with image to actually look at the facts.

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