Ashes and sawdust from the Amazon to Australia and a list of culpable entities

Alessandra Monticelli
Photo by Marcus Kauffman on Unsplash
Published on January 18, 2020

At the dawn of 2020 humanity must endeavor to break a vicious cycle that is leading to a cataclysmic changing of the earth as we know it. Since the beginning of 2019 the world’s largest forests, which normally help to balance the earth’s CO₂ and greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere by storing them in vegetation and soil, are being decimated by uncontrollable blazes and processes of deforestation. Due to their immense dimensions, the Amazon rainforest, the Cerrado tropical savannah, and the Australian forests, among others, have been playing key roles in regulating the level of CO₂ globally, but their integrity is now compromised, and their environmental contribution can no longer be guaranteed in helping to keep our planet livable.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United NationsFAO, a forest is a “land spanning more than 0.5 hectares with trees higher than 5 meters and a canopy cover of more than 10 percent, or trees able to reach these thresholds in situ. It does not include land that is predominantly under agricultural or urban land use.” (FAO, 2010). According to this definition, in 1990 the world’s forest cover was 4128 million hectares or 31.6% of the world’s land area; this number had decreased to 3999 million hectares by 2015, with a total loss of 3% of the global forests area. In August 2019 the forest fires burning through the Amazon reached their peak. Generally, forests experience such episodes in the summer and in the dry season (from July to October), and they can occur because of both natural events and because of human activities. Last year, these fires were most likely initially set by farmers, with the intention of clearing their own farmland by burning the remaining crop residue after harvest, which subsequently grew out of control.

The 2019 Amazon fires burned an estimated 900 thousand hectares of forested land. Despite the practice of stubble/crop residue burning having been largely criticized, it is still a common practice in many places and has become much more dangerous due to the volatile conditions caused by global warming and climate change. Moreover, even though the Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro had ordered a halt on the burning of any part of the Amazon for 60 days last summer, no measures were taken against deforestation or logging enterprises. Consulting the web portal TerraBrasilis, the online platform of the Brazilian National Institute of Space Research (INPE), the current area of the legal Amazon deforestation from 2015 to January 2020 corresponds to 25848,09 square km. This data does not correspond with the data collected by the non-governmental Amazon Environmental Institute of research, (IPAM), which declared that the rate of square km already deforested might be even 30% more than estimated, referring to the period of January – September 2019. 

Disappearing even faster is the ecoregion of Cerrado, which the World Wildlife Federation (WWF) declared to be the most biodiverse tropical savanna in the world. Its endemism, namely the animal and plant species that are not to be found anywhere else in the world, is being destroyed more rapidly than the Amazon forest. Half of the territory has been transformed into farms for soy cultivation. Considering this and the above-mentioned FAO’s definition of forest, humans may have already destroyed one of the most diverse forests in the world. 

The irreparable damage caused by deforestation and forest fires impacts the unique biodiversity present in forests such as the Amazon, Cerrado and many other of the world’s environments that experience similar catastrophic events. Additionally, the more forests that are burning, the more CO₂ is being dumped into the atmosphere, and the fewer trees we have, the fewer CO₂ can be naturally stored. In some extreme cases, such as the current Australian emergency, the clouds produced by the smoke of the bushfires are generating their own meteorological phenomena. Thunderstorms and lightning are stoking the fires, and it seems that no human action is able to stop this drama. 

According to Geoscience Australia “the basic factors which determine whether a bushfire will occur include the presence of fuel, oxygen, and an ignition source. The fire intensity and speed at which a bushfire spreads will depend on ambient temperature, fuel load, fuel moisture, wind speed, and slope angle.” In this context ‘fuel’ means “the amount of fallen bark, leaf litter, and small branches accumulating in the landscape.” Bushfires and grassfires are natural events, which can become unmanageable by the worsening climate conditions, namely drought and increased heat. “The higher the temperature, the more likely it is that a fire will start or continue to burn. This is because the fuel is closer to its ignition point at high temperatures and pre-heated fuel loads burn faster.”(Geoscience Australia.) Temperatures in Australia reaching upwards of 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit), low rainfall, and strong winds resulted in 8.4 million acres being burned and 1 billion animals dead, according to the latest WWF estimates of January 8th.

Nonetheless, despite other such calamities occurring in Australia in the past, the current situation is strikingly extreme and can be directly correlated to the negligent policies of the Australian government. In fact, Australia has one of the highest emission rates of greenhouse gases per capita and prime minister Morrison has been harshly criticized for his recklessness towards the ongoing climate emergency.  In addition to that, Australian police have taken legal action against 183 people who deliberately set fires or acted negligently and contributed to the current catastrophe.

The parties responsible for the climate crisis and environmental exploitation are not unknown. The first three banks and financial institutions that bear responsibility are JP Morgan Chase, Wells Fargo, and Citi. In 2019 each of these companies respectively invested $195.66, $151.60, and $129.49 billion dollars in oil extraction companies, which cause deforestation, landscape disturbance, pollution, disease and death of indigenous peoples who may live near such extraction sites. In the Ecuadorian region of the Amazon basin, the oil drilling company Texaco is most responsible for threatening the ecosystem, according to the WWF. The Camisea Gas Project of Peru is threatening the Amazon region of the Urubamba valley, and Bunge, Granol, and Cargill are the top three companies processing and producing soy in the Cerrado savannah. On a global scale, ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, and Chevron have been declared the investor-owned companies most responsible for greenhouse gases emissions. Some of the other top ten companies which directly produced 71% of greenhouse gases between 1988 to 2015 are China Coal 14.3 %, Saudi Aramco 4.5%, Gazprom OAO 3.9 %, National Iranian Oil Co 2.3 %, ExxonMobil Corp 2.0 %, Coal India 1.9 %, Petróleos Mexicanos 1.9 %, Russia Coal 1.9 %, Royal Dutch Shell PLC 1.7 %, China National Petroleum Corp 1.6 % according to the Carbon Majors Database report of 2017.

When analyzing these environmental crises one cannot afford to overlook the huge negative impact these corporations have on our environments, many of whom are well known for irresponsibly dumping pollution in the form of plastic waste and toxic chemical byproducts all across the globe. Hence, it is worthwhile here to slightly shift our attention to a couple of lines from the main topic of rampant forest fires and deforestation.  According to a Greenpeace report, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestlé, Danone, Mondelez International, Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Perfetti van Melle, Mars Incorporated, and Colgate-Palmolive are the top ten on the list of hundreds of companies liable for millions of tons of plastic garbage that is literally poisoning oceans, killing animals and damaging entire ecosystems. 

Disheartening as this may seem, these big brand names should not intimidate us. We must not forget that these ‘faceless’ corporations are actually run by greedy human beings who actively profit from such negligence. These CEO’s, managers, and executives regularly utilize their power to influence governmental decisions and policies, but rarely for the environmental or common good. Decision-makers fall back on the excuse that shifting production systems, economic models, and re-imagining the global economic market towards green and sustainable solutions is a long process. Action must be taken now.

Those individuals who are responsible for profiting off the suffering of others and our planet must be held accountable for their actions. Additionally, we all must reflect on our own actions and environmental footprints, in order to reduce the per capita impact of our global civilization on climate change. We all must take stock of what we do now and what we can do better, from the farmer who sets up the fire to burn their crops because they cannot afford the proper farm equipment to do it safely, to the insatiable consumers in the “First World”, to the big bosses of the corporations who can do more irreversible environmental harm in a single day than any individual could in their lifetime. All of us have a responsibility towards our planet. We must seek to cultivate a regenerative culture, which can adapt and readapt our ways of living on this planet without exploiting it. Our current culture teaches us to pursue profit and luxury at the expense of all else, but we will need to drastically reorganize our priorities if we are to continue relying on this planet as our home.

Start with just one experiment and reflect on this: search for ‘Amazon’ on your internet browser. Why is an online marketplace the first result to appear instead of the Amazon rainforest?  

Bibliography:

Bureau of Meteorology Australia, http://www.bom.gov.au/ 

Comparative framework and Options for harmonization of definitions, FAO. Access Data:
http://www.fao.org/3/Y4171E/Y4171E10.htm

Conservation International, Access Data: https://www.conservation.org/priorities/biodiversity-hotspots

Dynamics of global forest area: Results from the FAO Global Forest Resources Assessment 2015, 2015.
Access Data:https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0378112715003400?via%3Dihub

Geoscience Australia, https://www.ga.gov.au/scientific-topics/community-safety/bushfire\

Global Forest Resources Assessment, 2010, Access Data:
http://www.fao.org/forestry/fra/fra2010/en/

Global Forest Resources Assessment Country Report Australia, 2010, Access Data: http://www.fao.org/3/al448E/al448E.pd

Hughes, Roland, “Amazon Fires: What’s the latest in Brazil?”, 12 October 2019. Access Data: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-49971563 

Neway, Sarah, “Australia is burning but why are bushfires so bad?”, 3 January 2020. Access Data:
https://www.telegraph.co.uk/global-health/climate-and-people/australia-burning-bushfires-bad/

Oil and gas extraction in the Amazon, Access Data: https://wwf.panda.org/knowledge_hub/where_we_work/amazon/amazon_threats/other_threats/oil_and_gas_extraction_amazon/

Ortolani, Giovanni “Brazilian hunger for meat fattened on soy is deforesting the Cerrado: report”, 16 January 2019. Access Data: https://news.mongabay.com/2019/01/brazilian-hunger-for-meat-fattened-on-soy-is-deforesting-the-cerrado-report/ 

The State of the World’s forests, FAO, 2018. Access Data: http://www.fao.org/state-of-forests/en/

Terra Brasilis Deter Notices. Access Data: http://terrabrasilis.dpi.inpe.br/app/dashboard/alerts/legal/amazon/aggregated/

Rainforest Action Network, “Banking on Climate Change”, 2019. Access Data: https://www.ran.org/bankingonclimatechange2019/

Riley, Thess, “ Just 100 companies investors responsible for 71% of emissions, study says.”, 10 Jan 2017. Access Data: https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2017/jul/10/100-fossil-fuel-companies-investors-responsible-71-global-emissions-cdp-study-climate-change

Rawsthorne, Sally, “Legal action taken against 183 people this bushfire season”, 6 January 2020. Access Data: https://www.smh.com.au/national/nsw-fires-legal-action-taken-against-183-people-this-bushfire-season-20200106-p53p97.html

Schleeter, Ryan, “These 10 companies are flooding the planet with throwaway plastic”, 9 October 2018. Access Data: https://www.greenpeace.org/international/story/18876/these-10-companies-are-flooding-the-planet-with-throwaway-plastic/

Wahlquist, Calla, “ Australian Bushfires: the story so far of each state”, 2019. Access Data:
https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2019/dec/24/australian-bushfires-the-story-so-far-in-each-state

Reviewed by Zac Morgan
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