Who will save the Amazon and Aarey forests?

Will our forests regrow? Here’s what the raging fires across the globe mean for our environment

Updated - September 07, 2019 11:49 am IST

Published - September 07, 2019 11:46 am IST

Our forests are burning. From the raging fires in the Amazon rainforest to the fires at the Bandipur National Park in February this year, the continuing loss of forest cover globally is putting over 70% of the world’s forests at risk of total degradation. The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification’s (UNCCD) Global Land Outlook report that was released on September 6 reveals that the many many tropical forests undergoing deforestation a few decades ago, have now virtually disappeared.

Topping the list of the report’s 11 ‘deforestation fronts’ — areas prone to permanent forest loss or severe damage between 2015 and 2030 — is the Amazon (downtoearth.org).

While urbanisation can be curtailed only to an extent, what our governments and industrial leaders can do is work towards a sustainable growth plan. Creating protected areas and respecting them, acknowledging local communities and their livelihoods, and putting the environment over commercial/industrial interests will be the key.

Read on to know more about the Amazon rainforest fires, how India loses ₹1,176 crore a year to forest fires and what this means for the planet.

Although governments across the world have put in place measures to reduce deforestation, primary rainforest loss hit record highs in 2016 and 2017 due to fires and remained above historical levels in 2018.

As Mumbaikars protest the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation’s (BMC) decision to cut down over 2,700 trees of the city’s pristine Aarey forest for the Metro Rail project, in Canada, citizens have crowd-funded $3 million to save a stretch of coastal wilderness.

The 2,000 acre coastline in the Princess Louisa Inlet in British Columbia was at risk of being taken over by private companies when B.C. Parks Foundation, a non-profit group, spearheaded the campaign. A great example and a stark reminder of how it’s time we, as citizens, took control of our environment.

If we look at the ongoing fires in the Amazon rainforest, data from NASA reveals that Brazil has had 39% more fires between January and August 2019 than in the same period in 2018. However, the years with the most fires recorded were primarily in the early 2000s, probably linked to a high rate of agriculture-related deforestation in the Amazon at that time (globalforestwatch.org). But the states that have been hit the hardest this August are located in the Amazon region, where natural fires are rare. The conclusion? The fires we’re witnessing today are typically the result of human activity. Reasons range from previous deforestation to burning of cropland and pastures, to name a few.

As researchers are now debating the resilience of the world’s rainforests (some now argue that as long as certain remnants such as seeds are left behind after a fire, tropical forests can grow back at great speed), it’s crucial we look at the ecological significance of the world’s green cover rather than take for granted its revival capacity. The tropics lost 12 million hectares of tree cover in 2018, the fourth-highest annual loss since record-keeping began in 2001, says a report from the University of Maryland. The greatest concern is the disappearance of 3.6 million hectares (the size of Belgium) of primary rainforest, crucial for forest ecosystems that contain trees over a thousand years old.

The report states: ‘They store more carbon than other forests and are irreplaceable when it comes to sustaining biodiversity. Primary rainforests provide habitat for animals... once these forests are cut down, they may never return to their original state.’ (wri.org). Add to this the scores of communities who depend on forests for survival, and the statistics go through the roof.

Cut to India: As per the State of the Environment Report, 2019, between 2001 and 2018, India lost 1.67Mha of tree cover (a 4.3% decrease since 2000). The country loses ₹1,176 crore a year to forest fires but a meagre ₹45-50 crore is allocated per annum under the Forest Fire Prevention and Management Fund. This April, the country’s latest forest fire monitoring and alert system, SNPP-VIIRS, recorded 69,523 forest fires (9.5 times more than that recorded by the earlier technology).

Between January and February this year, 209 out of 558 forest fires occurred in the five southern States — Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Telangana and Kerala. Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka recorded a 217% to 401% increase in incidences but spent only 60% of the funds meant to contain fires. The above picture was taken post the forest fire near Karungali village near Kurumbapatti in Tamil Nadu’s Salem district in March 2019.

Although governments across the world have put in place measures to reduce deforestation, primary rainforest loss hit record highs in 2016 and 2017 due to fires and remained above historical levels in 2018.
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