This year has had plenty of curveballs to throw at all of us. Global attention is focused on mitigating the spread of COVID-19, a pandemic we know to be intimately connected to biodiversity and habitat loss. Already a complex situation, things are made more complicated by the upcoming fire season in South America.
This year poses a much higher fire risk (1) than other years throughout most of South America, according to research funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. The devastation of the fire season each year impacts human lives, the economy, and the environment. And it seems that this year’s fires will top records. Earlier this year, the world banded together during the Australian wildfires. Now it is time for us to come together again to protect the Amazon, as occurred for a short period in 2019 when news of the Amazon fires hit mainstream media and for a short time held the world’s attention.
Wildfires aren’t unique to South America. Many U.S. states are currently entering peak fire season as well, with increased vulnerability to large, destructive fires. In particular, the American West, Pacific Northwest, and Southwest (2) are in danger. States like California, Nevada, and Arizona face extremely high risk. As of August 3rd, 48 large fires (3) burned across eleven states, affecting more than 235,000 acres.
The ongoing global impact of COVID-19 in combination with a particularly devastating fire season presents unique challenges. Social distancing and economic downturn leave the world with limited resources and human capital available to respond to fire emergencies. Another challenge is that the air pollution caused by fires increases the threat posed by the current pandemic. Because COVID-19 affects the lungs, in areas near the fires people can experience symptoms that are much more severe. However, healthcare systems and providers are already strapped thin due to COVID-19, and those individuals may not be able to get the care needed.
This problem, present in the United States, is amplified in South America and the Amazon (4). Many clinics in the Amazon region, if they exist, are already at their limit. For example, Peru is struggling to cope with COVID-19 due to a healthcare system that has “at least 30 years” of underinvestment (5). Rainforest Partnership’s partner community of Corosha, for instance, did not have access to essential healthcare supplies, including masks. We worked alongside Edwar Guvin Fernandez, president of the community, to distribute these materials to families. But that is a small fix, at best.
This satellite photo (6) of South America shows the 2019 wildfires from space — it is particularly heartrending considering the loss of biodiversity and the untold impacts on human and other ecosystems. Furthermore, in South America many fires are started as a tool for deforestation. Both small farmers and large agribusiness operations clear land using fire. During fire season, these types of fires pose a particularly strong threat due to the possibility of them growing out of control, not to mention the accompanying destruction of the world’s vital rainforests and the homes of indigenous peoples.
As COVID-19 cases in North and South America climb, fire season poses an incredible and overwhelming threat that should not be understated. For the Amazon in particular, it is a brewing catastrophe that will lead to permanent ecological damage and human loss.
Rainforest Partnership is devoted to protecting the world’s rainforests by working directly with indigenous and local rainforest communities. Even while working remotely, we have continued to impact the Amazonian rainforest and the Tropical Andes and the communities that live there. There is certainly hope, but action must be taken: join us (7) in protecting the Amazon from the threat of this year’s fire season.