As the fires ravaging Brazil’s Amazon stoke global outrage, its neighbors are also scorching, ripping up and poisoning their forests — largely under the radar.
Bolivia and Peru have seen faster growth in the number of fires this year than Brazil, as illegal miners, ranchers and cocaine producers continue to wreak havoc.
The 2.5 million square-mile Amazon is being attacked on all sides, with fires claiming an area equivalent to dozens of soccer pitches every hour in Brazil alone. At the deforestation rates seen in recent years, the whole forest will lose an area about the size of Virginia over the next decade according to Michael T. Coe, senior scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center.
That’s endangering an ecosystem that not only hosts a vast and largely unknown share of the world’s biodiversity but also helps regulate the continent’s climate.
Fires have multiplied in Brazil as loggers and farmers, emboldened by President Jair Bolsonaro’s disdain for environmental oversight, set ablaze land cleared earlier this year. Countries like Colombia, Peru and Bolivia aren’t encouraging deforestation, but lack the resources and political will to enforce existing regulations, according to Carolina Gil, an attorney for environmental protection group Amazon Conservation.
“The current crisis in Brazil is just the tip of the iceberg,” Gil said.
Continued destruction threatens to turn dense forests into scrub-land covered in shrubs and weeds, she added, wrecking a region which provides a home to tens of thousands of animal and plant species, and roughly one-fifth of the world’s fresh water.
Colombia, which has the largest swath of the Amazon after Brazil and Peru, lost 530,400 acres (215,000 hectares) of the rainforest in 2017, according to satellite data monitored by Amazon Conservation. Brazil, which has about six times as much of the jungle, has been losing about 1.58 million acres a year.
Meanwhile, cultivation of coca plants, the raw material for cocaine, more than quadrupled in Colombia between 2012 and 2017. Farmers often slash down forest in national parks to plant illegal crops in remote parts of the country where the government’s presence is weak or non-existent.
Mercury used by informal gold miners also continually seeps into the rivers in Colombia’s Amazon, poisoning fish.
Colombia’s environment ministry didn’t reply to a written request for comment.
Brazil has experienced more than 83,000 fires so far this year, up 77% from the same period last year, according to the country’s National Institute for Space Research, known as Inpe. Meanwhile, Bolivia and Peru have seen their number of fires roughly double during the same period.
In Bolivia, where nearly 19,000 fires have destroyed more than 1 million acres of forest this year, left-wing President Evo Morales has mobilized firefighters and used a Boeing 747 Supertanker to fight the blazes.
Bolivia’s environment ministry and presidential press office did not return phone calls and emails seeking comment. Morales on Sunday said he was open to international help to put out fires and called for a summit between countries that make up the Amazon to “coordinate immediate actions and long-term plans,” according to a statement.
Peru’s environment ministry didn’t reply to an email seeking comment.
Brazil’s neighbors don’t share Bolsonaro’s belligerence, or hostility to environmental protection, but their record isn’t much better, said Rodrigo Botero, director for the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development in Colombia.
“You can see across the region that the pressures in countries like Bolivia, which is suffering huge losses, or Paraguay are the same as in Brazil,” he said. “It’s not a question of left or right.”
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