It’s November 2020 and I’m running for my life. I’m in the center of the fires that are snarling across what used to be the Amazon Rainforest. On assignment for Age of Union, I’m with conservation photographer Mohsin Kazmi; our mission—to document the unseen destruction. But suddenly I can’t see Mohsin, or a way out. For a long moment I’m just tripping over charred trees and squinting against the black ashes that swirl through the smoke-choked air. I raise my camera only to realize that it has stopped working. It’s simply too hot. The heat is murderous. A sudden explosion and I cover my head with my arms. I duck, but don’t go down fully (because if I do I’ll be burned alive). I need to get out of there. A second blast, as boiling sap explodes out of an ancient tree, sending wood shards ripping through the air. The sixty-foot wall of flames roars through the forest as branches flail and leaves are swept upwards with the black glut of smoke that is now blotting out the sun. As my vision blurs and my lungs burn, I run through the ash, suddenly unsure of how to escape the blackened hellscape I am in.
In 2019, news of the Amazon fires made international headlines. Smoke from the burning Brazilian Amazon swept over Sao Paulo and the apocalyptic images went viral. For a few weeks, everyone was talking about it. But then the news cycle moved on. What the news doesn’t report is that humans have been burning the Amazon at alarming rates for over thirty years now and the loss of old-growth forest is weakening the ability of the Amazon to function as a rainforest. The fires of 2019 got the coverage, but the fires in 2020 were worse.
In the Amazon, forests are cut at the end of the rainy season and left to dry in the scorching tropical sun. In the dry season, they are burned to create farms and cattle pasture. This week a new study in the science journal Nature reports that the Amazon is now emitting more carbon than it captures.
Last year while the world grappled with COVID19, human-generated deforestation caused Brazil to lose 390 acres of forest per hour. That’s an area half the size of New York City’s Central Park. In May of this year, the rates increased by 67%. Under Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s current president, deforestation rates have been higher than any period.
Everything in the rainforest is connected. The great Brazil nut trees depend on small rodents to open their high-calorie seed pods, and specialized orchid bees to pollinate their flowers. Frog tadpoles and dragonfly larvae regulate the mosquito populations through predation in the standing water. Each day the expansive foliage of the great jungle breathes out the moisture that forms the afternoon thunderclouds that rain back down to become the rivers. The vastness of the interconnectedness of the Amazonian living matrix could fill libraries—and is still being uncovered by scientists. But what we do know, plain and simple, is that the system depends on a trillion tiny interconnections to function. And that the continued clearing of this intricate web of life is causing a drying effect that could, soon, weaken the moisture cycle to such an extent that the system breaks.
When discussing the plight of Amazonia, it is difficult to describe how crucial this forest is. It’s difficult to quantify the importance of such a monstrous biome because its value transcends geography, economy, and time. We know that as one of the greatest physical features on our planet, the Amazon has a profound impact on regulating global climate and weather. It holds superlative numbers of plant and animal species, virtually unlimited resources, and thousands of medicinal compounds. It is home to hundreds of indigenous cultures—people whose knowledge, wisdom, language, and spirituality are inextricably braided to the animals, forest, and rivers.
Until now, the discussion of a ‘tipping point’ for the Amazon has been a projection. Something in the future. But that future is upon us. Now that parts of the Amazon are emitting more carbon than they capture, we are confronted with the certainty that this is the calling of our time. We are learning the global significance of this forest. It is not a faraway issue playing out in some remote wilderness. Whether you live in Los Angeles, New York, Bangalore or Tokyo, the health and stability of your reality is provided in part by the Amazon. These forests are something we all depend on.
Surrounded in the flames of burning forest this November, Mohsin and I witnessed the dismantling of the Amazon firsthand. We made it out of the fires as the sun went down. The earth was little more than smoldering embers and blackened wreckage. There was nothing left. Nothing, save for a renewed resolve to solve this problem.
Although the news of destruction can be disconcerting, there is still hope. If we were to halt deforestation now, the Amazon could still bounce back. It’s a tall order. It seems almost impossible. But in its most simple form, the problem we face is incredibly straightforward. All we have to do is not cut down trees. The socio-political drivers of deforestation are complex, but in their essence require us to help others to have a standard of life that allows them to seek a better way to live. To remember that we are all connected, just as everything in nature is connected. At this moment scientists, students, indigenous activists, and artists are working to protect the irreplaceable biodiversity of Amazonia. It’s not just a Brazilian problem, it’s a global one. For that reason, United States President Joe Biden has held meetings with Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro in the hopes of halting the rampant deforestation that has persisted in recent years.
This June, Age of Union founder Dax Dasilva and I walked through another burning field where the forest had once stood. In the startling light and powerful heat, we walked amongst the wreckage discussing the future. We spoke with the people who were hoping to build farms where the forest had been. We rescued a young boa constrictor which we relocated to safety. We released it in a place surrounded by lush vibrant forest, where it would be safe and could grow to be the massive, legendary predator we all know. As the young snake slithered up the vines of an ancient strangler-fig, macaw flew overhead—the air teemed with life. In spite of the destruction we had seen, it was a reminder that there are still places teeming with color and covered in life. That there are still things very much worth saving.
Paul Rosolie is an American conservationist and author. His 2014 memoir, Mother of God, detailed his work in the Amazon rainforest in southeastern Peru.
Photi #1, #2, #3, #8: by Mohsin Kazmi
Photo #5: "Kapok" – Dax Dasilva and indigenous conservationist Juan Julio Durand marveling at one of the millennium trees, the mother of the forest: the kapok tree.
Photo #6: "Rescued boa constrictor" – Boa constrictors are one of the most iconic, and massive snakes on earth. This little snake was only a few months old when her forest was burned, but being released back into the primary forest she will have the chance to live, grow, and become the symbol of Amazonia her species represents.
Photo #9: "Dax and Paul" by Sterling Bennett – Age of Union founder Dax Dasilva and Paul Rosolie walking through the still smoldering wreckage of newly cleared forest.
Photo #10: "Sunset over the Amazon" by Sterling Bennett