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Amazon Fires: Problem? Yes. Unprecedented? Hardly.

The ancient rainforest hasn’t been around quite as long as many people think.

According to recent reports, a whopping 9,000 fires are raging in the Amazon rainforest. It is described by many as a crisis and it is believed that the jungle may be in danger of eradication. However, while the situation is no doubt precarious, it is not unprecedented. Despite headlines declaring this a record number of blazes, it’s actually not much higher than the average. Beyond that, according to recent research, the rainforest is not as ancient as people believe.

Climate scientists have warned that the fires may jeopardize the fight against global warming by releasing precarious amounts of biologically stored CO2 into the atmosphere. The observational data do not support this conclusion, however.  The earth is gobbling up more CO2 than ever.

French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted that “our house is burning,” thereby capturing the sentiment of many European leaders. Now that Brazil has a conservative president, many Western nations find it opportune to criticize the leadership of a poor developing country. President Jair Bolsonaro has responded to this crisis by announcing the deployment of military forces to combat the fires.

Not Unprecedented

Despite the recent claims that there has never been as many fires in the Amazon as in 2019, the truth is that the number is not much higher than the average, and 2005 had the same amount of fires in the Brazilian rainforest. The main new factor that separates 2019 from other years is that Brazil no longer is governed by a socialist.

Not Ancient

The standard narrative told in the West is that the tropical rainforests are genuinely ancient, millions of years old. While that may be true for some areas, it certainly is not the case for large swaths of the Amazon. One consequence of the fires and deforestation is that they uncover earthworks and other signs of human settlements that were previously covered by the canopy. These ancient traces of humanity show that, only a few thousand years ago, humans lived in deforested areas that have since regrown.

This surprising fact may explain why so many of the plants found in the jungle are horticultural and agricultural species. At one time, the Amazon may have been a giant garden.

Recently, scientists have used a type of laser technology (LiDAR) to “see” beneath the canopy of the jungle in Guatemala and uncovered large Mayan cities. A similar LiDAR study has not yet been performed in the Amazon, but a team of scientists found that between 500,000 and 1,000,000 people lived in an area covering only 7% of the Amazon basin. That is a shockingly high number, and it means that the tropical region could have been home to millions more in the past. The University of Exeter archaeologist who co-authored the study, José Iriarte, said that “we need to re-evaluate the history of the Amazon.”

The jungle may not be as ancient as we thought. The implication is that, on a larger time scale, the trees that impoverished victims of socialism are now cutting down may be part of a large cycle of waxing and waning human civilization.


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