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Who will take the heat of the Amazon rainforest fire?

The Amazon fire is a reminder that unbridled development is not in consonance with ecological sustainability and, consequently, human well-being.

TYGER Tyger, burning bright, In the forests of the night; What immortal hand or eye, Could frame thy fearful symmetry? - The Tyger by William Blake. William Blake's (1757-1827) magnum opus, The Tyger, is an ode to the all powerful who created life on earth. In what is still among the most famous opening lines in English literature, Blake talked of the "fearful symmetry" of the perceived frightening predator.

A fearful prophecy

Dr Oliver Tearle construes the poem as raising the question that "… if God is all-loving, why did he make such a fearsome and dangerous animal"? Indeed, it hardly fits into the Christian narrative of 'All things bright and beautiful'. So, somewhere down the poem, Blake asks, "Did he who made the Lamb make thee?"Blake's literary mind was not bothered about the predator-prey relations that create the basis of conservation science. There is a need for the predator to exist in its "fearful symmetry" for the ecosystem to maintain its equilibrium. That is how conservation works organically. In that sense, the tiger is a "prudent predator", as it does so sustainably so that the prey base is not exhausted. The "prudence" in predation fails at the highest point of the food chain, marked by humans. Our predation of resources endowed by nature is not only denting the natural capital, but is making a negative impact on the flora and fauna that share a bi-directional, causal dependence with biodiversity.

The steady diminution in the number of tigers from forests due to land-use change completely disrupts the predator-prey relationship. This impacts ecosystem processes, structures, functions and services in the long run.

Lately, the outbreaks of fire in the Amazon rainforest have raised many eyebrows. There is a general feeling that land-use change around the forest areas, promoted by President Jair Bolsonaro's government in Brazil, is the main reason behind the increase in forest fires. It is a fact that his government has advocated for land-use change in the Amazon forest and clearing land for crops, cattle, mining, and timber.

Who are the biggest losers here? Of course, the indigenous communities who are largely dependent on the ecosystem services, especially the provisioning ones, from the Amazon! However, it is important that forest fires be understood in the right perspective. It is not that they are always caused by humans through crop-burning or related activities. Two myths need to be busted here: First, not all forest fires are man-made. Wildfires can occur naturally, either through lightening or volcanic eruptions. According to National Geographic, 10-15 per cent of wildfires have an organic origin, while 85-90 per cent cases have an anthropogenic origin, like camp fires, crop burning, etc. Second, it must be noted that naturally occurring wildfires are an integral component of forest ecosystem processes, and provide some critical supporting and regulating services.

Function of wildfires

While on one hand, they burn dead or decaying matter to return otherwise trapped nutrients to the soil, on the other hand they provide disease control. Natural wildfires eliminate diseasecausing plants and insects from an ecosystem. They thin down the forest canopies, creating the path for sunlight to reach the forest floor to new generation saplings. There are some very specific species, like sequoias, that depend on forest fires to bloom and groom.

No doubt the Amazon forest fire is largely man-made, but one needs to understand that the Amazon forest fire is not an aberration. There are too many cases of forest fires across the world, but nothing has gathered our attention more than the Amazon. As per an unconfirmed source available on the Internet, the number of global fires increased from around 16,600 in August 2018 to around 79,000 in August 2019. Large-scale land-use change has taken place in Malaysia and Indonesia with forest areas diverted to agriculture and palm production.

Real losers of Brazil

Yet, the furore and the global media coverge with Amazon essentially emerges form two sources: First, the excellent satellite images from the European Space Agency (ESA) that led to clear identification of a prevailing wildfire; Second, the proclaimed economic and ecological significance of the rainforest. Its tremendous importance to human economy arises from a recent analysis by Strand et al in the journal, Nature Sustainability. It reveals that the monetary value of Amazon rainforest's ecosystem services is $8.2 billion. Of this, $3.3 billion is generated from privately owned forest areas, protected areas and sustainable use areas. So, while the Brazilian economy benefits from direct use-values, the indigenous communities have a very high ecosystem dependency.

The forest fires will erode a large part of this value. While the Amazon forest was hailed as the world's largest carbon sink, the rate of dangerous pollutants like carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, and aerosols are increasing dramatically this year because of the forest fires. The Amazon fire is barely a reminder to the rest of humanity that unbridled development with short-term growth motives is definitely not in consonance with ecological sustainability and, consequently, human well-being. "Imprudence" in human predatory behaviours is apparent. We need to understand that to thrive in our economic endeavours, we need the tiger in the forest, not a forest "burning bright".

(Courtesy of Mail Today

Also read: Who is setting India's forests on fire every year?

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