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Posted: August 24, 2019

Time is running out for the world’s forests

“Perceptions,” by Gerry Warner

Op-Ed Commentary

“Our house is burning.”

That’s how French President Emmanuel Macron described the conflagration now engulfing the Amazon Basin and much of Brazil this week which is reaching epic proportions threatening what climate scientists call the “lungs of the planet.”

Scientists say the Amazon rainforest, the largest rainforest on Earth, is responsible for 20% of the planet’s oxygen supply and burning it is a major factor in climate change and global warming.

Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel say the mainly human-set fires are an international crisis and urged that the situation be discussed at this weekend’s G7 Summit of the world’s largest industrial nations.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres says the fires, which are burning at the rate of one football field a minute, threaten the environmental health of the entire planet. “In the midst of the global climate crisis, we cannot afford more damage to a major source of oxygen and biodiversity,” he said.

But Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro took a dramatically different tack on the flames, accusing Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) of setting the fires deliberately in order to embarrass him and his new government.

The far-right president who has been dubbed “the Trump of the Tropics” accused Macron and NGO critics of having a “colonialist mind-set” for criticizing Brazilian forest practices.

For years, poor Brazilian peasant farmers have engaged in what’s commonly called “slash and burn” agriculture where fires were deliberately set to clear the rainforest for planting crops. But the practice was small scale and not a problem until the farmers were joined by huge multi-national logging, mining and agrobusiness corporations that started burning on an industrial scale, igniting the giant blazes consuming the rain forest now.

According to a BBC story Thursday, close to 75,000 fires have occurred in the Amazon Basin so far this year, more than twice the rate in all of 2013. Smoke from the blazes is believed to have caused a daytime blackout Monday in Sao Paulo, Brazil’s largest city.

So that’s Brazil; why should we care in faraway B.C.? I’ll tell you why and it’s really quite simple and devastating – we practice the same kind of destructive forestry in “Beautiful BC,” albeit on a smaller but just as dangerous a scale. And I challenge any professional forester in the province to deny this. It’s called “industrial forestry” and it’s the dominant method of forestry practiced from Vancouver Island to the Kootenays and every other corner of the province.

What happens in industrial forestry is logging companies are granted tenures by the government to log a certain area of land or take a specific volume of wood. And this they do using state of the art industrial machinery, stripping the forest virtually to bare ground and taking the trees they want – or fibre as they call it – to the mill and piling up all the waste left – often more than the wood taken out – and burning it in giant slash fires.

This is how it’s done in B.C. and elsewhere and if you don’t believe me for God’s sake go out in the woods and take a look for yourself. Now you tell me how our logging differs from what they do in Brazil. The fact is it doesn’t differ other than scale and if it’s wrong in Brazil, surely it’s also wrong in our increasingly less beautiful province?

For years my family and I have camped at Kootenay Lake, one of the greatest camping spots in the province. You’ve probably got your own favourite spot. But when I go back to Kootenay Lake now, I can hardly bear to look upward seeing all the new clear cuts gashing the green blanket that used to hug the lake from the shore to the peaks. Maybe you’ve had the same experience at your favourite spot.

Well, let me tell you something. This has got to end. It’s got to end here and it’s got to end in Brazil. Why do you think so many mills are closing in the province?  Why do you think logging is increasingly taking place in community watersheds? We’ve been greedy. We’ve taken too much. We’ve mined our forests instead of farming them and the damage we’ve done is now threatening the very health of the planet.

Forests sequester more heat-raising carbon than anything else on earth and we’re destroying our forests faster than we can imagine.

I repeat. It’s got to stop and it’s got to stop soon or we’ll all pay the price, every damn one of us.

Lead image: An image from NASA’s Aqua satellite shows several fires burning in the states of Rondônia, Amazonas, Pará, and Mato Grosso, Brazil on August 13. NASA Earth Observatory photo

– Gerry Warner is a retired journalist and former forest fire fighter.

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