Josh Myers

Just over a year ago something surprising happened: #PrayForAmazonia became the number one trending hashtag worldwide on Twitter. The world had heard that the Amazon rainforest was burning and suddenly were greatly concerned and angered by it. After years of Amazon deforestation had passed by seemingly unnoticed, the particularly destructive dry season of 2019 opened many people’s eyes to the devastation being created in the Earth’s richest, most biodiverse ecosystem.

Amazon deforestation had accelerated significantly in 2019, in large part due to the policies and rhetoric of Brazil’s climate change-denying president Jair Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro had defunded IBAMA, Brazil’s environmental enforcement agency, reduced penalties for those found guilty of illegal forest clearance and issued an executive order freeing up large swathes of protected areas and indigenous lands to agribusiness, mining and logging. As a result, the number of active Amazonian wildfires in August 2019 was three times higher than in August 2018, and the highest since August 2010 (which was a year of severe drought). 

The fires dominated the news cycle throughout August 2019, and were condemned by multiple world leaders, the Pope and celebrities. Large groups of protesters in cities including São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Brasília, London, Geneva, Paris, Berlin and Toronto all gathered to express their outrage at such flagrant rainforest destruction, and several petitions demanding action from the Brazilian government were signed by millions.

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To the great relief of many frustrated environmental campaigners, deforestation in the Amazon finally seemed to be gaining a foothold in public consciousness. Many ordinary people were genuinely angered by the dire state of affairs in the Amazon, and this anger was extremely productive. 

In response to the public outcry, the G7 collectively agreed to offer an immediate $20m (£16m) aid package to help the nine Amazon countries fight wildfires and launch a longer-term global initiative to protect the rainforest. Countries such as Norway and Germany halted donations to the Brazilian government’s Amazon fund and threatened to veto a trade deal between the EU and Mercosur as a means of pressuring the Brazilian government to act. The Brazilian government bowed to this international pressure by declaring a two-month fire moratorium in the Amazon and deploying thousands of soldiers to the rainforest to fight fires. Consequently, there was a 35% drop in active fires from August to September 2019. When normal people wake up and make a fuss about environmental destruction, such scandalous environmental destruction stops, or at least diminishes. 

image of the Amazon Rainforest (image from Unsplash)

Young people were instrumental in this, effectively using the power of social media to influence our politicians. In the first instance, the mainstream media took little notice of the surge in Amazon fires, with international issues such as Brexit negotiations and a budding US-China trade war taking precedence. As Nigel Sizer of the Rainforest Alliance says: ‘The mainstream media is obsessed with the political dynamics of the moment, [but] these are distracting from some of these incredibly serious long-term issues.’ The surge in Amazon fires began to be widely shared on Instagram and Facebook, and #PrayForAmazonia reached the top of the worldwide trending charts on Twitter. Only then did the mainstream media begin to catch on.

Sizer highlights two key points in understanding why social media was so crucial to fuelling anger about the Amazon fires. The first is that ‘young people are extremely concerned about climate change and the environment’, because ‘they are the ones who are going to be saddled with cleaning up this mess’. And the second is that young people are by far the most likely to use social media to engage in current affairs. The result of this massive mobilisation of young people on social media was a cacophony of noise which the media and politicians just could not ignore.

However, the positive effects of the global outcry were short-lived: the tales of the burning Amazon vanished from the news cycle and public consciousness as quickly as they had arrived. Whilst Google trends data shows that the term ‘Amazon fires’ was very widely searched from the 18th to 24th August 2019, the number of searches had fallen by 96% by the start of October. As a result, once the fire moratorium imposed by Bolsonaro was lifted in November, clearance of the Amazon by burning continued unabated.

Figures from Brazil’s National Space Research Institute (INPE) show that 1,654 square kilometres of the Brazilian Amazon were cleared in July 2020, an area of rainforest slightly larger than Greater London. Whilst this is a small decline from the 2,255 square kilometres cleared in July 2019, it is still well above averages from previous years. The 2019/2020 deforestation year in the Amazon, which runs from August 1 to July 31, is still the most destructive since at least 2007. This yearly increase in deforestation was corroborated by Imazon, a Brazilian NGO that independently monitors forest loss in the region, which recorded a 29% increase in deforestation.

The Amazon is still burning – just as it was this time last year – but nobody seems to be paying attention anymore. We have unwittingly returned to our default setting of looking away. Of course we have a pandemic to contend with, but the destruction of the Amazon is an ecological catastrophe which will have disastrous and irreversible implications for both biodiversity and our climate if we do not act urgently. Whilst Extinction Rebellion are out on the streets again, trying to propel climate change back up the political agenda, the work of these activists will not be enough alone. Once more, we must all open our eyes to the disaster of large-scale Amazon deforestation – and the climate emergency more broadly – and shout until our leaders cannot ignore us. 

To play your part in protecting the Amazon rainforest, find out what action you can take through the following links:

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Last Update: September 14, 2020