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The mass rainforest extermination is a climate catastrophe—and much more.
I thought it was a blood moon at first. The dark orange glow appeared at dusk on the far side of the shimmering silver band that is the Xingu River. It was just before 8pm, after the parrots had squawked back to their nests and the insects and frogs were noisily starting the forest nightshift. A flash of lightning from a cloud appeared above almost the same location but the rest of the sky was clear. How could there be a storm? I peered more intently and took a photograph that I could magnify. And there was the answer—a fire, which grew fiercer as I watched, the flames spreading sideways and upwards, flickering red and yellow, billowing smoke into the sky, sparking flashes of lightning every couple of minutes.
I felt sick to the stomach. The Amazon rainforest was being destroyed in front of my eyes. I have been writing about the climate crisis for 16 years, always with a sense of horror but until now, mostly with a sense of distance. This was the first time I had seen it from my home, and it was stranger than I expected. I had not realized until that moment that fire can create its own lightning storms, by creating pyrocumulonimbus, which scientists describe as “the fire-breathing dragon of clouds.”
There was no immediate danger—the fire was several miles away on the other side of one of the world’s biggest rivers—but it felt personal. More than 90 percent of fires in the Amazon are started deliberately to clear trees so the land can be used for cattle ranching or crop cultivation. That meant this arson attack against nature was almost certainly carried out by one of my neighbors. I knew it was probably illegal and that, according to climate science, it would nudge the world’s biggest rainforest that much closer to an irreversible tipping point. But there was nothing I could do except watch. The chances of anyone else lifting a finger while Jair Bolsonaro was Brazil’s president were next to zero.
This was on August 27 . The next morning I learned there were several fires in the rainforest that night. In fact, this was one of the most devastating nights for the Amazon in a decade. Landowners and land-grabbers were rushing to burn with impunity before a presidential election that the polls showed was likely to result in a change of power. August, September, and October were months of fire, a human-made season wedged between the driest point of summer and the onset of the winter monsoons. A haze of charred vegetation shrouded many parts of the rainforest for weeks. My asthma returned for the first time in nine months. Viewed from the forest, the contest between Bolsonaro and his main challenger, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, was not about tax rises or government spending—it was life or death.
I moved to the Amazon last December. The journey itself was eye-opening. I travelled here with my nine-month-old dog, Frida, who wasn’t allowed on the last leg of the plane journey from Belem to Altamira so we had to do that 500-mile stretch by car along the dusty Trans-Amazonian highway.