Marisela Silva Parra and Chela Elena Umire

Amazon rainforest fires: as deforestation in the region worsens, meet the women fighting to save it

In June 2020, fires in the Brazilian Amazon reached their highest levels in 13 years, and fires across the rainforest are set to be at least as bad as the ones seen in 2019. Here, we meet two women – Marisela Silva Parra and Chela Elena Umire – working to save the region for future generations, and look at how we can support their work from the UK.

Last year, the world watched in horror as huge swathes of the Amazon rainforest were consumed by flames.

When the fires reached their peak in August 2019, there were over 30,000 individual fires burning across the Amazon – an increase of 196% compared to August 2018. In Brazil, which is home to over 60% of the rainforest , there was an 84% increase in the number of fires compared to the previous year .

All in all, millions of trees, plants and wildlife were destroyed in the devastating, record-breaking fires. But this year is set to be at least as bad as the last.

In June 2020 – which marks the start of the region’s dry season – fires in the Brazilian Amazon reached their highest levels in 13 years. According to the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research (INPE), there were 2,248 fires burning in the rainforest in June this year, compared to 1,880 fires in June 2019. Fires in the region usually increase throughout the dry season in July, August and September. 

You may also like

Climate change is a feminist issue – meet 16 women working to save the planet

And the fires aren’t the only problem getting worse. Many of the fires that caused devastation in 2019 were as a result of illegal deforestation, where people chop down areas of the rainforest for agricultural or industrial use, allow the trees to dry and then set them on fire. Last month, INPE released figures showing that, as of June 2020, the 12-month deforestation rates in the region were 89% higher than in the previous year, so the number of fires which will likely be started over the next couple of months is of massive concern.

All in all, the rainforest is facing a threat unlike any other it has seen in recent history. The efforts of conservationists, community teams and governments across the world, supported by organisations such as the WWF, have never been more important – and that includes the work of local women, whose intimate knowledge of the rainforest has made their work essential in the fight against deforestation and illegal activity.

Amazon forest canopy at sunset, La Chorrera, Amazonas Department, Colombia.
Amazon rainforest fires: illegal activity in the Amazon region has increased due to reduced law enforcement during the coronavirus pandemic.

As part of their work in the Amazon, the WWF works to empower girls and women – who often play a central role in working within the rainforest by collecting forest products for food, medicine, firewood and water – to use their unique knowledge of the region to lead environmental change and livelihood improvements.

This is particularly prevalent in the Colombian Amazon, where the WWF work to ensure women have leadership roles in the community and in how the rainforest is used and protected. 

Two such women – Marisela Silva Parra and Chela Elena Umire – now play a central role in working within the rainforest, and continuing to conserve the areas for future generations.  

Marisela Silva Parra

Marisela Silva Parra
Amazon rainforest fires: as secretary of her local Los Exploradores group, Marisela Silva Parra works to document the areas of forest on local farms.

Based in the municipality of Calamar, Guaviare Department, Colombia, Marisela Silva Parra is a farmer, mother and secretary of the local Los Exploradores – a WWF-supported group of local farmers and community leaders who help their community to make the most of the rainforest by using and protecting it at the same time.

Silva’s community is based in the ‘buffer zone’ around the Chiribiquete National Park, a world heritage site and the planet’s largest tropical rainforest protected area.

This area is currently being deforested at an alarming rate as a result of land grabbing, deliberate fires and cattle ranching. 

Marisela Silva Parra
Amazon rainforest fires: Silva records information from an environmental assessment of a local farm.

Illegal activity in the area surged after a peace process between the Colombian government and the country’s largest rebel group fell apart and left previously controlled and inaccessible areas open to exploitation.

Silva – who is the only female member of the Los Exploradores – works with the group to document the forested areas, flora, fauna and water sources on local farms.  

The aim of the project – which is supported by WWF-Colombia – is to stop deforestation, protect and restore the remaining forest, and provide alternative sustainable livelihoods to local people.

“Not everyone comes to the Chiribiquete National Park with good intentions, to see the nature and species,” Silva explains. 

A small farm in the Colombian Amazon
Amazon rainforest fires: a group of local 'environmental protectors' such as Silva on location at a local farm.

“Some come to damage it. We know we need to put a stop to deforestation and from here on, preserve what we have and reforest parts that were chopped down.”

Silva continues: “We are trying to raise awareness of the work we are doing and that it will benefit everyone, so that our children’s children can have the chance to see the diverse flora and fauna that we have.”

Chela Elena Umire

Chela Elena Umire
Amazon rainforest fires: Chela Elena Umire works with her local community Ecosystem Services Assessment (ESA) Technical Team to catalogue all the resources the rainforest has to offer.

Based in La Chorrera, a town South of the Chiribiquete National Park, Chela Elena Umire – who is currently making a full recovery from Covid-19 – is a member of the local community Ecosystem Services Assessment (ESA) Technical Team, a group of Indigenous people who are mapping their traditional territory and cataloguing the resources the rainforest provides.

The group’s work – which is supported by the WWF in partnership with local Indigenous organisation Azicatch – combines traditional knowledge with modern conservation practice.

The project aims to create an environmental management plan for the territory and strengthen Indigenous decision-making and governance.

Chela Elena Umire
Amazon rainforest fires: Umire and fellow members of the local ESA team head out along the Igara Paraná River to conduct an ecosystem service assessment of the forest.

“It is very important that people in other countries learn how the Indigenous people have preserved the forest for thousands of years,” Umire explains. “They’ve hardly destroyed anything, except what is necessary.

“I would like other places on our planet to understand that the natural resources we have are important, so that we carry on for a long time and that our children recognise what we have. 

“I think that in the future, if we don’t look after the forest and all these natural resources, this will be a desert and the warming will, in a very short time, finish human life.”

Chela Elena Umire
Amazon rainforest fires: Umire presents the findings of her ESA team to a group of local Indigenous leaders.

Umire continues: “My dream for the whole Amazon is that we all benefit from a healthy environment, that the river flows its natural course, and that the forests are kept. That we preserve it in the same way we have been doing, the way our grandparents did – the way they looked after the environment, without destroying it. That the Amazon could be a place where there is peace, tranquillity and good air to breathe.”

Why is saving the Amazon rainforest so important?

Besides the fact that the Amazon is home to about three million species of plants and animals (many of which are yet to be studied in detail) and some one million Indigenous people, the rainforest also plays a crucial role in slowing the pace of global warming.

The Amazon is often referred to as “the lungs of the planet” for this exact reason – the rainforest, which spans over two million square miles, acts as a powerful carbon sink which sucks carbon dioxide emissions out of the atmosphere. When the rainforest is burnt, not only does the forest’s ability to remove carbon from the atmosphere decrease, the carbon stored in the trees is released back into the atmosphere. 

Aerial view of Amazon forest and the Red River, linked to Igara Paraná River, Amazon forest, La Chorrera, Amazonas Department, Colombia.
Amazon rainforest fires: the Amazon functions as a carbon sink which is vital in the fight against global warming.

Why are the Amazon rainforest fires worse in 2020?

The problems raging in the Amazon have only been worsened by the coronavirus pandemic. During a time when local authorities in the region are stretched (Brazil, for example, has the world’s second-highest coronavirus death toll at time of writing), it’s a lot harder for law enforcement to stop illegal invaders snatching Indigenous and protected lands for agricultural and industrial use.

The pandemic has also weakened Indigenous communities in the region who manage and protect their lands, making it easier for illegal loggers to steal land and, in doing so, put the Indigenous people at greater risk of contracting the virus.

Sarah Hutchinson, the head of WWF conservation programmes in Latin America, explains: “Illegal land grabbing risks the spread of deadly diseases, including Covid-19, to indigenous peoples who are particularly vulnerable, making it even more challenging for them to defend their lands.”

She continues: “Despite some important conservation successes, particularly in Colombia, the whole Amazon faces greater threats than ever before. We need to act fast to protect this life-sustaining treasure for the millions of species and people that depend on it.”

How can we help the Amazon Rainforest in the UK?

Although the Amazon rainforest may feel worlds away from our reality in the UK, there are still plenty of things we can do to not only support the work of women like Silva and Umire, but encourage the conservation of some of the most unique species on the planet. Here’s three things you can do today to make a difference.

1. Use your voice

Put pressure on the government to take action and reject trade deals which put the Amazon rainforest in jeopardy by adding your voice to WWF’s campaign.

You could also write to your local MP and ask them to vote against policies which might put the future of the rainforest at risk.

2. Donate to the Amazon appeal

The WWF’s Amazon appeal funds work by the charity’s Amazon teams and local organisations to carry out important work including campaigning for stronger action from the government and support local and Indigenous communities, such as Silva’s and Umire’s, to defend their land rights.

To find out more about the appeal – and to donate – you can visit the WWF website.

3. Educate yourself and those around you

During last year’s fires, hundreds of thousands of people across the world used their voices to raise awareness of the threats facing the rainforest – this year, the fires are yet to make headlines in the same way.

By reading this article, learning more about the threats facing the Amazon on the WWF website and doing your own independent research, you can help to raise awareness of the devastating destruction which continues to threaten the rainforest, and in doing so put greater pressure on local governments to make the changes necessary to save this important eco-system. 

For more information, you can check out the WWF’s list of things you can do to help the Amazon rainforest. 

Sign up for the latest news and must-read features from Stylist, so you don't miss out on the conversation.

By entering my email I agree to Stylist’s Privacy Policy

Images courtesy of Luis Barreto / WWF-UK


Share this article

Recommended by Lauren Geall

Visible Women

From climate change to democracy: how women became the driving force for change

Women, we get the job done.

Posted by
Sarah Shaffi

Climate change is a feminist issue – meet 16 women working to save the planet

Ahead of International Women’s Day, Stylist is championing women on the frontline of the climate crisis.

Posted by
Hanna Woodside

Margaret Atwood on why women will inherit climate change

“This isn’t climate change – it’s everything change.”

Posted by
Susan Devaney

The Amazon rainforest is still burning – here’s what you can do to help

The “lungs of the planet” are on fire.

Posted by
Lauren Geall
Long Reads

“I’ve stopped pretending that climate crisis doesn’t affect me – and you should, too”

Will this picture of a polar bear stranded in Siberia finally urge us to act on climate change?

Posted by
Eleanor Flowers