The Time Traveller: The Amazon is burning

30 August 2019
Author   Hugh Ellis
The Amazon forest is burning. You’ve probably seen the pictures. The world’s biggest forest is on fire, to the greatest extent seen in several years.
It is believed that most of the fires were set by ranchers, keen on expanding the territory available for cattle farming, feeding hungry mouths both in their own country and in restaurants throughout the West. The fires will doubtless displace more of the forest’s indigenous population, leaving the land free for exploitation by Brazilians of mostly European descent.
Sadly, this seems to be an ongoing pattern of land theft and ecological vandalism. It had abated in recent years but is now intensifying, apparently given a boost by the election of Brazil’s right-wing President, Jair Bolsonaro, no friend of environmentalism.  Bolsonaro even went to the extent of having the head of the national space research institute fired after the institute produced satellite data showing the true extent of the deforestation.
The Amazon rainforests, along with other large woodlands, function as the lungs of the world, absorbing carbon dioxide that would otherwise contribute to climate change, and producing oxygen. According to biologist James Wong, ’20 percent of the oxygen in your lungs right now was produced by the Amazon Rainforest’.
The world is burning.   You may have seen the pictures from Greenland. Rushing rivers and waterfalls, where glaciers and frozen lakes are more usual landscapes. Snow and ice there are melting in the Arctic at rates not seen since meteorological records began.
Glaciers in Greenland and across the arctic do melt in summer, but this year, due to an unprecedented heatwave, the melting is happening at unprecedented rates, pouring millions upon millions of liters of extra water into the ocean.
It will take decades of melting polar ice before the Cape Town Waterfront is underwater and we can all start buying beachfront property in Usakos, but, at least for the former scenario, that day is coming.
The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has written that global sea levels will likely rise between 26 and 82 centimetres by the end of this century. That sucks if you own a mansion in Clifton, but it’s a whole lot worse if you’re a Pacific Islander. Or if you have a shack in Kuisebmond. It’s enough, cording to the IPCC, to put at least 300 million people at risk of being flooded out of their homes.
Our country is burning. I could take a landscape picture almost anywhere in Namibia, and the scenes would be similar.  Almost no grass in pastures and no crops in fields.  This has knock-on effects.  It is part of the reason why 995,000 people in urban areas now live in shacks, according to government statistics.
I was encouraged when President Hage Geingob declared the drought a national state of emergency in May, allowing aid to vulnerable people to be prioritized.
Then again, I read just last week about Prosecutor General Martha Imalwa explaining that no–one would be prosecuted in connection with the disappearance of N$600 million at the Government Institutions Pension Fund (GIPF), and I wasn’t so thrilled.
How many investments in climate resilience could N$600 million have funded? Going further back, I wonder how many grants to vulnerable people could have been made from the N$30 million that went missing at the Social Security Commission all those years ago.
While we’re at it, is the drought going to be enough to persuade white farmers to share some land with their black brethren, if only as emergency grazing?
How many bags of drought relief food could the government buy for the price of a new Mercedes Benz or escort motorcycle?
Our hearts should be on fire. This picture requires you to use your imagination, and consider what a climate revolution might look like in Namibia.
I’ve been inspired by such movements in Europe as the School Strike for Climate, and the civil disobedience campaign, Extinction Rebellion. People there are seized by an urgency we seem to lack.
Maybe we can work with the Government if they show a willingness to listen, and maybe we can start small, with acts of protest through artistic creativity, through minor disruption, through those of us in positions of relative privilege using them to speak out.
Hugh Ellis works as a lecturer at the Namibia University of Science and Technology. The views expressed here are personal views. Contact him on Twitter @ellis_hugh or read his blog at


The Windhoek Observer is an English-language weekly newspaper, published in Namibia by Paragon Investment Holding. It is the country's oldest and largest circulating weekly.

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