When my family and I moved into our newly built home in Lebanon this summer, the road leading up to the house had not yet been finished. One morning, as we were having breakfast on the balcony, we saw that the bulldozer working on the road began to break down branches of an olive tree that was in the way of the road. My sisters and I were very disapproving of this as olive trees are precious trees with lots of benefits, and they take a long time to grow. However, my mom said that the tree wasn’t producing much fruit to begin with.
Thousands of miles away from my town in Lebanon, the Amazon rainforest burns. Every minute, an area the size of one and a half soccer fields gets destroyed in this rainforest. Over 74,000 fires have occurred in Brazil in the past eight months, with more than half in the Amazon region.
The destruction of our planet
The rainforest has also been subject to greater levels of deforestation since the Bolsonaro government took office this January and cut $23 million from the budget of Brazil’s environmental enforcement agency. Over 1330 square miles of the Amazon have been cut down since, the equivalent of over 600,000 football fields, as deforestation increased by over 80% since last June.
The Amazon rainforest covers 40% of Latin America and spans eight countries. As the biggest rainforest in the world, it pulls a great deal of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air. Plants absorb CO2 from the air around them and use it to make food for themselves, and then release the remaining oxygen into the air. The Amazon, because it plays a big role in pulling CO2 out of our air, is crucial in helping to mitigate climate change.
In addition to being a natural recycling machine and air conditioner, the Amazon is home to millions of indigenous peoples as well as millions of species of animals, plants, and insects. In fact, around 30% of the world’s entire species call the Amazon their home, making the forest the richest and most biodiverse terrestrial area on planet Earth.
The destruction of this vital rainforest is not a new phenomenon that began with the arrival of Jair Bolsonaro. Prior to the 1970’s, only 2.4% of the Amazon had been lost. In 1972, Brazil, under the military rule of General Emílio Garrastazu Médici, began the construction of the Trans-Amazonian Highway. The highway was planned to be 5000 km long, running from the northeastern city of João Pessoa to the Brazilian-Peruvian border, right through the Amazon rainforest.
After two years, the project was abandoned, but not without damage to the Amazon as deforestation levels spiked both on the path of the highway as well as around it. In 2004, the Worker’s Party came into power and over the next several years established new protected areas and increased monitoring, resulting in a 70% decrease in deforestation in the Amazon between 2004 and 2012.
Bolsonaro’s abuse towards the Amazon
With the Bolsonaro government now in power, things aren’t looking too good for the Amazon and environmentalism in Brazil. During his campaign, Bolsonaro said protected and indigenous lands are an obstacle to economic growth and that he will advance commercialization of these lands. And he has done just that.
For example, the government has rolled back on enforcement measures like warnings and fines, which could and has resulted in greater destruction of and illegal activity in the rainforest with little oversight and protection from the government. In early August, Bolsonaro fired Ricardo Galvão, the director of Brazil’s National Space Research Institute, after the release of satellite images showing the rise in levels of deforestation over the past several months. While the Brazilian states governed by Bolsonaro’s political opponents have seen a decrease in fires this year, the three states with the greatest increase in fires in the past year are run by Bolsonaro’s allies.
According to recently leaked documents, the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA), the administrative arm of the Ministry of Environment, was warned on August 7 that a group of land owners and traders were planning to start fires in the Amazon in an event called “Day of Fire”. Their purpose is to “clean the forest” in order to turn it into pastureland as well as show the president that they support his plans to relax IBAMA’s environmental monitoring. IBAMA did not intervene on the Day of Fire, saying its requests for support were ignored by the Ministry of Justice.
Starting fires and burning down trees is a common method used by farmers, cattle ranchers, miners and companies to clear an area, particularly during the dry summer months. However, this is not always legal, as it is sometimes done on indigenous and protected lands. The trespassing on indigenous lands has resulted in the destruction of both indigenous lands and lives. There are reports that illegal miners, loggers, and ranchers invade indigenous territories, attacking and killing the inhabitants of those lands.
With Bolsonaro in power, this doesn’t seem to be ending anytime soon. He has stated that he will not leave a single centimeter of indigenous land and has lamented that Brazil did not destroy the indigenous peoples as efficiently as the United States did the indigenous peoples in the States. Although indigenous peoples around the world are protected and given rights to their lands and territories under United Nations, Bolsonaro has cut funding to the indigenous affairs department (Funai) in his country and has threatened to shut it down.
The fires in the Amazon rainforest have immediate and dangerous implications for both the natural world as well as a large number of communities. However, this situation is not unique to Brazil. For decades we have seen people and corporations put profit over the well-being of humans and our Earth. From an Islamic perspective, this is completely inhumane. While the immorality of the privileging of profit over humans speaks for itself, the unacceptability of privileging profit over the Earth and the creatures in it may not be as well understood.
Our duty as Muslims
At a fundamental level, we must always remember that animals, trees, and even water are all God’s creations. This means that they have a special sanctity that must be respected. God demonstrates this in the Quran, as over 750 verses in the Quran speaks about or mentions animals or natural phenomenons, and fourteen Quranic chapters are named after an animal or a natural phenomenon.
Even more astounding is that God takes oaths on natural phenomenons, such as the “dawn” (89:1) and “the place of the stars” (56:75), multiple times in the Holy Book and uses things like water and trees as metaphors to help us understand life (18:45) and good words/deeds (15:24). Finally, there are multiple instances in the Quran where God reveals to us that natural phenomenons and animals like birds and mountains (21:79; 38:18) and stars and trees (55:6), praise Him and prostrate and submit Him.
How, then, can we belittle these creations and be arrogant enough to think we have a right to destroy them without valid justification or concern for the consequences of our actions? How can we think we have a right to burn and destroy when we are given the responsibility of being the caretakers of this Earth and what is in it?
The Prophet Muhammad has advised us to: “Preserve the earth because it is [our] mother” (1). Imam Ali goes further by saying that “God has sent Adam to make the Earth flourish by the help of his offspring” (2), meaning our task is not simply to preserve what is there, but to help the Earth (and what is in it) thrive, prosper, and grow.
The Prophet highlights the importance of planting trees by saying: “Whoever plants a tree and then a human or a creature of God eats its fruit, it will be considered as an act of charity for him” (3). In fact, Imam Jaafar al-Sadiq explains, “There is no joy in life unless three things are available: clean fresh air, abundant pure water, and fertile land” (4). And if you think about it, not only is there no joy without these three things, there is also no life.
The careless destruction of our environment for the sake of profit and the killing of animals for enjoyment is sucking the life and joy out of the Earth and out of our lives, literally and figuratively. Industrialization is transforming the backdrop of our lives from green and blue to grey and black, our water from a source of purity to acidity, and the air we breath from oxygen to smoke.
I’m not saying we should never cut down a single tree – my point is that we have allowed corporations and governments to burn and log trees, spill oil and dump garbage into our oceans, and fill our air with smoke, practically with impunity. Before we cut down trees, we need to ask if there are alternative ways to do what we want to do. And if there isn’t, how can we minimize the risks and the damage and make up for what we must cut down?
If the Brazilian government in the 1970’s had asked these and similar questions, we could have avoided the disastrous Trans-Amazonian Highway. The government halted the construction of the highway two years in because the contents of the soil of the Amazon, which is mostly sediments, makes the road unstable and predisposed to flooding during heavy rain. This makes the road unusable for almost six months a year.
A huge portion of the Amazon was destroyed for a highway that went largely unused and did not serve its purpose. A failure that could have been avoided had the right questions been asked and the environment and the indigenous communities of the Amazon, whose lands the highway ran through, had been taken into account. These are the kinds of outcomes we want – no, need to – avoid if we want to build vibrant, sustainable communities in Brazil and around the world.
Two days ago, I watched The Lion King live action film. An important aspect of the story was “the circle of life”, which refers to how all creatures are connected to each other in one way or another and must be respected. I don’t usually take deep life lessons from Disney films, but I think the belief that all creatures are connected is worth reflection. All of us, plants, animals, humans, earth, air, water, and even insects have an important part to play in the grand scheme of things and influence the health and well-being of each other directly or indirectly. For God has assured us that He has created nothing in vain (23:115).
Let us not allow those driven by greed to destroy the circle of life and throw it out of order, for not everything that is lost can be brought back. And as the caretakers, we must make sure to return the trust in better condition than we found it.
- Nahj-al-Fasahah, No. 1130 as cited in Shomali, M.A. (2008) Aspects of Environmental Ethics: An Islamic Perspective. Faiths in Creation.
- Nahj al-Balaaghah as cited in Shomali, M.A. (2008) Aspects of Environmental Ethics: An Islamic Perspective. Faiths in Creation.
- Nahj al-Fasahah, Volume 2, p. 563 as cited in Shomali, M.A. (2008) Aspects of Environmental Ethics: An Islamic Perspective. Faiths in Creation.
- Bihaar al-Anwaar, Volume 75, p. 234 as cited in Shomali, M.A. (2008) Aspects of Environmental Ethics: An Islamic Perspective. Faiths in Creation.