Keeping you current

Three Things to Know About the Fires Blazing Across the Amazon Rainforest

Experts say the majority of blazes were set by farmers hoping to clear land for agricultural endeavors

The latest fire forecast from the European Union's Copernicus satellite. (Copernicus EU)
smithsonian.com

Since January, a staggering 74,155 fires have broken out across Brazil, the country’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) reported Wednesday. This figure—an 85 percent uptick from the same point in 2018—includes more than 9,000 blazes spotted within the past week and represents the highest rate recorded since documentation began in 2013.

Crucially, environmentalists point out, the vast majority of the infernos are not wildfires, but rather intentional land clearing attempts undertaken by farmers and loggers emboldened by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s pro-business policies. Regardless of origin, the blazes, now large enough to be seen from space, pose a significant threat to the Amazon, which is popularly known as the “lungs” of the planet due to its capacity for storing carbon dioxide and producing oxygen. As Terrence McCoy writes for the Washington Post, the rainforest is “one of the world’s greatest defenses against climate change.”

Why fires are raging on such a large scale

According to McCoy, infernos have razed 7,192 square miles of Brazil’s Amazon region this year to date. Comparatively, Amazonian fires caused roughly half this damage—cutting through 3,168 square miles—over the same period in 2017. Andrew Freedman reports for the Washington Post that the number of fires recorded in 2019 greatly surpasses the 67,790 seen at this point in 2016, when a strong El Niño event created severe drought conditions in the area.

“This is without any question one of only two times that there have been fires like this [in the Amazon],” ecologist Thomas Lovejoy tells National Geographic’s Sarah Gibbens. “There’s no question that it’s a consequence of the recent uptick in deforestation.”

The Amazonian fires are so large that they can be seen from space (NASA Earth Observatory)

Speaking with Reuters’ Lisandra Paraguassu, INPE researcher Alberto Setzer explains that the blazes cannot be attributed to the dry season or natural phenomena alone. “The dry season creates ... favorable conditions for the use and spread of fire, but starting a fire is the work of humans, either deliberately or by accident,” he adds. (Christian Poirier, program director of the non-profit organization Amazon Watch, tells CNN’s Jessie Yeung that the humid rainforest is generally less likely to catch on fire than, say, the dry bushlands of California and Australia.)

Since taking office in October 2018, Bolsonaro has emphasized economic development over environmental concerns—a policy pattern that has led to an uptick in agriculture, mining and deforestation across the Amazon. According to the Post’s Freedman, farmers use forest fires, often illegally, to clear land for cattle ranching and growing soybeans, as well as paving the way for future development. A report published by the local Folha do Progresso newspaper earlier this month suggested that farmers in the state of Para were planning to hold a “day of fire” August 10. As the individuals behind the initiative explained, they hoped to “show the president that we want to work” to advance regional production.

In total, Setzer tells the Wall Street Journal’s Samantha Pearson and Luciana Magalhaes, he estimates that 99 percent of the fires are the result of human activity.

Who is affected and how parties are responding

Per Reuters’ Paraguassu, the current surge of fires has enveloped the northern state of Roraima in black smoke and led states such as Amazonas, Acre, Rondônia, Mato Grosso and Para to declare emergencies or remain on environmental alert. On Monday, a mixture of clouds, smoke and a cold front actually plunged the city of São Paulo into total darkness during the middle of the day. As local resident Gianvitor Dias says to BBC News’ Kris Bramwell, “It was as if the day had turned into night. Everyone here commented, because even on rainy days it doesn’t usually get that dark.” Although many have connected the unsettling incident with the recent wave of fires, the New York Times’ Manuela Andreoni and Christine Hauser note that researchers are still working to determine whether the two are directly connected.

According to the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service, the Amazonian fires have generated a discernible spike in carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide emissions, threatening human health and exacerbating the effects of global warming. In the long run, deforestation-driven fire could prove devastating to the carbon-absorbing rainforest.

Among the groups most likely to be affected by the fires are the Amazon’s indigenous populations. Per Alexis Carey of Australia’s news.com.au, up to one million indegenous individuals constituting some 500 tribes live in the region and are at risk of losing their homes to infernos or encroaching cattle ranchers. In a video posted on Twitter by the activist Sunrise Movement, a Pataxó woman decries the illegal land clearing, saying, “They are killing our rivers, our sources of life, and now they have set our reserve on fire.”

Facing heavy criticism from those who say his economic policies are driving the crisis, Bolsonaro opted to accuse nongovernmental organizations of setting the fires. “It could be, it could, I’m not saying it is, a criminal action by these N.G.O. people to call attention against me, against the Brazilian government,” he said, as quoted by the Times. “This is the war we face.”

According to the Post’s McCoy, Bolsonaro further stated—with no supporting evidence—that “The fire was started, it seemed, in strategic locations. There are images of the entire Amazon. How can that be? Everything indicates that people went there to film and then to set fires. That is my feeling.”

Per Reuters, Bolsonaro also attributed the fires to the time of year, saying that “queimada,” or the annual clearing of land by burning, is currently underway. “I used to be called Captain Chainsaw,” the president reportedly said. “Now I am Nero, setting the Amazon aflame. But it is the season of the queimada.”

Bolsonaro’s comments arrive just weeks after he fired INPE’s director, Ricardo Galvão, over data the agency published regarding rising deforestation. Dismissing the figures as “lies” and positing that the INPE was working “at the service of some N.G.O.,” the president replaced Galvão with a military official. The fired scientist, meanwhile, criticized Bolsonaro’s “vile, cowardly attitude” in an interview with the Post’s McCoy, adding, “This was a defense of the dignity of the Brazilian science, not only for Brazilian scientists, but for all scientists. Our data should never be curbed by political interests.”

Many environmental activists have spoken out against Bolsonaro’s claims, describing them as deflection from the pressing environmental concerns at hand. In a statement, Amazon Watch director Poirier argued, “This devastation is directly related to President Bolsonaro's anti-environmental rhetoric, which erroneously frames forest protections and human rights as impediments to Brazil's economic growth.” Speaking with the Guardian’s Jonathan Watts, Danicley Aguiar of Greenpeace Brazil echoed this message, saying, “Those who destroy the Amazon and let deforestation continue unabated are encouraged by the Bolsonaro government’s actions and policies.”

What will happen next?

NASA’s Earth Observatory explains that the Amazon’s dry season—aggravated by farmers clearing out land—typically begins in July or August, peaks in early September, and mostly stops by November.

“I’m concerned,” Ane Alencar, science director of Brazil’s Amazon Environmental Research Institute, tells the Times’ Andreoni and Hauser. “We are at the beginning of the fire season. This could still get much worse.”

Expanding on this line of thought in an interview with Mongabay’s Ignacio Amigo, Alencar said that rainfall will not resume until late September, or even later in the more northern regions of the Amazon. “It could mean that there is going to be a lot more fire ahead,” she notes.

According to National Geographic’s Gibbens, Amazon deforestation occurs in a cylical pattern: Forest loss, spurred by economic activities including harvesting timber, planting soy and building cattle pastures, leads to a decline in rainfall, which in turn engenders more deforestation. Eventually, experts say, this cycle could transform the lush rainforest into a dry, savannah-like ecosystem.

Deborah Lawrence, an environmental scientist at the University of Virginia, tells Time’s Mahita Gajanan that clearing forests shifts their dynamics. “There’s no trees to pump moisture into the atmosphere,” she explains. “Rain fall is going to either settle into the soil and stay there, or, if there’s a lot, run off into rivers and end up far away.”

Per the Post’s McCoy, fire and subsequent deforestation could make it nearly impossible to limit global warming to levels called for by the Paris Agreement. Although the Amazon currently accounts for roughly a quarter of the 2.4 billion metric tons of carbon absorbed by all global forests, changing weather patterns, deforestation, tree mortality and other factors are hampering its ability to serve as an essential carbon sink.

If deforestation continues at the rate seen today, climate scientist Carlos Nobre tells Gajanan, more than half of the Amazon will have a climate similar to a savannah within the next 25 to 30 years. If deforestation increases, as indicated by the ongoing surge of forest fires, this scenario could become reality in just 15 to 20 years.

“This is very sad,” Nobre says. “We usually would see this surge of fire in very, very exceptionally dry years. The fact that this record-breaking figure comes out in a relatively un-dry dry season shows that deforestation is increasing.”

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus