Wildfires Reached a Five-Year High in the Brazilian Amazon

Rapid deforestation has made the rainforest more vulnerable to flames, experts say

Aerial view of wildfire burning with white smoke in the forest
Fires burn in the Amazon rainforest in northern Brazil on August 31, 2022.  Photo by Douglas Magno / AFP via Getty Images

In August, 33,116 fires burned through the Brazilian Amazon, according to satellite data.

That’s a higher number of fires than any month has seen in the past five years, and it was the worst August on record since 2010, reports the Agence France-Presse (AFP). 

These record-breaking numbers may have been caused by deforestation, a La Niña cycle and Brazil’s upcoming October vote—when far-right President Jair Bolsonaro will seek re-election, says Ane Alencar, the scientific director of the Amazon Environmental Research Institute, to Mongabay’s Jaqueline Sordi. 

“We’ve been experiencing a significant increase in deforested areas in the last four years, which reflects the environmental agenda of the Bolsonaro administration that undermined enforcement agencies and encouraged illegal practices,” Alencar tells Mongabay. “More deforestation means that there is an accumulation of flammable material.”

The Bolsonaro government has been lax on illegal deforestation, paving the way for loggers and farmers to cut and burn portions of the Amazon, reports Gabriel Araujo for Reuters. Those who are fined for cutting trees rarely pay them, and they face few consequences, writes Terrence McCoy for the Washington Post

“No one goes to jail,” Luciano Evaristo, former chief inspection officer of Ibama, Brazil’s federal environmental law enforcement agency, tells the Post. “For example, in 2016, we took apart a large deforestation ring in the south of Pará state. They deforested 50 square miles. There were 23 arrests. In the end, no one’s in jail. And this was the biggest deforestation ring in Brazil.”

This year, an area of forest about seven times the size of New York City had already been cut down before August began, per Reuters. In April alone, an area equivalent to 140,000 football fields was deforested from the Amazon. Alencar tells Fabiano Maisonnave of the Associated Press that the high deforestation rates will lead to even more intense fires in September. 

Unlike in some North American forests, fires in the humid Amazon do not occur naturally. But humans will deliberately set fires to improve pastures for cattle, burn fallen trees or grow crops. In the Amazon, “fires are always linked to human action,” Mariana Napolitano of WWF Brazil tells the AFP.

In general, the Amazon rainforest is an important carbon sink, sequestering planet-warming carbon dioxide within its living trees. But burning the forest releases that stored carbon into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change. In the past 20 years, the Brazilian portion of the rainforest has transformed into a source of emissions instead of a helpful carbon sink. In that time, it has released a net 3.6 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, wrote Chris Arsenault for Mongabay last year. 

Bolsonaro has drawn worldwide criticism for the destruction to the Amazon under his presidency. He says the complaints are unwarranted. 

"None of those who are attacking us have the right. If they wanted a pretty forest to call their own, they should have preserved the ones in their countries," Bolsonaro wrote on Twitter last month, reports the AFP. 

"The Amazon belongs to Brazilians, and always will," he said, per the AFP. 

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