New Amazon fires could eclipse last year’s inferno

Twice as much Brazilian rainforest could burn in the coming months compared to last year, scientists warn.

Experts fear that this year's fire season will be even worse than last year. Photo: Edmar Barros/Regnskogfondet

The forest fires of this year’s dry season have already started. In the northern Brazilian State of Amazonas, deforested areas are now burning to make way for farming and cattle pastures.

Deforestation has increased for 14 consecutive months, and experts fear that the fires this dry season could be even more devastating than the inferno that created a global uproar in July and August 2019.

New figures released by Brazil’s National Space Research Institute (INPE) in June show that deforestation in 2019 exceeded 10,000 km2, the largest rise in over ten years. This trend continues into 2020 and the news agency Mongabay estimates that the current level of deforestation is 83 percent greater than at this time last year.

Because not all of the felled trees and vegetation are burned in the same year, there is growing unease over how many thousands of square kilometres will end up being burned this fire season.

Scientists at the Environmental Research Institute of the Amazon (IPAM) fear that if the accelerated rate of deforestation continues in the coming months, a staggering 9,000 km2, about twice as much as last year, could go up in flames as we enter into the most intense season of slash and burn.

Illegal logging supported by the government

According to the satellite mapping initiative MapBiomas, 99 percent of all deforestation detected in 2019 was illegal, of which over a third totally or partially affected protected areas inhabited by indigenous groups. Only one percent had registered authorisation to fell trees.

“The forest is not burning because it is dry, but because of criminal activity that the government should hinder. This activity must be stopped, before irreversible changes are made to the ecosystem,” says director of Rainforest Foundation Norway, Øyvind Eggen.

The Brazilian government has proposed bills to open up indigenous territories for agricultural and extractive industries and land grabbing. Fines for illegal activities have been reduced and funding for environmental law enforcement has been cut.

In the midst of the criticism of inaction against the massive fires last year, the government sent military troops to protect certain areas. Although it is thought to have had direct effect in those particular areas, the military deployment has been criticised for being little more than window dressing, which could have been done more effectively through the existing institutions.

In May, as Brazil became the world epicentre of Covid-19, the Minister of Environment suggested to the government, caught on a widely shared video, that it was a good opportunity to push through further deregulation of environmental policy whilst people and the press were distracted by the coronavirus pandemic.

“This shock doctrine shows what forces are at play here. For years Brazil built a relatively robust legal framework, on which multilateral environmental policy rested. Now it is being picked apart bit by bit. It is going to take a long time to rebuild and time is not on our side,” Øyvind Eggen says.

"The forest is not burning because it is dry, but because of criminal activity that the government should hinder, says director of Rainforest Foundation Norway, Øyvind Eggen. Photo: Bruno Kelly/Regnskogfondet

Changing the forest

Most of the deforestation and burning of Brazilian rainforest takes place in four states; Pará, Mato Grosso, Amazonas and Rondônia. Two areas in particular, the Xingu region in Pará and the border area between three other states are starting to present symptoms of change, such as increased soil temperatures, decreased humidity and altered patterns of rainfall.

The continued expansion of these agricultural frontiers increases the risk of an irreversible fragmentation of large tracts of the Amazon rainforest. When these activites turn the forest into desertlike savannah it causes changes to ecosystems, and ultimately the global climate.

“The Amazon captures and stores carbon, it produces water and is home to several million species. Stopping deforestation is crucial to limit global warming and ecological collapse,” Rainforest Foundation Norway’s director Eggen says.

As much as 60 percent of the Amazon rainforest is in Brazil, but deforestation is also increasing in other Amazonian countries, such as Bolivia, Peru and Colombia.

The real cost of deforestation

Many fear that the smoke from forest fires will wrap itself around the Amazon, just as Covid-19 is tightening its grip on the most remote areas, doubling the pressure on people’s lungs and hospital capacity. This is not the only correlation, however, between these two destructive forces.

Scientists and international organisations have long warned that the emergence of diseases such as Ebola, Zika, Aids, Sars and Malaria originate from animal populations under severe ecological stress, such as human encroachment, extreme heat and destruction of habitat.

A 2019 report by USAID and the EcoHealth Alliance found that close to one third of the infectious diseases that have originated from wildlife in the last 60 years have been related to some form of change of land use, such as deforestation.