In Brazil’s rainforests, the worst fires are likely still to come

. Sep 09, 2019
In Brazil’s rainforests, the worst fires are likely still to come Wildfires are closely linked to deforestation

The number of fires in the Amazon rainforest this year is the highest since 2010, reaching more than 90,000 active blazes. Farmers and ranchers routinely use fire to clear their land in the dry season, but this year’s numbers reflect a worrisome uptick in the rate of deforestation, which dropped around 2005 before rebounding earlier this decade.

Many people blame the Brazilian government and its pro-agriculture policies for the current crisis. But as an environmental researcher who has worked in the Amazon for the past 25 years, I can say

the seeds were planted before the election of President Jair Bolsonaro in 2018. And the <a href="">prospects of slowing deforestation</a> remain dim, an issue that matters to people around the world.</p> <p>That’s in part because the current administration has only aggravated the situation with its anti-environmental agenda. Unless the Brazilian people succeed in making Bolsonaro retreat from his stated goal of &#8220;developing&#8221; the Amazon, deforestation will rear its ugly head once more. Adding fuel to the fire is the quickening pace of the Initiative for the Integration of the Regional Infrastructure of South America (IIRSA), a multinational plan to build roads, dams and rail lines across the rainforest.</p> <h2>Conflicting objectives</h2> <p>Brazil managed to significantly reduce deforestation rates at the turn of the millennium with effective environmental policy and voluntary efforts by the private sector. Deforestation, which began in the 1970s, rose again in 2015 as a result of political turmoil and an economic recession that paved the way for policy reversals.</p> <p>The Amazonian deforestation rate dropped from about 27,700 square kilometers in 2004 to 4,571 sq km in 2012, and remained low until its resurgence a few years ago. This was a result of effective environmental policy, which in Brazil is mostly based on protected areas—such as national parks—and a forest code limiting the amount of land that can be cleared on individual properties.</p> <div class="flourish-embed" data-src="visualisation/659590"></div><script src=""></script> <p>Over the years, the Brazilian government has developed a system of protected areas for ecological protection and indigenous reserves. In 2002, it expanded the coverage of these zones to about 43 percent of the entire Amazon rainforest. It also created protected areas in locations of land conflict, as a means of slowing down rampant fires and deforestation.</p> <p>Furthermore, the enforcement of the forest code was enhanced by the development of a satellite monitoring system that enabled Brazil’s environmental protection agency to identify law-breaking property owners from space.</p> <p>Alongside the government, the private sector helped lower the rate of deforestation. Soybean farmers stopped planting new fields in the forest, and retailers demanded that the goods they sold come from already cleared lands, so they could certify them as “green,” especially with regard to beef.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image"><img src="" alt="rainforest map" class="wp-image-23791" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 610w, 1200w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /><figcaption>An image from the Brazilian space agency INPE shows the extent of deforestation since the late 1980s and the Amazon rainforest in recent years.</figcaption></figure> <p>Unfortunately, these efforts began to unravel almost as soon as they proved themselves effective. The background reason is that many have long viewed the rainforest as a vast store of valuable resources to be used for the economic development of a poor region. </p> <p>The agenda of IIRSA—an extensive infrastructure-building project launched in 2000 to link the region’s economies and remote areas—expresses this view, common to all nations that share the Amazon basin. These include—besides Brazil—Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Suriname, and Venezuela. It should come as no surprise that their individual guidelines for the region all reflect a contradiction between economic development and environmental conservation.</p> <p>In Brazil, the government not only creates protected areas, it downsizes them in order to prepare for infrastructure projects. Former President Dilma Rousseff even reduced the size of the Amazon National Park in 2012—the first of its kind in the region—to make way for the Tapajós Hydroelectric Complex, a key component of the IIRSA plan.</p> <p>The government does not act in a vacuum. In Brazil&#8217;s Congress, the agricultural and mining caucuses—among the most influential in the country—work tirelessly to undermine environmental policy.</p> <p>This led to revisions in the forest code in 2012 which favored agriculture, not the environment, by waiving requirements for deforestation culprits before 2008 to have to reforest the area in accordance with the law. Continuous political action from the agricultural caucus in 2017 then made it easier for land grabbers to gain lawful deeds to illegally seized lands.</p> <h4 style="text-align:center">Two images from the same 10-kilometer square area in Brazil reflect how cleared land replaces the forest in the Amazon</h4> <div class="flourish-embed" data-src="visualisation/659798"></div><script src=""></script> <h2>Rainforest: fears of a tipping point</h2> <p>President Bolsonaro has inherited a set of weakened environmental policies and all indications are that he will continue to undermine them. At the same time, he has acted on his promise to open up the Amazon to development by announcing plans to build a bridge across the Amazon River and extend a paved road all the way to the border with Suriname. The IIRSA agenda appears to be accelerating, and as people flock to the region to take advantage of the jobs it creates, the fires should only get worse.</p> <p>Since the Brazilian military government ventured into the Amazon in the 1970s, fires have been deliberately set on a yearly basis to make way for fields and pastures and to fertilize soils. The rainforest maintains a moist climate, which limits the reach of blazes. Thus, super fires don&#8217;t rage over hundreds of kilometers as we see with wildfires in the U.S. However, this could change due to the cumulative effect of the repeated use of fire.</p> <p>Research shows that every year the forest burns, the destructive effect spreads beyond the flames to kill trees and desiccate the landscape. This could make the forest ever more vulnerable to fire by way of a buildup of flammable materials and the coalescence of fire-scarred ecosystems across broad swathes of the entire basin.</p> <p>If Brazil does not retreat from the course it is on, scientists warn there will come a time in the near future when Amazonian fires burn without control, and push the forest to a point of no return, which some have called a “tipping point” that will permanently change the underlying ecosystem. Without a restoration of environmental policy in Brazil, the worst fires are yet to come.<br></p> <div class="wp-block-image"><figure class="alignleft"><img src="" alt="the conversation brazil article" class="wp-image-398" srcset=" 300w, 768w, 1024w, 2000w" sizes="(max-width: 300px) 100vw, 300px" /></figure></div> <h6 style="text-align:right">Originally published on<br><a href=""><strong>The Conversation</strong></a></h6> <img src="" alt="The Conversation" width="1" height="1" style="border: none !important; box-shadow: none !important; margin: 0 !important; max-height: 1px !important; max-width: 1px !important; min-height: 1px !important; min-width: 1px !important; opacity: 0 !important; outline: none !important; padding: 0 !important; text-shadow: none !important" /> <p>

Robert T. Walker

Professor of Latin American Studies and Geography, University of Florida

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