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Forest fires surge in Brazil

Loveday Wright
August 21, 2019

Forest fires are surging in Brazil, with thousands being recorded this week alone. Scientist Carlos Nobre from Sao Paolo University says politics is to blame for the alarming increase.

Forest fire in Tapajos National forest
Image: Getty Images/AFP/A. Scorza

Nearly 73,000 fires were recorded between January and August, compared with 39,759 in all of 2018, according to the latest figures from INPE, Brazil's National Institute for Space Research, which monitors forest fires in the Amazon region. The number is the highest since records began, and an 83% increase on the number of fires in the same period last year. President Jair Bolsonaro suggested Wednesday, without citing evidence, that nongovernmental organizations could be setting them to make him look bad.

Carlos Nobre, a Senior researcher with the Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of Sao Paolo, says the combination of traditional farming methods and the current political rhetoric is lethal for the future of the forest.

DW: What's behind this surge in forest fires in Brazil? Is it to do with warmer temperatures or stronger winds this year, or is it something else?

Carlos Nobre: It is something else. In fact the dry season this year is not extremely dry, it is normal. The winds in that part of the Amazon are not that strong. So really, most of the forest fires in the Amazon are not natural forest fires, they are human-induced, usually by farmers and ranchers.

Read moreMass deforestation: How trade fells trees in Brazil and Indonesia

Unfortunately, in tropical agriculture, fire is still used routinely. And some of those fires spread, then reach and burn large areas of forest. The typical system in Brazil and in all Amazonian countries is that people cut down trees and then leave the area to dry out for about two or three months before setting it on fire in order to clear the land for agricultural purposes.

So this is a very common phenomenon. But what we're seeing this year is more deforestation. We estimate that the forest areas in the Brazilian Amazon have decreased something between 20% and 30% compared to the last 12 months.

Infographic showing deforestation in the Amazon between 1985 and 2017

Is there any attempt to stop these fires?

It's very difficult because the use of fire is a traditional part of tropical agriculture in order to clean up agricultural land, grazing land, so it's very difficult to stop. For many years, there were periods in which fire was prohibited, but unfortunately most of the farmers and cattle ranchers do not abide by those legal instruments. They get fined, but it does not work. Fires are increasing. There is a culture in the agricultural sector in the Amazon to use fire extensively and intensively.

How big are these fires and how much damage are they doing?

INPE's systems rely on satellites which detect hot spots related to fire. So they are measuring both fires which are for agricultural purposes and also fire in the forest.

This is not unique, we have seen these fires for many decades. But unfortunately, the number of fires has peaked this year. This shows that deforestation is increasing and that farmers and ranchers are using fire even more intensively.

Brazil's new federal government is encouraging these models of agricultural development. Even the president is encouraging it, making almost daily statements saying that agriculture is a powerful economic sector for Brazil and the agricultural frontier has to expand.

Read moreBrazil registers huge spike in Amazon deforestation

So there is not even a hidden message, it's an open message that these farmers and cattle ranchers are heroes, that they should move the agricultural frontier because they are bringing progress and income, which is not necessarily true. But these messages send a signal to the farmers and ranchers: Let's clear more land, let's cut down the forests, let's set fires, because nothing will happen to us.

How much forest do we stand to lose if this continues?

It's very likely that deforestation rates in the last twelve months will be significantly higher than the preceding 12 months. Looking at the satellite images, we can estimate about 20% to 30% higher, which is a very high rate.

Unfortunately, data shows that even during the years in which deforestation reduced a lot, the number of fires did not reduce at the same rate. So we got very concerned because it shows that farmers and ranchers continue to use fire even when the rate of clearing and cutting down of forests goes down.

It also shows that the forest is becoming more vulnerable, because people are not abiding by the laws. Across the Brazilian Amazon, most states have laws which outline periods during the dry season when no farmer or rancher is allowed to use fire. But they do not abide by that law, and fires are increasing.

Deforestation in the Amazon
The Amazon basin, home to the world's largest tropical forest, is vital to countering global warming.Image: Getty Images/AFP/R. Alves

What can be done to reduce the fires there?

There is an educational approach, which takes a long time. Modern agriculture does not use fire at all. You do not need to use fire to clean the grazing land or the crop land after harvest. In countries where agriculture is very developed, fire is not used. But teaching this approach takes time, many years or decades.

The other issue that is more urgent is really to be rigorous in terms of law enforcement. Up to 80% of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon is illegal. Between 2005 and 2014, deforestation rates decreased because there were many more control measures. A lot of those guilty of these environmental crimes were arrested. There were campaigns against illegal deforestation and also campaigns against using fire. But unfortunately those campaigns, and that moment of being very rigorous about people not abiding by the law, are over. So now we are seeing an increase in deforestation and also fires.

Germany and Norway have halted their protection subsidies for the Amazon. How much will that affect conservation work in the region?

That will do much more harm than good. The total amount of those funds is not large, it's about one billion dollars over 10 years. And only something like 600 million dollars was used over 10 years. However, it was very important, because those funds from Norway and Germany were instrumental in demonstrating ways that the Amazon could be developed without clearing and cutting down forests, without fire, by empowering local communities.

Read moreBrazil's Amazon deforestation documented via massive satellite imaging

So I think it would be very bad for the future of the Amazon if we — Amazonian countries, in particular Brazil — lose that support from other countries that show there is an alternative. Since the politicians in power in many Amazonian countries do not share that vision, it's important for these countries to receive some international aid that really demonstrates in practice that we can have a different development model for the Amazon.

It's even more essential at this point, because if these countries decide not to donate, just to say they disagree with the current government policies, the government policies will not change.

Brazil's president is making jokes about Norway and Germany withdrawing from funding international aid. So it's almost like, "we are winning, our models of development, destroying the forests, replacing them with cattle ranches and crop land. This is our model and we are succeeding. Even international aid is being reduced, so we are winning the game." So I think the loss of funding is a bad thing. It's the serious Brazilian institutions that are going to miss out on this international aid.

Carlos Nobre is a senior researcher with the Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of Sao Paolo. He previously worked as a researcher at INPE and was not directly involved in this latest study.

The interview was edited and condensed for clarity.