Explained: Why Amazon fires are worrying

Neha Banka
Brazil has seen a record number of wildfires this year, counting 74,155 as of Tuesday, an 84 pe rcent increase compared to the same period last year. Bolsonaro took office on January 1. (Reuters)

Over the last several days, the Amazon rainforest has been burning at a rate that has alarmed environmentalists and governments worldwide. Mostly caused by farmers clearing land, the fires have thrown the spotlight on Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro s policies and anti-environment stance.

Where are the Amazon fires happening?

Started in the Amazonian rainforests, the fires have impacted populated areas in the north, such as the states of Rond nia and Acre, blocking sunlight and enveloping the region in smoke. The smoke has wafted thousands of miles to the Atlantic coast and S o Paulo, according to the World Meteorological Organization.

Brazil s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) has reported that forest fires in the region have doubled since 2013, and increased by 84% compared to the same period last year. This year alone there have been 72,843 fires, it said, and more than 9,500 of those have happened over the past few days.

How did the Amazon fires start?

The weekly Brasil de fato reported that Bolsonaro s anti-environment rhetoric has emboldened farmers, who organised a fire day along BR-163, a highway that runs through the heart of the rainforest. The weekly quoted a report by local newspaper Folha do Progresso, that local farmers had set fire to sections of the rainforest a few days ago to get the government s attention. We need to show the President that we want to work and the only way is to knock it down. And to form and clear our pastures, it is with fire, Folha do Progresso quoted one farmer as saying.

A snapshot of biomass-burning aerosol concentrations above South America on August 20, taken from an animated forecast map by Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS). The red patches show the highest aerosol concentrations, resulting from the forest fires raging for several days now.

Alberto Setzer, a researcher at INPE, told Reuters that this year, the region did not experience extreme dry weather. The dry season creates the favourable conditions for the use and spread of fire, but starting a fire is the work of humans, either deliberately or by accident.

The Amazon fires are so large that they are visible from space. NASA released images on August 11 showing the spread of fires and reported that its satellites had detected heightened fire activity in July and August.

Why are the Amazon fires a cause for concern?

The Amazon rainforest is a repository of rich biopersity and produces approximately 20 per cent of oxygen in the Earth s atmosphere. It is also home to indigenous communities whose lives and homelands are under threat due to encroachment by the Brazil government, foreign corporations and governments with economic interests in the resource-rich region, and local farmers.

In a 2017 study, the University of Leeds found that carbon intake by the Amazon basin matches the emissions released by nations in the basin. The burning of forests, therefore, implies additional carbon emissions. Research by scientists Carlos Nobre and Thomas E Lovejoy suggests that further deforestation could lead to the Amazon s transformation from the world s largest rainforest to a savanna, which would reverse the region s ecology.

A National Geographic report said the Amazon rainforest influences the water cycle not only on a regional scale, but also on a global scale. The rain produced by the Amazon travels through the region and even reaches the Andes mountain range. Moisture from the Atlantic falls on the rainforest, and eventually evaporates back into the atmosphere. The report said the Amazon rainforest has the ability to produce at least half of the rain it receives. This cycle is a delicate balance.

A tract of Amazon jungle burns as it is being cleared by loggers and farmers in Novo Airao, Amazonas state, Brazil August 21, 2019. (Reuters Photo)

What environmental protections do Brazil s laws provide, and what has changed in recent times?

Under Brazil s Forest Code of 1965, farmers could purchase Amazon land but could farm only 20% of it. Following the collapse of the military dictatorship in 1988, a new constitution gave indigenous populations legal ownership of their land and the right to reject development of their land. In 2012, the Forest Code was revised to reduce the area of deforested land required to be restored, and to reduce penalties for illegal deforesting. In 2018, Brazil s Supreme Court upheld these changes.

Bolsonaro, who took office in January 2019, had promised during his election campaign that his government would open up the Amazon region for business. The Amazon has large reserves of gold and other minerals. Along with aggressive policies of promoting agribusiness, Bolsonaro has opposed protections for indigenous tribal land. A few months before he won, The Washington Post reported that Bolsonaro had recommended exploiting the country s natural resources by tapping into the Amazon basin. After the victory, he wwas quoted as saying: Brazil should not sit on its natural reserves because a handful of Indians want to conserve it.

Since the 1960s, the Amazon has witnessed large-scale deforestation because of cattle-ranching, logging, power projects, mining and farming. Agribusiness products in 2016 represented 46% of Brazil s exports. Conservationists believe that for Brazil s government, short-term economic interests pushed by lobbies take precedence over environmental concerns.

Flames are seen along the BR364 highway in Guajara-Mirim, Rondonia, the northern Brazilian state close to the Amazon forest (Reuters Photo)

How has the government reacted to the concerns over the fires?

Bolsonaro has dismissed the INPE findings and said it was the time of the year when farmers burn the land for farming. In July, he fired INPE scientist Ricardo Galvao for publishing agency data that showed the accelerated rate of deforestation, calling the figures a lie and the images manipulated. Al Jazeera English quoted Bolsonaro as saying that a report like this one that does not match the truth can cause a great damage to the image of Brazil . INPE has defended its data.

Bolsonaro, who took office in January 2019, had promised during his election campaign that his government would open up the Amazon region for business. (Reuters Photo)

How has the international community reacted?

Germany and Norway have suspended funding for programmes that aim to stop deforestation in the Amazon and have accused Brazil of doing little to protect the forests. Indigenous groups and environment activists have led protests and criticised Bolsonaro for his comments and policies.

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