Amazon Wildfires: 4 Things We Still Need to Know

Our earlier stories, Wild Claims about Wildfires in Brazil and Beyond the Amazon drew a lot of reader attention.  It took three weeks for the Brazilian wildfire story to move from social media into the mainstream, but once it did, the world was captivated.

As we told readers then, the web was spreading both good and bad information faster than the fires themselves.  Now it seems as though the media focus has moved on, but we have four parts of the rainforest story we still want to talk about.

First of all, people still start fires in Brazil.  Readers may have heard that, reacting to the outcry, the Brazilian government banned deliberate fires in the Amazon.  That hasn’t stopped anything.  Just two days after the ban, Brazil’s National Space Research Institute spotted nearly 4,000 new outbreaks.  They were happening all over the country, with about 2,000 right in the rainforest.  Public interest may have burnt out, but the fires haven’t.

Also, readers shouldn’t think that the Brazilian government has clamped down on losing the rainforest.  President Bolsonaro goes by the nickname “Captain Chainsaw”.  His government is trying to get rid of environmental laws in Brazil.  For example, AP reports that the government has started moving employees out of three of the four federal environmental protection offices in Amizonas state.  They are the ones in charge of stopping logging, land grabbing and illegal fires in the rainforest.

Bolsonaro has cut the budget for the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (known by the Portuguese acronym “Ibama”) by 24%.  As a result, Climate Observatory reports that field operations by agents from January through April went down 58% from last year.

Bolsonaro is pushing to get government spending under control.  He also thinks conservation stands in the way of badly needed economic growth.  He doesn’t represent the Brazilian people on this.  Polls have shown that as many as 90% of Brazilians want to protect the rainforest.

Bolsonaro views Ibama as bureaucratic and anti-business. He once said, “I will no longer allow Ibama to distribute fines right, left and center.” We should mention that, a couple of years before he took office, Ibama fined Bolsonaro for fishing in a protected area.

Ten employees of environmental agencies told AP that they experience more censorship, intimidation and retaliation from superiors under Balsonaro.  This might explain why wildfires in Brazil rose 85% under his leadership.

Another concern is the people behind the loss of Brazil’s rainforest.  Human Rights Watch reports that they are organized crime.  We covered the plight of Environmental Humans Rights Defenders in Latin America in an earlier story.  Since then, we’ve learned about an ongoing showdown between them and criminal networks active in Brazil.

These syndicates have the resources to do illegal, large scale logging in the rainforest and protect it with their own security. These goon squads threaten, assault and even murder anyone trying to stop them. Once they’ve taken the valuable timber, they burn off the land to get it ready for industrial farming.

This is another reason why Ibama agents get less done these days.  They need police or military backup to safely do their work.  Under Bolsanaro, that support isn’t there.  Environmental human rights defenders, including indigenous groups, do what they can, but they’re no match for the thugs protecting these criminal gangs.

The fourth issue we’d like to raise is the long-term damage from these fires. Carlos Nobre, a senior researcher at the University of São Paulo, told National Public Radio that scientists have discovered a “tipping point” around forest loss in the Amazon. Since deforestation, climate change and increased vulnerability to fire are all acting on the forest at once, scientists project that loss of the Amazon forest has to stay below 25%. If not, 60% of the forest will dry up into savanna.

The wildfires do even more damage than we think.  Widespread forest fires aren’t natural in the Amazon.  The tree species there haven’t evolved to protect themselves from fire damage.  Here in Canada, and wherever forest fires are common, trees have a thick layer of bark that shields them from the flames.  The bark on many tree species in the Amazon is paper thin.

Even though they will seem fine at first glance, a study by researchers at Oxford shows that fires damage the trees’ sap flow. This slowly kills them within about eight years of the fire.  Replacing their ability to store carbon after they’re gone would take thousands of years.

The global community needs answers to four questions.  Why isn’t the Brazilian government enforcing its own ban on deliberate burning in the rainforest?  Are Balsonaro’s so-called cutbacks meant to shield organized crime in his country?  Why don’t Brazil’s army and police protect environmental agencies and let them do their jobs?  What is Balsonaro’s plan to stop forest loss from reaching the tipping point?

We always have more to learn if we dare to know.

Learn more:

Almost 4,000 new blazes started across Brazil in 48 hours after ban on burning forest landBrazil’s environmental workers tell of decline before fires
Rainforest Mafias
Amazon fires push the forest closer to a dangerous tipping point
Drought-induced Amazonian wildfires instigate a decadal-scale disruption of forest carbon dynamics


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