Record-breaking fires are ripping through the Amazon — an ecosystem on which the whole world depends. The Verge will update this page with news and analysis on the fires and the effects that could linger once the ash settles.
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Why is the Amazon burning?
An unprecedented number of fires raged throughout Brazil in 2019, intensifying in August. That month, the country’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) reported that there were more than 80,000 fires, the most that it had ever recorded. It was a nearly 80 percent jump compared to the number of fires the country experienced over the same time period in 2018. More than half of those fires took place in the Amazon.
The number of blazes decreased in September, after president Jair Bolsonaro bowed to mounting pressure to address the flames and announced a 60-day ban on setting fires to clear land. Some exceptions were made for indigenous peoples who practice subsistence agriculture and those who’ve received clearance by environmental authorities to use controlled burning to prevent larger fires.
“There is no doubt that this rise in fire activity is associated with a sharp rise in deforestation”
“These are intentional fires to clear the forest,” Cathelijne Stoof, coordinator of the Fire Center at Wageningen University (WUR) in the Netherlands, tells The Verge. “People want to get rid of the forest to make agricultural land, for people to eat meat.” The INPE found that deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon hit an 11-year high in 2019.
“There is no doubt that this rise in fire activity is associated with a sharp rise in deforestation,” Paulo Artaxo, an atmospheric physicist at the University of São Paulo, told Science Magazine. He explained that the fires are expanding along the borders of new agricultural development, which is what’s often seen in fires related to forest clearing.
President Jair Bolsonaro’s administration, which had pledged to open up the Amazon to more development, has sought to shift attention away from deforestation. Bolsonaro initially pointed a finger at NGOs opposing his policies for allegedly intentionally setting fires in protest, without giving any evidence to back his claim. In August, he fired the director of the National Institute for Space Research over a dispute over data it released showing the sharp uptick in deforestation that’s taken place since Bolsonaro took office. On August 20th, Brazil’s Minister of the Environment Ricardo Salles tweeted that dry weather, wind, and heat caused the fires to spread so widely. But even during the dry season, large fires aren’t a natural phenomenon in the Amazon’s tropical ecosystem.
Why is this a big deal?
Everyone on the planet benefits from the health of the Amazon. As its trees take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen, the Amazon plays a huge role in pulling planet-warming greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere. Without it, climate change speeds up. But as the world’s largest rainforest is eaten away by logging, mining, and agribusiness, it may not be able to provide the same buffer.
“The Amazon was buying you some time that it is not going to buy anymore,” Carlos Quesada, a scientist at Brazil’s National Institute for Amazonian Research, told Public Radio International in 2018. Scientists warn that the rainforest could reach a tipping point, turning into something more like a savanna when it can no longer sustain itself as a rainforest. That would mean it’s not able to soak up nearly as much carbon as it does now. And if the Amazon as we know it dies, it wouldn’t go quietly. As the trees and plants perish, they would release billions of tons of carbon that has been stored for decades — making it nearly impossible to escape a climate catastrophe.
Everyone on the planet benefits from the health of the Amazon
Of course, those nearest to the fires will bear the most immediate effects. Smoke from the fires got so bad, it seemed to turn day into night in São Paulo on August 20th. Residents say the air quality is still making it difficult to breathe. On top of that, a massive global study on air pollution found that among the two dozen countries it observed, Brazil showed one of the sharpest increases in mortality rates whenever there’s more soot in the air.
And because fire isn’t a natural phenomenon in the region, it can have outsized impacts on local plants and animals. One in ten of all animal species on Earth call the Amazon home, and experts expect that they will be dramatically affected by the fires in the short term. In the Amazon, plants and animals are “exceptionally sensitive” to fire, Jos Barlow, a professor of conservation science at Lancaster University in the UK, said to The Verge in an email. According to Barlow, even low-intensity fires with flames just 30 centimeters tall can kill up to half of the trees burned in a tropical rainforest.
Why is this a hot topic politically?
When Jair Bolsonaro was campaigning for office as a far-right candidate, he called for setting aside less land in the Amazon for indigenous tribes and preservation, and instead making it easier for industry to come into the rainforest. Since his election in October 2018, Bolsonaro put the Ministry of Agriculture in charge of the demarcation of indigenous territories instead of the Justice Ministry, essentially “letting the fox take over the chicken coop,” according to one lawmaker. His policies have been politically popular among industry and agricultural interests in Brazil, even as they’ve been condemned by Brazilian environmental groups and opposition lawmakers. Hundreds of indigenous women stormed the country’s capital on August 13th to protest Bolsonaro’s environmental rollbacks and encroachment of development on indigenous lands. The hashtag #PrayforAmazonia blew up on Twitter.
About 60 percent of the Amazon can be found within Brazil’s borders, which gives the nation a massive amount of influence over the region. Not surprisingly, the fires have called international attention to the plight of the Amazon and have turned up the heat on Bolsonaro’s environmental policies.
French President Emmanuel Macron took to Twitter to call for action, pushing for emergency international talks on the Amazon at the G7 summit. On August 26th, the world’s seven largest economies offered Brazil more than $22 million in aid to help it get the fires under control. Bolsonaro promptly turned down the money, accusing Macron on Twitter of treating Brazil like a colony. Some in Brazil, including Bolsonaro, see the international aid as an attack on Brazil’s sovereignty, and its right to decide how to manage the land within its borders.
“Letting the fox take over the chicken coop”
President Donald Trump, on the other hand, congratulated Bolsonaro on his handling of the fires. “He is working very hard on the Amazon fires and in all respects doing a great job for the people of Brazil,” he tweeted on the 27th.
Bolsonaro has since said that he’ll reconsider the deal, as long as Macron takes back his “insults” and Brazil has control over how the money is spent. On the 27th, Bolsonaro accepted $12.2 million in aid from the UK.
How are the fires being fought?
After weeks of international and internal pressure, Bolsonaro deployed the military to help battle the fires on August 24, sending 44,000 troops to six states. Reuters reported the next day that warplanes were dousing flames.
“It’s a complex operation. We have a lot of challenges,” Paulo Barroso tells The Verge. Barroso is the chairman of the national forest fire management committee of the National League of Military Firefighters Corps in Brazil. He has spent three decades fighting fires in Mato Grosso, one of the regions most affected by the ongoing fires. According to Barroso, more than 10,400 firefighters are spread thin across 5.5 million square kilometers in the Amazon and “hotspots” break out in the locations they’re unable to cover.
“We don’t have an adequate structure to prevent, to control, and to fight the forest fires”
Barroso contends that they need more equipment and infrastructure to adequately battle the flames. There are 778 municipalities throughout the Amazon, but according to Barroso, only 110 of those have fire departments. “We don’t have an adequate structure to prevent, to control, and to fight the forest fires,” Barroso says. He wants to establish a forest fire protection system in the Amazon that brings together government entities, indigenous peoples, local communities, the military, large companies, NGOs, and education and research centers. “We have to integrate everybody,” Barroso says, adding, “we need money to do this, we have to receive a great investment.”
Barroso and other experts agree that it’s important to look ahead to prevent fires like we’re seeing now. After all, August is just the beginning of Brazil’s largely manmade fire season, when slashing-and-burning in the country peaks and coincides with drier weather.
Controlled burns are also a popular deforestation technique in other countries where the Amazon is burning, including Bolivia. There, the government brought in a modified Boeing 747 supertanker to douse the flames.
Using planes to put out wildfires in the Amazon isn’t a typical method of firefighting in tropical forests, and is likely to get expensive, Lancaster University’s Jos Barlow tells The Verge. He says that large-scale fires in areas cleared by deforestation “are best contained with wide firebreaks created with bulldozers — not easy in remote regions.” If the fires enter the forest itself, they require different tactics. “They can normally be contained by clearing narrow fire breaks in the leaf litter and fine fuel,” Barlow says. “But this is labour intensive over large scales, and fires need to be reached soon, before they get too big.”
Fires that have been intentionally set, as we’re seeing in Brazil, can be even more difficult to control compared to a sudden wildland fire. “They’re designed to be deliberately destructive,” says Timothy Ingalsbee, co-founder and executive director of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology and research associate at the University of Oregon. Slashing before burning produces a lot of very dry, very flammable fuel. And at this scale, Ingalsbee calls the fires “an act of global vandalism.”
Barlow says, “The best fire fighting technique in the Amazon is to prevent them in the first place — by controlling deforestation and managing agricultural activities.”
WUR’s Cathelijne Stoof agrees: “Fighting the fires is of course important now,” she says. “For the longer term, it is way more important to focus on deforestation.”