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14 Oct 2019 9:57
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  •   Home > News > Environment

    The Amazon rainforest fires continues to burn and there are fears the worst is yet to come

    As thick plumes of smoke blanketed Brazil's most populous city, global attention turned to the Amazon rainforest. But one month on, the fires are still burning.


    As thick plumes of smoke blanketed Brazil's most populous city Sao Paulo, global attention turned to the cause.

    The Amazon, the world's most biodiverse rainforest, was burning at a rate not seen in almost a decade.

    It was decried as a global tragedy. Lit by farmers, the fires raged through villages, destroyed ecosystems and pumped climate-warming pollution into the atmosphere.

    The Brazilian government, which has been criticised for winding back protections of the Amazon, sent in the army and slapped a temporary ban on fires used to clear land.

    But one month on, the fires are still burning.

    The sheer size of the Amazon, and those fires that engulfed it, can be hard to comprehend. But from this far up, you can start to get a better sense of the scale.

    The Amazon rainforest, which is often referred to as the Earth's lungs, covers an area of about 5.7 million square kilometres — that's about three quarters of the entire area of mainland Australia.

    Between January and the end of July, data from the Brazil's National Institute for Space Research (INPE) shows almost 16,000 active fire hot spots had been detected within the Amazon biome.

    Just one month later, that figure had almost tripled to more than 46,000 fires. The fire season was so-far the worst in almost a decade.

    Agricultural fires like this one were being lit all around the edges of the rainforest.

    As more and more fires flared up, thick plumes of smoke began pouring from the Amazon into the air.

    Unusual weather systems carried that smoke thousands of kilometres to the south and west towards Brazil's Atlantic coastline.

    Then at 3pm on August 19, the plume mixed with thick clouds over Sao Paulo, turning day into night and drawing global attention to the fires burning in the Amazon.

    It sparked outrage because fire is not a natural part of the Amazon's ecosystem.

    Carlos Nobre, a world leader in the study of the Amazon's degradation based at the University of Sao Paulo, said the cause was poor farming practices. "Tropical agriculture never ceases to light fires," he said.

    Many of the tens of thousands of fires that were detected in the Amazon in August were lit by farmers.

    You can see how many of the fires appear to be on the edge of the forest. That's because fire is often used to burn through newly felled forests that have been cleared to make way for pastures. It's a technique known as "slash and burn".

    The pastures are then allowed to grow for a few years, before being burned again to boost the nutrients in the soil.

    This is why fires and deforestation are intertwined in the Amazon. It's a relationship that's clearly visible in satellite data.

    These are the areas where rainforest has recently been felled or lost, according to INPE data.

    It lines up almost perfectly with the locations of this year's fires.

    Imagery: EU/Sentinel 2

    Imagery: NASA

    It's a vicious circle as fire after fire, as well as other farming activities, damage surrounding forests making them more prone to future fires.

    The cycle has alarmed some scientists who fear the rainforest is being pushed closer toward a tipping point they call the "dieback scenario", where the forests enter an irreversible cycle of collapse.

    "This year it is a correct statement that most of the fires are on previously cleared lands or are deforesting lands immediately adjacent to them," said Professor Mark Cochrane, an expert in Amazon deforestation from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

    That's the case most years, since fires are lit by farmers and usually can only spread through disturbed forest. An exception is during severe droughts, when fires can spread through less disturbed forest, Professor Cochrane said.

    But he said this year was "exceptional in recent memory" because of the proportion of the ongoing fires were being used for deforestation, rather than merely for the maintenance of previously deforested areas.

    The latest data shows a dramatic uptick in land clearing in July and August, just as the fires took hold.

    July and August this year had the highest rates of clearing of any month in the past five years, according to Brazil's space agency. July 2019 saw more than twice the previous record of clearing of any month since 2015, with more than 2,200 square kilometres of forest gone.

    It's that deforestation that has many worried.

    "Back when I lived in the Amazon in the 1990s, and prior to that in the 1980s, there was horrific deforestation," said Professor Bill Laurence from James Cook University.

    "In some phases it was pushing 3 million hectares a year — that's the size of Belgium."

    Deforestation rates in Brazil were slowly edging higher until 2005 when a Catholic nun fighting to protect forests there was murdered, sparking a national outcry.

    "President Lula da Silva sent the Army in — that's how big it was. That was really the beginning of the collapse in deforestation."

    But since Jair Bolsonaro became president of Brazil this year, protections of the Amazon have been rolled back.

    He's cut funding to Brazil's national environmental agency, issued fewer penalties for illegal deforestation and his government sacked the head of Brazil's space agency after it reported a sharp rise in deforestation rates.

    "About 80 per cent of deforestation in the Amazon is illegal," Professor Nobre said.

    "The president himself has been attacking law enforcement agents in the media even before he came into office in January. He conveyed a message of 'wild west' for the Amazon, a message that 'progress' is to push the commodities frontier deep into the forest."

    Research suggests that if deforestation continues in the Amazon, as much as 40 per cent of it could be gone by 2050.

    Professor Nobre, who has studied the Amazon for four decades, said he thought Brazil had laid out a different path for the world's most biodiverse forest.

    "It is very disappointing to see the anti-science movement spreading in Brazil," he said.

    Professor Nobre said there was little point trying to put out fires once they had been lit — there are so many that it's not practical.

    "After the worldwide outcry against Amazon deforestation and fires, [the] Brazilian government sent army personnel to put some fires out and Air Force aircraft [are] doing some of the same."

    "This is more a visibility action to show to the world Brazil is doing something," he said.

    As the fires drew international attention, the Brazilian government also banned the use of fire to clear land for two months, except in traditional agriculture.

    But there doesn't seem to have been much impact on the rising fire counts recorded by INPE.

    The only effective action, according to Professor Nobre, would be to stop fires being lit in the first place.

    To do that more enforcement of the law is needed and farmers need better support to move away from out-dated farming techniques, Professor Nobre said.

    "Modern agricultural techniques really do not use fire anymore," he said.

    Paul Read is an expert in arson and bushfires at Monash University. "In developing countries fires are lit due to economic necessity," he said.

    "That's why global inequity needs to be moderated within all nations, so that the poorest can live without — out of necessity — doing damage to the biosphere that protects us and our children."

    Professor Cochrane said he felt "resigned".

    "I've been working closely with such fires for 25 years in this region and others. This is a very serious and destructive problem but global attention is only present when the smoke impacts major cities," he said.

    Credits:

    Reporting: Michael Slezak and Mark Doman

    Development: Nathanael Scott

    Digital Production: Mark Doman


    © 2019 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved


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