Since 1999 there has been a 65% increase in wildfires in the country.
Once an area is affected by fires, its forests can take up to 50 years to regenerate, depending on the ecosystem.
The latest wildfire struck two months ago and was also the largest, devastating about one-third of the indigenous territory of Arariboia, in the state of Maranhão
There has been a 25% increase in the number of wildfires in Brazil since January 2015. According to the country’s National Institute of Space Research, or INPE, this year 220,000 fires outbreaks were identified, putting Brazil at the top of the list for South America. If we were to look back to 1999 — when wildfires began to be tracked nationwide — we’d see a whopping increase of 65%. In most cases, the biomes that continue to suffer the most are in the Amazon region, in the states of Pará, Mato Grosso and Maranhão.
Alongside the incidence of wildfires, deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon is obviously also on the rise. The recent data presented by environment minister Izabella Teixeira, shows that approximately 2,251 square miles of forest (equivalent to the size of the country’s capital, Brasília) were burned down.
“This increase in fires in these areas happens due to the expansion of the agricultural frontier, with the advancement of plantations, and activities like livestock farming,” said INPE fire monitoring program researcher Fabiano Morelli. The data collected, explained Morelli, is helping health and environment agencies develop strategies to control and to cope with these tragedies affecting ecosystems, species, and humans alike.
One of the latest incidents struck about two months ago: it turned out to be one of the largest fires devastating about one-third of the indigenous territory of Arariboia, in the state of Maranhão. The wildfire is currently being investigated as a crime, believed to have been caused by the local loggers who are in conflict with the indigenous peoples inhabiting the forest. The native community not only lives in the forest, but is also active through patrols and community organizing in trying to curb the illegal activities in the area. Last month, it took over 300 fire fighters to stop the fire from spreading.
Once affected, always vulnerable
According to Professor Kenny Tanizaki from the Geoenvironmental Analysis Department at the Universidade Federal Fluminense (UFF), once an area is struck by a wildfire, it will remain vulnerable to new ones for a long time to come.
“The material that survives the fire, like twigs and pieces of trees, settles down and becomes a very potent fuel for new fires, which leads to a feedback loop that generates new fires,” he explained. “This allows for a huge environmental imbalance, with the decrease of fauna and flora species, soil erosion, silting of rivers, and the lowering of the water table, causing more severe periods of droughts and floods. Another result is the increasing imbalance in the hydrological cycle found in these places,” he added.
Once these areas are affected by fires, forests can take up to 50 years to regenerate, depending on the ecosystem. “High resilience mangrove forests recover quickly, within ten years,” explained biologist Mario Moscatelli, from Santa Úrsula University in Rio de Janeiro. “Lower resilience sandbank forests recover in up to 50 years. And the hillside forests of intermediate resilience can take up to 30 years to go back to normal.”
For Moscatelli, the fires constitute a “real environmental holocaust.”
“Fires destroy the soil and fauna, and lead to a loss of biodiversity,” said Moscatelli to Mongabay. “They lead to the depletion of species that interact in the recycling of nutrients from the soil.”
Deforestation numbers don’t give us the full picture
The fire data released by INPE was announced three days before the country’s participation in the COP 21 climate conference in Paris. At the time, President Dilma Rousseff disclosed only the historical data on deforestation in the country, which had been on a downward trend over the past decade. According to INPE, between 2004 and 2015, deforestation in the country had fallen by 79%.
But in her statement, Rousseff ignored last year’s numbers, not only regarding deforestation (which grew by 16%), but also more specifically, she failed to provide the total number of registered fires. Since 1999 there has been a 65% increase in wildfires in the country.
An analysis of the data by region is also alarming many scientists working in the Brazilian Amazon. According to the Deforestation Monitoring Project in the Legal Amazon (PRODES), the state of Amazonia saw increase in fires by 54% in just one year; Rondônia’s grew by 41%, and Mato Grosso’s by 40%.
A previous analysis by the ministry of the environment showed that newly deforested areas would be linked to the expansion of cattle ranching and agriculture in the states of Mato Grosso, Rondônia, and Amazonia. This type of deforestation occurs usually through burning.
“There has been a change in the profile of deforested areas: before we saw sprayed deforestation, but now we are deforesting large areas,” said minister Izabella Teixeira.
Teixeira acknowledged that the numbers can be seen as contradictory, since Brazil’s government has made investments of around $30 million to the states that were willing to preserve forests and create policies to avoid fires. “This increase [in wildfires] is not consistent with the resources available to these states. These weren’t just a few grants: in one year we increased the release of federal grants by 30%.”
Deforestation continues to grow, even despite government intervention
The data from Global Forest Watch reinforces the theory that deforestation continues to grow in the country despite efforts otherwise. According to the partnership of organizations monitoring forests worldwide, tree cover loss has grown in the past year and satellite monitoring shows that wildfires have too, in states such as Mato Grosso, Pará, and Maranhão.
Since COP21 brought world leaders together in Paris, the governments of Brazil and Norway have agreed to extend their partnership on climate and forest issues by 2020. Looking forward, this will translate to an investment of about $600 million in grants from the Norwegian government to the Amazon Fund, created to combat the advance of deforestation in the country. This partnership, signed in 2008, has resulted in the contribution of $1 billion by the northern European country, one of the top donors for climate-related initiatives in the developing world.
“We are reinforcing our commitment to a low carbon economy based on sustainable agriculture, renewable energy, forest restoration and reforestation, and the elimination of illegal logging,” said President Dilma Rousseff at the time of the announcement. “All to reduce emissions.”