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Upset about Amazon fires last year? Focus on deforestation this year (commentary)

  • Satellites reveal the true story of the 2019 Brazilian Amazon fires, and how to avoid a repeat in 2020.
  • The common media narrative, and resulting public perception, is that large uncontrolled fires were raging through the Brazilian Amazon rainforest, causing vast destruction and deforestation. Subsequent analysis of extensive satellite imagery archives, however, has quietly revealed the opposite scenario: many of the fires were actually burning the remains of areas that were recently deforested.
  • That is, the recent deforestation surge fueled the 2019 Brazilian Amazon fires. The fires were in fact a lagging indicator of recent deforestation. Such information provides a much more focused target for the world’s outcry and related policy actions than just focusing on the fires alone.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

The recent fires in Australia bring flashbacks of last August in the Brazilian Amazon, when news of massive blazes also captured the world’s attention (and for many, provoked intense concern and rage). Although the Amazon fires are currently out of the headlines, now is actually a critical time to understand what happened in order to avoid a repeat of the crisis in 2020.

A key piece to the drama is that several months after the fires, Brazil was in the news again with the release of new data showing escalating deforestation in the Amazon. Critically, however, few have made the key connection between the fire and deforestation stories.

The common media narrative, and resulting public perception, is that large uncontrolled fires were raging through the Brazilian Amazon rainforest, causing vast destruction and deforestation. Subsequent analysis of extensive satellite imagery archives, however, has quietly revealed the opposite scenario: many of the fires were actually burning the remains of areas that were recently deforested.

Specifically, extensive analysis of a large archive of high-resolution satellite images spanning the last three years (obtained from Planet, the company with the largest active fleet of Earth-imaging satellites) unequivocally showed that fires burned over 1.1 million acres that were recently deforested since 2017. Moreover, two-thirds of this burned area was very recently deforested in just the five months preceding August 2019.

Base Map. Brazilian Amazon 2019. Click for larger size. Data: UMD/GLAD, NASA (MODIS), DETER, Hansen/UMD/Google/USGS/NASA. Credit: MAAP.

This surprising and novel result flips the script on the common “raging fires” narrative and instead shows a deeper link between the fire and deforestation stories. That is, the recent deforestation surge fueled the 2019 Brazilian Amazon fires. The fires were in fact a lagging indicator of recent deforestation.

Mongabay covered the story last September and November, but unfortunately this critical finding has not gone mainstream. This is unfortunate because of the significant policy implications: local, national, and international focus needs to be on minimizing new deforestation in order to prevent fires, in addition to continuing to strengthen fire prevention efforts across the Amazon.

Recent news reports indicate that the leading deforestation driver in the Brazilian Amazon area affected by the fires is cattle ranching. Indeed, one of the most shocking things about the widespread nature of the fires is how the greatest rainforest on Earth has been transformed to a massive agricultural complex.

Such information provides a much more focused target for the world’s outcry and related policy actions than just focusing on the fires alone.

As we start the new year, let’s take this opportunity to learn from what the satellites have revealed about last year. Most importantly, let’s focus on how to minimize deforestation now to avoid a repeat of an Amazon fire crisis in August 2020.

A common scenario of the August 2019 Brazilian Amazon fires: burning recently deforested areas. Data: Planet. Credit: MAAP.

Dr. Matt Finer is Senior Research Specialist and Director of the Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP) at Amazon Conservation.

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