Major fires in Brazil in 2020

Fire data from MAAP’s Amazon Fire Monitoring App is updated in real time and will include data from after the publication date

Cartography by Willie Shubert in collaboration with

Data could help curb future forest fires

Devastating scenes from last year’s Amazon fires shook the world.

But this year’s blazes are already worse than those in 2019, though their harm has been cloaked by the COVID-19 pandemic which has kept media teams out of the remote Amazon.

That’s why, researchers say, the new NASA system couldn’t have come at a better time. “This year, the Amazon has had more forest fires than last year. But you wouldn’t know that by looking at the total number of hot pixels,” said Morton. “Not all fire detections are of equal importance.”

Fires in recently deforested areas, along with understory forest fires, raise the greatest concern among scientists, as they emit the most carbon and cause the most damage to the rainforest and biodiversity.

Liana Anderson, a researcher at the Brazilian Centre for Monitoring and Early Warning of Natural Disasters (CEMADEN), is working with her team on quantifying the impacts of fire in the Amazon. A better understanding of the real cost of Amazon fires, she says, could inform annual budget planning for firefighting and prevention. “In this moment of crisis, we need incentives for science to support decision making and the issues that affect society.”

Estimates based on data from 2008 to 2012 in the Brazilian state of Acre suggest that damage from fires may total 7% of the Amazon’s GDP. “Fire damages infrastructure, such as fencing between farms, electric transmission and roads. Smoke damages health which has a cost. There are also losses to agricultural production, and in rarer cases, [fire] can even interrupt air traffic,” said Anderson. The new NASA monitoring tool could help with these financial damage estimates — economically justifying improved fire control to Brazil’s federal and state governments.

Separating smallholders from Amazon arsonists

This August, in the municipality of Canaã dos Carajás, an isolated fire burned in what was likely a small pasture, according to the NASA Amazon fire data tool. The flames didn’t last long, didn’t affect standing forest, and were characteristic of fire used by small scale landholders to renew the soil on family farms, ensuring the local food supply.

But on July 15, Jair Bolsonaro decreed a 120-day fire ban, making all intentionally set fires in the Amazon illegal until October, with an exception made only for indigenous and traditional communities.

That ban criminalized smallholders and stimulated a disorganized use of fire among poor rural communities, while distracting authorities from large scale illegal land grabbers, says Sonaira Silva, an agronomist at Brazil’s Amazon-based Federal University of Acre.

NASA’s new monitoring tool could help end that problem by differentiating between deforestation blazes and small scale agricultural fires, allowing authorities to filter out low-impact fires and close in on large scale criminal actors in the Amazon.

Amazon fires August 1, 2020 in Brazil’s Pará state (upper right), Mato Grosso (bottom) and Amazonas (upper left). Long vertical brown line to right of center marks the BR 163 Highway which gives easy access to the rainforest and land grabbers. Smoke just to left of BR 163 rises over Jamanxim National Forest illegal burn. Large cleared area to far right edged with smoke is Xingu basin. The smoke to far left is over Tapajós basin. Note how big fires almost always edge deforested areas, indicating likely illegal clearing for cattle ranches. Image courtesy of NASA.
Data for a major forest fire near the Baú Indigenous Territory, compared to what may be a small pasture fire in the Canaã dos Carajás municipality, both in Pará state. The difference in size and impact of the fires demonstrates that fires can be prioritized. Data updated on September 2, 2020. Data from NASA’s Amazon Fire Emissions Database.

“One person burning 1,000 hectares [2,471 acres] is the same as 500 families living off subsistence farming,” Silva told Mongabay following a public webinar held on Amazon fires hosted by the Sustainable Amazon Network (RAS) on September 1.

“We can’t have zero fire in the Amazon. These top-down prohibitions aren’t effective because we need to be able to separate who is who: people causing criminal destruction of the rainforest [for profit] and impoverished family-based smallholders who use fire as their only means of securing food.”

This year’s ban is pushing low-income families to use fire in a disorderly way, increasing the risk of forest fires, Silva says. “They become apprehensive about being fined and feel they can claim the fire wasn’t intentional if it doesn’t look neat. If it’s a perfect rectangle, that becomes difficult.”

Still, a problem remains: the Bolsonaro administration, rather than utilizing the new NASA fire tool, seems intent on discrediting and possibly dismantling INPE, Brazil’s space agency, long responsible for tracking Amazon fires.

Banner Image: A firefighter puts out flames in Acre, in the Brazilian Amazon, August 8, 2020. Image by Sérgio Vale/Amazônia Real.

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Article published by Glenn Scherer
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