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A bad fire year predicted in Brazil’s Acre state. What’s to be done?

  • As of Aug. 15, 29 major fires have been set this year in the southwestern Brazilian state of Acre, burning more than 1,000 hectares (2,500 acres), compared to just one major fire reported by the same date last year, which burned 20 hectares (50 acres).
  • A recent study found that unprecedented levels of fires burned in standing rainforest in 2019, which was neither a drought nor an El Niño year, meaning the risk of forest fires is rising, even when rainfall is normal.
  • The authors say this adds to mounting evidence that the discourse and policies of President Jair Bolsonaro’s administration, which began in January 2019, have relaxed regulations and emboldened land grabbers and those who set illegal fires.  
  • Researchers say they hope that new platforms to monitor and predict fires, as well as educational programs about fires and fire alternatives in schools, communities and on the radio will lead to behavioral changes and less fire, but say government support and investment is needed.

The Brazilian state of Acre, nestled along the border with Peru and Bolivia in the Amazon, has been called “the place where the wind makes the curve,” a saying that, in Portuguese, means “somewhere very far away.”

“There’s [even] an ongoing joke in Brazil about Acre not really existing,” Foster Brown, senior scientist at the Woodwell Climate Research Center and adjunct professor at the Federal University of Acre, told Mongabay.

But Acre, which is about the size of the U.S state of Florida and 80% covered in old-growth Amazon rainforest, does exist. And, ironically, it is the place where the winds do curve, carrying the Amazon’s “flying rivers,” the large masses of moisture that move above the rainforest, from the east to the southeast.

The state has a long history of environmental leadership, punctuated by Acre’s own Chico Mendes, the famed trade union leader who organized a peaceful resistance movement to prevent forest destruction before his murder in 1988. And Acre, says Brown, is one of the Brazilian states historically considered to be a “green state.”

A road inside the Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve in Acre, the conservation unit under most intense deforestation and fire pressure. Image by Katie Maehler/Mídia NINJA (CC-BY-NC).

But even Acre is not too green to burn. As of Aug. 15, 29 major fires have been set this year in Acre since May, burning more than 1,000 hectares (about 2,500 acres), according to the Amazon Conservation Association’s Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP). Only one major fire was reported by the same date last year, burning 20 hectares (50 acres). In 2020, 91 major fires burned 3,067 hectares (7,579 acres) total in Acre between May and November.

In Acre, as in the rest of the Amazon, fire is used as a tool to clear land for agriculture, mainly cattle ranching and soy farming. Typically, forests are cut during the wet season and then set ablaze during the dry months (May through October) of the same or following year. Because of this pattern, deforestation can be used as a predictor of the coming fire season.

As of this week, there are 20% more deforestation alerts than the same week last year, Sonaira Souza da Silva, a fire expert, and professor at the Federal University of Acre, told Mongabay.

And, according to her most recent July 31 bulletin, less than 1% of land deforested in 2021 has already burned. That’s bad news for the future, she says, “because that’s all going to burn either this year or next.”

This year’s historic drought in the Amazon, coupled with high levels of deforestation, has experts worried that this will be a bad year for fires.

“We have about 20% less rainfall in this region [Acre] from August to October than in the 1980s,” Liana Anderson, a scientist at Brazil’s National Center for Monitoring and Early Warning of Natural Disasters (CEMADEN) told Mongabay. “We have all these factors … that enhance the probability of wildfires and on top of that, because of the major drought, we have more dead trees in the forest. So, everything is more vulnerable to fires.”

Map of Acre state in Brazil from Global Forest Watch Platform showing VIIRS “hotspot” fire alerts as of Aug 13, 2021.

Acre has been the epicenter of mega droughts in 2005, 2010 and 2016. It was in 2005 that fires began, notably, to leave deforested agricultural lands and burn in standing Amazon rainforest, where fires have not historically occurred.

“The dogma up to then was that it’s too wet in the western Amazon for that to occur,” Brown told Mongabay. “And then 2005 happened … The fires were so far out of control and going into the forest … So that is when we lost our innocence.”

That age of innocence has been lost all across the Amazon. Last year, an unprecedented number of major fires (41% of total fires between May and November) burned in standing rainforest, covering an area roughly the size of the country of Wales in the U.K.

“Whether the percentage [of fires in 2021] is going to be more than what it was last year, I don’t know,” Philip M. Fearnside, an ecologist at the National Institute for Amazonian Research (INPA) in Brazil, told Mongabay. “But the fact that there’s likely to be more burning means that there’s probably going to be more forest fires as well.”

A recent study by Silva, Fearnside and others examined burned areas in Acre between 2016 and 2019 and found that unprecedented levels of fires burned in standing rainforest in 2019, which was neither a drought nor an El Niño year (when warming of Pacific Ocean currents influence global weather). This means the risk of forest fires is rising, even when rainfall is normal.

“This shows that climate was not behind the record fires in 2019,” the paper says, “suggesting these fires were intentional and were not unintended accidental fires.”

Deforestation and fire in the Chico Mendes Reserve. Image courtesy of Anderson Lisboa.

The authors say this adds to mounting evidence that the discourse and policies of President Jair Bolsonaro’s administration, which began in January 2019, has emboldened land grabbers and “led deforesters to believe that violations of environmental laws will be forgiven and that regulations will be further relaxed.”

Nearly half of all the forest area in Acre is protected by conservation units. Of those, the Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve is under most social, political and economic pressure, representing 43–66% of the total burned area across all protected areas, according to the study. Burning in the reserve increased by 340% between 2018 and 2019, according to the study. Livestock grazing, and the devaluation of forest products such as Brazil nut and rubber, are to blame, it says.

How do we stop the burning?

“We are trying our best to generate scientific information and translate it into tools and knowledge for society [so] we can control this problem and avoid future fires,” Anderson said.

To this end, Anderson and colleagues have worked on several ways to monitor and predict fires, such as the Forest Fires and Forest Fires Risk and Impact Management Platform (MAP-Fire Platform), which allows Brazilian, Peruvian and Bolivian researchers to monitor fires in the triple border region in the southwestern Amazon and provide information to society and decision-makers. Also in the works is a platform to forecast seasonal fires across all South American protected areas.

Another way to stop fires is to raise awareness among communities and farmers engaged in burning. According to Anderson, many of the farmers they speak to feel there is a lack of material or knowledge for them to bring to their communities about alternatives to burning.

“When we say that they cannot use fire or they should avoid using fire because of the problems,” Anderson said, “many times what people will say is ‘we know and we don’t want to use it, but it’s the only tool we have.’”

There are other ways to clear the land for agriculture that do not involve setting fires such as using a tractor-driven chopper to transform fallow vegetation into mulch, enriching the soil.

“In Acre, they have already the policy that subsidized tractors for farmers,” Anderson said. “This is one example that is easy to understand, if you have a tractor you don’t need to use fire. But this cannot be [the only] solution, because there are many places that you simply cannot get to with a tractor.”

Greater economic subsidies from the government, especially for small farmers, are needed to support fire-free farming, she says, because owning and maintaining a tractor, for instance, is not affordable for many.

Burning to clear pastures in Acre. Image courtesy of Yara de Paula.

Anderson and her colleagues are also working to educate the next generation. Last year, CEMADEN worked in three public schools in Acre, where more than 500 students were involved in creating activities related to fire to increase societal awareness.

“I’m fairly optimistic because even facing all the difficulties for the pandemic, we managed to really engage with these three schools,” Anderson said. “And you can imagine that now we have more than 500 families [with] kids are inside the home, talking about fires, the impact of fires, fires are real, fires are occurring the Amazon and where to find reliable information because, of course, fake news is a big setback, in all this discussion.”

Anderson and partners are also working on a book for teachers to discuss the science and risk of fires in the Amazon with students, complete with suggested activities. And because the internet and schools are not available to everyone, they have developed a weekly radio show that’s broadcast far and wide across Acre and features young scientists speaking about their research on fire.

“By working with the school communities … I think we increase the possibility to make [this] relevant for this generation. And hopefully, this information and this way of thinking can change the behavior of a generation,” Anderson says. “This is highly ambitious, I know. But I think it’s one strategy that we can use.”

But to gain scale and create change, all of these tools and strategies, Anderson says, need more investment and recognition from the government.

“Unfortunately, our government is not interested in science,” Carlos Joly, a professor of plant ecology at the State University of Campinas (UNICAMP) in São Paulo state, said in a panel discussion hosted by the Inter-American Institute for Global Change Research earlier this year. “It doesn’t matter how much more data we produce showing the destruction of the forest is harmful.”

A fire in Acre on Aug. 9, 2021, as captured by satellite imagery. As of Aug. 15,  more than 1,000 hectares (about 2,500 acres) have burned in Acre. Image courtesy of MAAP/Planet Labs.

Bringing the government on board may require directing attention to public health and the economy. Smoke from fires can have serious consequences for human health and, according to data from Acre’s air quality monitoring network, the amount of particulate matter in the air during both the 2019 and 2020 burning seasons reached levels recognized by the World Health Organization known to cause negative health effects.

On the economic side, a 2019 study estimates that direct losses from fires in 2010, such as fences, agricultural production, and CO2 emissions, as well as indirect losses such as respiratory illness, represented economic losses of around 5-9% of the GDP of Acre. As fires increase, the costs will also rise.

“Fires are expensive,” Anderson said.

The record fires in Acre, and elsewhere, are expected to continue if environmental enforcement continues to be loosened in Brazil. “Acre and other Amazonian states must act quickly to avoid an upsurge of social and economic losses in the coming years,” Silva and co-authors say.

“We know that we know what to do, and we know how to do it,” Anderson said. “And there is time to act to avoid this imminent disaster.”

Citations:

Da Silva, S. S., Oliveira, I., Anderson, L. O., Karlokoski, A., Brando, P. M., de Melo, A. W., … Fearnside, P. M. (2021). Burning in southwestern Brazilian Amazonia, 2016–2019. Journal of Environmental Management286, 112189. doi:10.1016/j.jenvman.2021.112189

Denich, M., Vlek, P. L., de Abreu Sá, T., Vielhauer, K., & Lücke, W. (2005). A concept for the development of fire-free fallow management in the Eastern Amazon, Brazil. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment110(1-2), 43-58. doi:10.1016/j.agee.2005.05.005

Campanharo, W. A., Lopes, A. P., Anderson, L. O., Da Silva, T. F., & Aragão, L. E. (2019). Translating fire impacts in southwestern Amazonia into economic costs. Remote Sensing11(7), 764. doi:10.3390/rs11070764

De Oliveira, G., Chen, J. M., Stark, S. C., Berenguer, E., Moutinho, P., Artaxo, P., … Aragão, L. E. (2020). Smoke pollution’s impacts in Amazonia. Science369(6504), 634.2-635. doi:10.1126/science.abd5942

Banner image: A firefighter holds a small rodent killed in the fire.  Photo by Auricelio Dantas de Souza and  Antônio Maycon Almeida dos Santo.

Liz Kimbrough is a staff writer for Mongabay. Find her on Twitter: @lizkimbrough_

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