Wildfires in the Amazon threaten environmental advances in the climate-critical region

October 17, 2023
wildfire smoke

Wildfire numbers on the rise

Despite efforts to reduce deforestation, Brazilian Amazonia is facing increased threats from uncontrolled wildfires.

The region is a major carbon sink, vital for addressing climate change, and boasts rich biodiversity and cultural significance.

International researchers weigh in

An international research team from institutions such as the University of East Anglia (UEA) and the University of South Alabama, Michigan State University, and the National Institute for Space Research in Brazil among others have expressed concerns in a recently published letter in Nature Ecology & Evolution.

In June 2023, active fires in the Amazon reached a record high since 2007.

Reports show that fire counts for the first half of 2023 were 10% higher than the previous year.

Root causes of the increase

Dr Matthew Jones of UEA stated: “Climate change has increased drought and heat, making forests more susceptible to burning.”

Furthermore: “The expansion of agriculture and deforestation has compromised the resilience of these forests to droughts.”

He emphasized: “Wildfires are now more frequent than they would be in a healthy rainforest.”

Past fire count surges, especially the notable ones in August and September 2022, were tied to widespread deforestation, a key ignition source.

However, there’s some good news as deforestation rates dropped in 2023.

Alerts were 42% lower from January to July compared to the same timeframe in 2022.

Other significant environmental achievements include shutting down major illegal mining operations that posed threats to the ecosystem and Indigenous communities, especially in the Yanomami territory.

Decoupling of fires and deforestation

Dr. Gabriel de Oliveira, the lead author from the University of South Alabama, pointed out: “Despite reduced deforestation this year, high fire counts persist.”

He added: “Only 19% of fires were linked to recent deforestation between January and June 2023, a decrease from 39% in 2022.”

The 2023 El Niño, producing hotter and drier conditions, might be intensifying these fires.

Researchers also believe that weakened environmental regulations under President Bolsonaro and the deforestation surge have residual effects. Forest areas felled in recent years are now drying, making them more susceptible to burning.

Landholders are also preemptively burning pastures early in the dry season, anticipating stricter environmental governance from President Lula, especially given the strong El Nino associated drought.

The Indigenous perspective

Dr Rachel Carmenta from UEA highlighted: “Balanced fire management is crucial to prevent further sidelining of forest-dependent communities.”

These communities, she mentions, are most affected by uncontrolled forest fires and general fire policies.

While Indigenous communities have used fire in their farming practices for centuries, they haven’t faced fires of the current magnitude.

Dr Carmenta adds: “Large-scale actors, climate change, and forest fragmentation are primary drivers of the current crisis.”

Yet, smaller traditional communities bear the blame and suffer the most when invasive fires harm the forest resources they rely on.

Future concerns and solutions

Dr Scott Stark from Michigan State University warned: “Fire incidents are likely to increase with expected drier conditions in the coming months.”

Dr de Oliveira stressed the importance of a multifaceted approach: “Reforestation, forest management, and agroforestry are essential to prevent severe forest fires and degradation that’s independent of deforestation.”

The experts unanimously call for robust, fair, and synchronized global actions to address this escalating challenge.

In August, Brazil organized a summit of Amazon countries focusing on sustainable development and forest conservation.

Although the resulting Belém Declaration outlined several key goals, it stopped short of a firm pledge for zero deforestation by 2030 or significant reduction in forest fires.

Nevertheless, the declaration formed a crucial alliance against deforestation and recognized fire concerns, highlighted the needs of Indigenous communities, and introduced a scientific body similar to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to create evidence-based solutions for the Amazon.

The authors concluded: “Brazil and other Amazon nations, along with the global community, must collaborate and provide the necessary support for research, governance for equitable land management, limit forest loss, and transition from a commodity-driven economy to a sustainable bioeconomy benefiting all Amazonians.”

The letter titled ‘Increasing wildfires threaten progress on halting deforestation in Brazilian Amazonia’ was published on 16 October 2023 in Nature Ecology and Evolution.

FSJA Comment

The escalating wildfires in the Amazon not only jeopardize the significant strides made in combatting deforestation but also underscore the urgent need for collaborative, informed, and proactive measures.

The global implications of these fires, considering the Amazon’s role as a major carbon sink, should prompt swift action.

Enhanced international cooperation, effective governance, and a shift towards sustainable economic models are imperative for the preservation of this vital ecosystem and the well-being of its inhabitants.

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