Eye on the Amazon

Fires Rage Over the Amazon and the Entire World. But There Is Still Time to Act!

Photo credit: Sergio Vale

From the U.S. to Brazil, Siberia to Turkey, Italy to Greece, we're witnessing fires raging across the globe, consuming forests, lives, wildlife, and our future. The combination of extreme heat and prolonged drought have in many regions led to the worst fires in almost a decade and come as the IPCC handed down a landmark report on the escalating climate crisis.

California is fighting to contain the largest wildfire in its history with more than 100 other large fires raging in 15 other states. Wildfires are also ravaging large areas in southern Europe as the region endures its most extreme heatwave in three decades. Russia's forestry agency said this year's fires have consumed more than 14 million hectares, making it the second-worst fire season since the turn of the century.

It's all connected. The burning season of Amazon forest has also begun. A historic drought, rampant deforestation, and lax environmental regulations mean this year is likely to be a devastating year for fires. On August 3 of this year, 267 major fires had already been detected in the rainforest, burning more than 105,000 hectares — an area roughly the size of Los Angeles, California. More than 75% of these fires were set in the Brazilian Amazon, followed by Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia, according to a report by the Amazon Conservation Association's Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP).

However, unlike in the U.S. and around the world, fires don't occur naturally in the Amazon rainforest. They are set deliberately to clear deforested areas to make way for agriculture or renew existing pasture. Most of the fires in Brazil this year (67%) have burned in already deforested areas. Fires have also razed natural savanna grasslands, burning within and around Indigenous territories such as Xingu and Kayapó.

On June 29th, Bolsonaro decreed the redeployment of soldiers to the Amazon to combat fires and deforestation and also issued a 120-day ban on unauthorized outdoor fires. This will mark the third time that Bolsonaro has dispatched troops to the Amazon. But the military has failed to safeguard the Amazon, deforestation last year surged to a 12-year high. Areas equal to seven times the size of London were destroyed. The military has neither the tools, the mentality, nor the structure to target and pursue those responsible for the destruction. Bolsonaro's plan to send soldiers comes as the U.S. administration has called for curbing Amazon deforestation in order to help arrest climate change. The U.S. has made clear it would only be willing to contribute once Brazil registers concrete progress, of which there has so far been no sign.

Escalating deforestation, forests on fire

Deforestation in the Amazon is still out of control: in the last 12 months, the total area of deforestation alerts in 2021 covered 871200 hectares, an area nearly the size of Boston, according to data released by Brazil's National Space Agency, INPE, through their Real-time Deforestation Detection System (DETER) in early August 6.

This is the second-highest figure since the series started in 2016, second only to last year. The three record-breaking highs have all taken place during the Bolsonaro administration, and alerts have increased by 69.8% when compared to the average rates of previous years. DETER's data is still preliminary. Official deforestation data will only be released at the end of the year. But DETER's alerts indicate that annual deforestation is expected to be, for the third time, close to 10,000 km2, which has not occurred since 2008.

And what is the relation of this data with fires? In a recent article from Mongabay, Matt Finer, senior research specialist, and director of MAAP explains: "The critical pattern in the Brazilian Amazon continues to be that most of the major fires… are actually burning the remains of freshly cut areas, like a big smoking indicator of the current high deforestation problem in Brazil."

From carbon sink to carbon source?

Fires in the world's largest rainforest have consequences for our global climate. According to a recent study published in Nature, the Brazilian Amazon is now considered a carbon source, emitting more carbon than it captures and stores. Rising temperatures, drought, and resulting death of trees have disrupted the balance of growth and decay in the forest, but arson has tipped the scales.

Southeastern Amazonia, in particular, switched from being a carbon sink to a carbon source during the study period. Emissions were high in 2010 because of a dry El Niño year, researchers said, and they expected to see emissions return to normal afterward. But this never happened. The reason: increased emissions from fires. According to the IPCC report, released this week, the Amazon will have among the highest "fire weather indices" in the world over the 21st century – regardless of future warming.

The Amazon rainforest is fast approaching a point of no return. Under Bolsonaro, the rainforest is being burned, cleared, and stolen from Indigenous peoples and traditional communities at an accelerating pace.

But, there is still time to act and hold those responsible to account.

Financial institutions such as BlackRock and Vanguard, companies, and governments must stop financing destructive projects in the Amazon, protect our planet and our common future by phasing out fossil fuels, and stopping extractive activities on Indigenous and public lands. We should all take the guidance of Indigenous Peoples and traditional communities to protect and restore forests and other vital ecosystems.

Amazon Watch will be monitoring the burning season in the Amazon with weekly bulletins, reporting, and producing content to explain the causes of fires in the forest, the impacts on Indigenous territories, and to tell you stories from Indigenous peoples and partners on the ground who are working tirelessly to prevent and combat the fires. We will also continue to mobilize funds to respond to on the ground prevention and monitoring projects via our Amazon Defenders Fund. Since 2019, the ADF has drastically increased its regranting related to fires and over $1 million has been distributed directly into the hands of Indigenous communities with your support. Your voice and partnership will be needed to amplify the real drivers of the fires. Stay tuned!

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