The number of fires in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest rose 20 percent in June to a 13-year-high for the month. It could signal a repeat of last year’s massive forest fires, which are deliberately set to clear land for cattle and crops.
In June, Brazil’s government space research agency, INPE, detected 2,248 fires in the Amazon rainforest, up from 1,880 in June 2019.
Still, the burning pales when compared with the surge in fires seen last August, which sparked global outcry that Brazil was not doing enough to protect the world’s largest rainforest.
June 2020 averaged roughly 75 fires per day in the Amazon, compared with an average of nearly 1,000 blazes a day when fires peaked in August 2019.
“It’s a bad sign, but what really is going to count is what happens from now on,” said Philip Fearnside, an ecologist at Brazil’s National Institute of Amazonian Research.
Deforestation is up 34 percent in the first five months of the year, from a year ago, preliminary INPE data shows.
Fearnside said weaker environmental enforcement under right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro is to blame for rising destruction. Bolsonaro has called for more farming and mining in protected areas of the Amazon, while defending the country for still preserving the majority of the rainforest.
Bolsonaro deployed the armed forces to protect the Amazon in May, as he did in August last year. Despite that initiative, deforestation rose 12 percent in May from a year earlier and increased in June.
The Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM), a Brazilian non-governmental organization, predicts that at the current pace of deforestation, there will be around 9,000 square kilometers (3,475 square miles) of Amazon by the end of July that have been cut down but not burned since the beginning of 2019, when Bolsonaro assumed office.
The areas at risk of being set ablaze compare with 5,539 square kilometers deforested and burned from January 2019 to April 2020, IPAM said in its analysis earlier this month.
Meanwhile, communities in the Amazon are bracing for the smoke that sweeps over the region during the fire season, which is generally at its height from August to November.
Guilherme Pivoto, an infectologist in Amazonas state, said worsening air quality from the fires could exacerbate harm to those suffering from COVID-19, he said. A dense layer of pollution from the fires plagues the cities of São Paulo, Manaus and Cuiabá.
“Those that contract COVID have a higher chance of an interaction between the pollution and the virus, causing drawn-out cases with more symptoms,” Pivoto said.
Since 1978 more than 750,000 square kilometers (289,000 square miles) of Amazon rainforest have been destroyed across Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, Venezuela, Suriname, Guyana, and French Guiana.
For most of human history, deforestation in the Amazon was primarily the product of subsistence farmers who cut down trees to produce crops for their families and local consumption. But in the later part of the 20th century, deforestation has been fueled by industrial activities, including large-scale agriculture. By the 2000s more than three-quarters of forest clearing in the Amazon was for cattle-ranching, but the palm oil and soy bean industries also are eating away at the rainforests. In July 2019, deforestation soared to levels not seen in more than a decade.
Meanwhile, the expansion of roads opened remote forests to settlement by farming, logging and land speculation.
“Environmental regulations are not being complied with, in some cases they have been repealed, while regional and national guidelines have been developed to promote land speculation, livestock and industrial agriculture. Policy changes represent an opportunity to transform the rainforest,” said Liliana Dávalos, a biologist and researcher at Stony Brook University in New York.
According to Carlos Durigan, the Brazil country director for the Wildlife Conservation Society, there is a criminal element to the fires being set to clear huge areas for expanding large-scale agriculture and livestock operations, mainly in the southern Amazon. There is a great arc of deforestation there where protected natural areas and indigenous territories are being impacted.
Some species with low mobility, such as insects and vertebrates including turtles, lizards and amphibians, are unlikely to escape the fires. The consequences for fauna are yet to be well measured. In terms of vegetation, very old forests are being lost, which is generating more carbon emissions, which will be impossible to capture again. Much of the forests will not recover, even if they are not completely burned.