On the outskirts of the Tapajós National Forest, between Santarém (PA) and Belterra (PA), the ashen floor of the burned forest contrasts with the living green of areas which still stand. This image was taken in 2015, a year in which fires were among the most severe in the recent history of the Amazon. / Photo: Flavio Forner

Unreported fires

Wildfires in the Amazon have dangerous accomplices: crime, lack of economic alternatives amongst some of the poorest members of society, legislative inefficiencies and even climate change. Preventative measures are still insufficient and the story of wildfire in the Amazon is largely untold

It was early in December of 2015 when a few loud fire alarms sounded in the international media. The spark was an internet post signed by researchers Erika Berenguer and Jos Barlow, in the British version of the international science outreach project The Conversation. They described bearing witness to hellish scenes. “In the last five weeks, we’ve been waking up under a thick veil of smoke”, the researchers said. “For days now we’ve barely seen the sun”, they continue, “our clothes and hair constantly smell of smoke. We are living in the middle of a continuous barbecue in the largest tropical rainforest in the world”, they conclude.

Between September and December 2015, Erika, a rainforest specialist at Lancaster University, in the United Kingdom, and a member of the Sustainable Amazon Network (Rede Amazônia Sustentável, RAS), was in the city of Santarém (Pará/Brazil), one of the areas worst affected by fire outbreaks in the Amazon in 2015. She says she experienced some of the worst times of her life when she saw the forest burn incessantly. “The local population was suffering from respiratory diseases”, she recalls. “I felt like I was in the movie Bambi, when his mother dies. I saw animals fleeing the fire, thousands of insects jumping, burning. Desperate, the animals crossed the road. Those that weren’t burned to death were run over. It was all really heavy”, recalls the researcher, who, when despair peaked, tried countless times to extinguish the flames with her own boots – all in vain.

Santarém was shrouded in smoke between August and November 2015 and again from January to May 2016. During these periods, the satellites used by the NGO Imazon – which publishes independent and periodical reports with rates and levels of deforestation and forest degradation in the Amazon – did not detect signs of fire, since the presence of clouds or smoke in the sky blinds the electronic eyes of the satellites. It was only in June of 2016, when researchers from Imazon prepared the report for that period, comparing data from 2015 to those of 2016, that someone noticed something atypical about the fire outbreaks in Santarém. OEco, a leading environmental journalism website, investigated the story. In October, it proclaimed that the extent of forest degradation caused by the fires that Erika saw in Santarém had surpassed that of deforestation experienced across the entire Brazilian Amazon in 2015.

Across a region encompassing the five municipalities of Santarém, Mojuí dos Campos, Uruará, Juruti and Belterra, 7,400 km2 of forest burned – the equivalent of 740,000 soccer fields. “It’s larger than anything we’ve ever seen before in the Amazon”, Imazon researcher Antonio Fonseca, the first to come across the data, told OEco. Erika says she tried, at the time, to disseminate the story. She somewhat succeeded, albeit timidly, in national media coverage. “We made more of a ruckus in England”, she recalls.

Unlike savannas or some temperate forests, moist tropical rainforests have not evolved to burn. And what the wildfire does not destroy immediately remains degraded for years. Studies have highlighted the slow death of up to half of the trees within three years of a fire outbreak. Science still can’t fully determine how long it would take for total recovery of a forest, or even if it will one day recover. In Santarém, the extent of the fire was so great that RAS researchers returned to make a stock-take of biodiversity in November-December 2016. Alexander Lees, a biodiversity expert at Manchester Metropolitan University and a coordinator of RAS: “After burning several times, the forest can lose its ability to regenerate, some species may never return”, he laments.

Researchers warn that species that colonize burned areas may not be the same as those that lived there before. This is because some species are less demanding when adapting to a new environment. “The forest, after the fire, still has plants and birds, but these species tend to be generalists, they survive in the most adverse conditions. With it, a whole range of specialist species are lost, including those that are more rare and that often play key roles in various ecological processes”, explains Erika. The researcher gives the example of vines, which are also abundant in secondary forests, and may give the false impression that the forest is rich in vegetation: “In truth, they could be preventing the recovery of the trees. It’s a vicious cycle”, she concludes.

The traditional use of fire in the region as a cost-effective technique to clear forests for pastures and crops makes life difficult for officers from ICMBio, the federal environmental agency. In the dry season, flames advance across conservation units and toxic smoke permeates local communities. / Photos: Flavio Forner

Putting out fires is just a cover up

It is estimated that there is a human hand behind virtually every fire in the rainforest. Lighting a match is a matter both of tradition and of cost. Fire has always been used by rural people, all the way back to the region’s indigenous population who used fire to keep their cultivated areas open. Even today it is the only land-clearing tool available for many smallholders. The lack of public policies to aid smallholders to control fires or gain access to alternative techniques for soil preparation is a major problem. To add to this there is a criminal component: when fire is part of an intentional process to degrade the forest. “After fire, the forest is disfigured, often to the point where you can barely say it’s still a forest. Then someone will say ‘it wasn’t my fault’ and use it as an argument to finish what the fire started and clear the area”, explains Erika.

Degradation begets degradation in a vicious cycle. Forests that have already lost their largest trees have a more open canopy and more sticks and larger pieces of wood build up on the ground. With the forest more exposed, the incidence of sun and wind increases – drying up the forest. Wood and leaves on the ground act as fuel. Edge effects also play a role in this cycle: forests that share a border with open areas become vulnerable to drying winds, which also allow flames to penetrate more easily. And from time to time the whole degradation process is supported by a strong ally: climate.

Area burned per year in the Amazon biome

The connection between climate cycles and fire frequency in Amazonia is evident in the chart below: in the years of 2005 and 2015, when the El Ninio climatic phenomena was strong a greater expanse of forest was burned. This synergy is very worrying given that the latest research indicates that dry seasons in the region may become increasingly long and intense.
Source: Inpe (Programa Queimadas) / Chart: InfoAmazonia

2015 was an El Niño year, a phenomenon that occurs due to the periodic warming of the waters of the southern Pacific Ocean, a process which influences precipitation and wind patterns worldwide, with vastly different consequences for each region. In the period from 2015 to 2016, the waters of the Atlantic Ocean were also warmer. These changes resulted in an intense drought in Amazonia, a perfect storm of conditions to favor fire. The end result? More than 87,000 fire outbreaks, an increase of 48% compared to 2014 (a non El Niño year) and 23% up on 2010 (a year of a medium-sized El Niño). Dry seasons in the Amazon are predicted to become longer and more intense as the 21st century progresses – especially if deforestation itself is not curtailed

The constant smoke hanging in the air between 2015 and 2016 led several Amazonian towns to declare a fire-related state of emergency for the first time. In August 2016, the federal government launched the “Fire in the woods, loss for good” campaign (Fogo no mato, prejuizo de fato), in order to raise awareness of the problem of wildfires among the rural population. Erika’s experience made it clear to her that fighting fire is not the ideal course of action. “Putting out fires is of limited use”, she says. “If we believe that droughts are becoming longer-lasting and more frequent, a policy focused solely on firefighting becomes untenable. We have to go for prevention”, says Erika. “It’s the same as intercepting small planes used in drug trafficking, when what we need to do is change the whole policy on drugs”, she says.

Area burned (in km²) per year in Brazilian biomes

In 2015, when the El Niño phenomenon was very intense, a drier climate and the high incidence of fires in the Amazon outpaced the fire frequency in the Caatinga biome, a naturally arid environment. Degradation and deforestation, coupled with global climate change, may lead to the extreme impoverishment of the forest.
Source: Inpe (Programa Queimadas) / Chart: InfoAmazonia

“There is a social issue inherent to this problem”, explains Joice Ferreira, researcher at Embrapa Amazônia Oriental (Embrapa Eastern Amazon) and one of the RAS coordinators. “It’s no use to have laws stating that you can’t start a fire while smallholders see it as the only alternative – the most viable and cheap way to clear the land. Policies can’t disregard the social and economic context and the lack of options available to local actors. Otherwise it looks very nice on paper, but in reality it won’t be practiced”, she concludes. Jos Barlow, also of RAS, sees in preventing fires an opportunity to unite actors that rarely converge towards shared goals. “Avoiding fire disasters is in everyone’s best interest, lumbermen, small farmers, large farmers, the government and those who live in cities and suffer the consequences of smoke to their health. Wildfire prevention can help us create a common agenda to protect against forest degradation in the Amazon”, concludes Jos.