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Wildfires threaten environmental gains in the Amazon

Although efforts have been made to curb deforestation, the Brazilian Amazon, a key carbon sink and a hotbed of biodiversity and cultural richness, is currently grappling with escalating uncontrolled wildfires.

This grave concern has been highlighted in a recent letter in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution titled “Increasing wildfires threaten progress on halting deforestation in Brazilian Amazonia.” 

The letter is a collaborative effort between researchers from the University of East Anglia (UEA), the University of South Alabama, and other prominent institutions from North and South America and Europe.

Increasing fire activity

According to the experts, data from June 2023 shows that the number of active Amazon fires surged to its highest since 2007. Moreover, the total number of fires for the first six months of 2023 was an alarming ten percent more than the previous year.

“Climate change has led to a rise in drought and extreme heat, priming forests to burn more often,” said co-author Matthew Jones, an environmental scientist at UEA. 

“On top of this, deforestation and the expansion of agriculture have damaged the integrity of the region’s forests and weakened their resilience to drought. As a result, wildfires have become far more common than they would be in a normally functioning rainforest.”

Decoupling of fires from deforestation 

Historically, fire count spikes, such as the unprecedented fires in August and September 2022, correlated with rampant deforestation, a significant fire catalyst and predictor of affected regions. 

Interestingly, 2023 saw a 42 percent decrease in deforestation alerts from January to July compared to the same timeframe in 2022. This period also witnessed the shutdown of large-scale illegal mining operations, which posed threats to the ecosystem and Indigenous communities, especially within the Yanomami territory.

“This year’s high and climbing fire counts, in the context of reduced deforestation, highlight a decoupling of forest fires from deforestation,” explained lead author Gabriel de Oliveira, an assistant professor of Geography at Southern Alabama. “Indeed, only 19 percent of the fires were related to recent deforestation during January-June 2023, down from 39 percent in 2022.”

Additional factors

The 2023 El Niño’s hotter and drier conditions have affected parts of the Amazon, potentially fueling more fires, as observed in past El Niño events. 

Another factor increasing fire counts could be the lagging impacts of prior deforestation surges linked to lax environmental regulation enforcement during President Jair Bolsonaro’s tenure. In addition, anticipating potential fire bans later this year due to President Lula’s robust environmental governance, landowners might be setting fires earlier in the dry season.

Community impacts

“Effective and equitable fire governance is essential in order to avoid further marginalizing forest-dependent peoples who are both most heavily impacted when uncontrolled fires invade the forests upon which they depend, and most impacted by one-size-fits-all fire policy such as fire-bans,” said co-author Rachel Carmenta, a lecturer in Climate Change and International Development at UEA.

“The role of distant consumers is huge. But the small traditional communities are often blamed, representing a double burden because they also suffer the most when invasive fires damage the forest, leaving it without the game, fruits, timber, medicines and resources they depend on. Identifying ways to manage these fires is essential in order to avoid further marginalizing forest-dependent peoples who are most heavily impacted when uncontrolled fires invade their territories, and most impacted by one-size-fits-all fire policy such as fire bans.”

“While research is needed to better understand the comparative contributions of these drivers, a clear expectation is that fire incidence will rise even higher with the anticipated drier conditions over coming months,” added co-author Scott Stark, an expert in Forest-Atmosphere Interactions at Michigan State University.

Meanwhile, Dr. de Oliveira proposed holistic approaches, such as reforestation, forest management, and agroforestry, to counter the threat of uncontrollable forest fires.

International collaboration is needed

Moreover, the researchers advocate for international collaboration to effectively address this mounting challenge.

August saw Brazil hosting an Amazon nations summit, focusing on sustainable growth and forest conservation. The resulting Belém Declaration outlined several key goals but stopped short of committing to zero deforestation by 2030 or significant reductions in forest fire frequencies. 

The declaration, however, did underscore the importance of combating deforestation and recognized fires as a pivotal concern. It also established a scientific body, akin to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), tasked with crafting evidence-backed, Amazon-specific resolutions.

In conclusion, the authors stressed the need for cooperation, urging Brazil, other Amazon nations, and the global community to “commit the support needed to rapidly advance research and governance for equitable fire-safe land management.”

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