For a few weeks in August, the world’s eyes were fixed on Brazil and its government’s response. But what is the latest with the fires now, almost two months on? And why might the problem be worse than it first appeared?
There are still Amazon fires – though not as many
When the burning of the Amazon was at its peak in August, there were thousands of individual fires, almost three times as many that month – 30,901 – compared with the same period last year.
What caused this? Forest fires do happen in the Amazon during the dry season between July and October. They can be caused by naturally occurring events, like lightning strikes, but this year most are thought to have been started by farmers and loggers clearing land for crops or grazing.
This matters because the Amazon is the largest rainforest in the world and a vital carbon store that slows down the pace of global warming.
The world reacted with fury to the fires – there were protests in dozens of cities, threats of financial penalties, and broad condemnation of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s environmental policies.
In late August, Mr Bolsonaro deployed the army to the Amazon and ordered a 60-day ban on setting fires to clear land there. The measures had an effect – the number of fires in the Amazon dropped by a third between August and September. The pace has slowed even more this month, and is likely to do so even more now that annual rains have started.
There are signs, though, that the situation is worse than it appears. This is because the burning of the rainforest isn’t the biggest problem – deforestation is.
Traditionally, Amazon rainforest is felled, left to dry and then set on fire. By the time the moratorium came in, vast deforestation had already taken place. The only thing the ban prevented was more burning.
“They reduced the level of burning, but not the level of deforestation,” says Ane Alencar, the science director of the non-profit Amazon Environmental Research Institute (Ipam). “By the end of August, most of the deforestation in the current year had already happened.”
Statistics gathered by Inpe, Brazil’s satellite agency, suggest that at least 7,747 sq km of Brazilian Amazon rainforest have already been cleared so far this year.
Ane Alencar believes the true figure is likely to be at least 30% higher, making it the worst year since 2008 for Amazon deforestation in Brazil. A lot of the wood has yet to be burned, she believes, because of the moratorium and the fact annual rains are now starting.
“There are a lot of areas that were deforested but were not burned, but they might be burned next year instead,” Ms Alencar says.
The problem has moved from the Amazon
While fires have eased in the Brazilian Amazon, it’s been a different story in another fragile region to the south – the Cerrado savannah. The WWF calls it “one of the most endangered ecosystems on the planet” but there were more fires there than in the Amazon last month.