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An in-depth analysis of fire and deforestation data in the Amazon exposes the intrinsic relationship between the two phenomena in the past two years

Story by: Letícia Klein and Thiago Medaglia

Photos: Flavio Forner
Maps: Laura Kurtzberg


* This report was produced with the support of the Rainforest Journalism Fund, in partnership with the Pulitzer Center

The Amazon is not supposed to catch fire. The most biodiverse forest on the planet is humid, teeming with tree trunks covered in lichen and spongy moss, all of them accustomed to the morning mist. Each canopy in the Amazon forest, through evapotranspiration, pumps hundreds of liters of water into the atmosphere every day – the largest trees pump thousands – as a result of a unique combination that involves geographic location, vegetation cover and atmospheric systems in action. This part of South America provides rain for itself, as well as other regions of Brazil and the continent, which helps to understand the fact that its over 8,000 known tree species lack the evolutionary adaptations to fire found in savanna and boreal forest species. Such a unique ecosystem requires human intervention for it to burn. And that’s what has been happening.

From January to December of 2019, 89,000 hotspots were identified in the Amazon, 30% more than in the previous year, according to the National Institute for Space Research (INPE). From May to July of 2020, there was a 23% increase in the number of fire outbreaks compared to the same period last year – June, 2020 saw the highest rates for any month of June in the past 13 years.

Deforestation has also increased. Not even the pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus was able to contain the pressure exerted on the forest. The INPE deforestation warning system, Deter (Deforestation Detection in Real Time), estimates that over 9,000 km² were deforested from August, 2019 to July, 2020, a number that represents a 34% increase over the previous period (August, 2018 to July, 2019).

These two phenomena – deforestation and burning – did not occur independently of one another in the Amazon in the last two years. “Fire is the last phase in the deforestation process, transforming the forest that was once there into ashes”, explains Brazilian biologist Erika Berenguer, a researcher at the University of Oxford and Lancaster University, “you can’t raise cattle or farm grains with all those dead trees on the ground”.

In addition to deforestation fires, scientists classify fire in the Amazon in two other main categories. Agricultural management fires are defined as those burned in areas previously deforested and used for agricultural purposes, like clearing large pastures, and also when small farmers, indigenous peoples and traditional communities use fire in subsistence agriculture. All of these types of fires may escape to the standing forest and provoke forest fires. “Fire stewardship in the Amazon requires an understanding of what is burning, which factors influence the extent and spreading of forest fires, and how different aspects combine to make forests more flammable”, says Jos Barlow, a researcher at Lancaster University with two decades of experience in the Amazon.

First deforestation,
then fire

In Belterra, a municipality in western Pará known for its large scale soybean production, a large area of rainforest is cleared and, after a few weeks, burned.

Fire fighting
in the jungle

ICMBio Institute firefighters risk their lives by entering the Tapajós National Forest in search of forest fire hotspots.

The forest dies
little by little

That which fire does not immediately destroy, agonizes for years. Studies estimate the slow death of up to half of the trees three years after a fire has occurred.

Prescribed burns of pastures
may spread

In Porto Velho, in the State of Rondônia, a prescribed burn spreads over pastures, jeopardizing the surrounding forest.

Unlike the images that circulate on social media, the fires in untouched tropical rainforests don’t have the same visual impact as in drier forests, like in California or Australia, where flames can reach up to dozens of meters high. On the contrary, in the Amazon, forest fires advance low to the ground, around 200 to 300 meters a day, burning dry leaves and fallen timber. “The trees are 40 meters high”, says Erika Berenguer, “and when a forest burns for the first time, the flames are no higher than 30 centimeters.”

This is not to say that the result is not devastating for biodiversity: “A lack of natural adaptations for coping with forest fires makes tropical rainforest species highly susceptible. Even a small-scale forest fire can kill half of the trees”, explains ecologist Alexander Lees of Manchester Metropolitan University. These are the immediate effects, but others will be felt in the long run: “While small trees are more susceptible at a first stage”, says Lees, “the taller ones tend to perish in subsequent years.” Ultimately, though they do not advance as quickly, forest fires are capable of destroying thousands of square kilometers.

Due to the extreme humidity, the Amazon rainforest has always offered a resistance to fire. “In an experiment in the south of the Amazon, lines of leafcutter ants were able to contain forest fires”, reports Barlow. However, this ability has been crippled by factors such as fragmentation, logging, climate change, extreme drought and others that leave the forest more vulnerable to conditions like high temperatures and water stress, succumbing little by little.

After years of these complications, trees no longer serve as a barrier against the fires that branch off from recently deforested areas that are burning or those with established agricultural activity. Fragmentation also causes the edge effect, where trees die out at the margins of the forest. This causes drier air and worsens the advance of the flames. When forest fires are more difficult to contain, they affect more than just vegetation and wild animals. They also damage rural infrastructure, especially in traditional communities that rely on agriculture for their livelihood. Losses of all kinds are increasingly common and they include crops, livestock, fences and houses.

To make matters worse, representatives of the Bolsonaro administration have repeatedly placed the blame for the forest fires on small farmers. But the data does not support this narrative: according to IPAM (the Amazon Environmental Research Institute), in 2019, of the 31% of hotspots registered on farms, 22% took place on properties considered medium or large, and only 9% on smaller ones. By 2020, medium and large properties alone accounted for half of the hotspots in the Amazon.

Illegal logging

Timber from illegal logging is seized by Ibama inspectors and stored in a yard in the lower Tapajós river region.

Trees turned
into boards

Ibama inspectors locate an illegal logging spot deep in the forest, with timber already turned into boards for transportation.

Loaded trucks
crossing the Amazon

Trucks with cargo beds full of illegally extracted timber are seized and sent to the yard managed by the inspection agencies.

The use of fire in traditional agriculture

“Fire is becoming a dangerous thing”, says Pedro Pantoja, 69, known as Seu Pedrinho. “If there were another way for folks to plant their crops without burning, all the better”, explains one of the oldest residents of the riverside community of Jamaraquá, located in Tapajós National Forest in the northwestern section of Pará state, where each farmer has their own small plot to grow cassava and a specific date to burn their area. “In October or November, closer to the rainy season, people get together to organize the burning.”

The national forest on the Tapajós River is one of the most visited conservation units in North Brazil (which includes Amazonas, Roraima, Amapá, Pará, Tocantins, Rondônia and Acre) and one of the most studied in the Amazon. The river for which the national forest is named is the protagonist of one of the largest and most beautiful river basins in the entire Amazon, known for its white-sand beaches. The Tapajós also bathes the world famous district of Alter do Chão, where air-conditioned inns with restaurants specializing in local cuisine have English-language menus. In Tapajós National Forest, ​​where there are over 4,000 residents spread across 23 communities and three indigenous villages, tourism is rustic, and the Tapajós River is the center of community life.

In Jamaraquá, one of the national forest’s largest communities, ​​tourism, albeit incipient, is one of the main sources of employment and income for the 40 families that reside there, along with the rubber tree forest and fruit farming. Each family has a small plot of land for growing cassava on their property, which is readied with the use of fire – in the absence of mechanized methods, such as the use of tractors, small farmers in the Amazon use fire to replenish the soil in their system of crop rotation. They make flour for home consumption from cassava and sell the surplus at the family farmers’ market in the city of Santarém. Cassava and fire have been a part of life in the riverside communities for generations.

Seu Pedrinho says that community members are aware of other farming techniques without the use of fire, such as the agroforestry system and the use of tractors to ready the soil, but that they must rely on external aid and expertise. “We don’t have technical support. If you want to go on planting cassava, you need to clear the bush.” The “bush”, in this case, is what the locals refer to as capoeira (a Tupi word referring to low-lying secondary vegetation). After harvesting the cassava, the farmer lets the land rest for years, while cultivating the area next to it. During the fallow period, the vegetation in that area regenerates and contributes to environmental services, such as maintaining biodiversity, filtering water and preventing soil erosion. When the time comes to reuse the fallow land, Seu Pedrinho cuts down the capoeira and burns the biomass to fertilize the land – the ashes contain nutrients, such as phosphorus and potassium.

Consumption habits and farming practices were inherited from the original peoples. To this day, the indigenous peoples of the Amazon employ the same ancient methods used by their ancestors. Fire is a primordial resource for preparing cassava and other foods. It is a part of these peoples’ creation myths, featured in rites of passage and celebrations, and it is also used to obtain materials for housing.

Different types of fire in the Amazon

Scientific classification of fire in the region helps to understand why such a humid forest has been repeatedly burning

Illustrations: Marcos de Lima and Alessandro Meiguins
SUBSISTENCE FIRE, small and essential for the survival of local populations, consist of slashing-and-burning an area that was at fallow state (burning the so-called secondary vegetation) to prepare the land.
In addition to use by small farmers, who plant for their own livelihood, AGRICULTURAL MANAGEMENT FIRE is also used for clearing pasture in large farms, as a way to renew grasslands for livestock.
In the almost always criminal cycle of removing the forest for real estate speculation and for opening new areas of pasture and monoculture, DEFORESTATION FIRE is the tool used to eliminate dry biomass.
Both deforestation and agricultural management fires, as well as subsistence fire, can escape to neighboring forests and cause WILDFIRES. Low-level and slow-burning, they are capable of destroying thousands of square kilometers of fauna and flora.

From its role in shaping the cultural identity of different peoples to its use as a tool for subsistence agriculture, fire is indispensable in the daily lives of traditional communities. But the ancient way of life in rural Amazon is beginning to feel the impacts of the climate crisis more directly – caused, primarily, by the industrialized portion of humanity. The climate has changed to such an extent that the forest of today, drier and more flammable, seems incompatible with traditional local customs. “In the old days”, says Seu Pedrinho, “work in the fields went from 7 AM until noon, but today you can’t even stand being out there at 10 AM. It’s just too hot.”

In the fields, small farmers have techniques to prevent fire from subsistence agriculture from escaping. Seu Pedrinho says his family and neighbors get together to make a firebreak, the process of clearing vegetation around the land to keep material that is more easily ignited out of the reach of flames. Up to 3 meters wide and at a distance of 10 meters from the cropland, community members try to control the brush fire and prevent it from turning into a forest fire.

They take other precautions too, like starting the fire at the coolest time of day, against the wind, and moving from the edge of the land inward. “The more the merrier, because we can all help to put out the fire”, he explains. In the past, there were more people, but today, due to the exodus of young people who leave the Amazon’s inland communities for better access to education or healthcare in urban areas, there are fewer hands available.

“Community members have a strong perception of the problems that arise with the increase in escaping fire, both from the national forest on the Tapajós River and from the Tapajós-Arapiuns Extractive Reserve”, says Joice Ferreira, a researcher at the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation of the Eastern Amazon. The aforementioned Tapajós-Arapiuns Extractive Reserve is on the other side of the river in an area of ​​over 6,000 km². Its 75 communities are home to 13,000 people who live mainly off of subsistence agriculture, small animal breeding and extractivism. Because of their economic activities, the residents of the extractive reserve feel the impacts of fire acutely. Forest fires cause a decline in hunting and fruits for sale and consumption, and also destroy beehives and medicinal products extracted from the forest.

Another recent change is an increase in venomous animal species, such as scorpions and snakes, a development that is unprecedented in the literature according to Joice Ferreira. The researcher coordinates a project in the extractive reserve and the national forest focused on the dynamics of fire in family farming. Over 500 residents of both conservation units have participated in the project’s workshops, including Seu Pedrinho.

Meetings are held in easily accessible communities, and all the other communities are invited to participate. Through conversations and group dynamics, researchers hope to understand the community members’ perspectives on fire, what the inherent risks are and how they are perceived by members, the factors that have contributed to the increase in forest fires over time and any possible alternatives. Developed by professionals from 12 national and international institutions of education and research, including federal agencies, the project kicked off in April of 2019 and will run until 2022. A course on biodiversity, fire risk and climate change for teachers in the region had been scheduled for April of this year, but the annual planning changed due to the pandemic.

Stilt houses
no longer flood

The stilts of Pedro Pantoja’s house, at Flona Tapajós, used to be underwater during the wet season, a reality altered by a drier climate.

to the use of fire

Sociologist Angela Steward, from the Federal University of Pará (UFPA), with river-dwellers at the Jamaraquá community, in a project that seeks alternative technologies to fire in subsistence agriculture.

Fire in the fields,
food on the table

In a homely kitchen of a wooden house on the Tapajós river, cassava grown using traditional methods, which involve the use of fire, is being prepared.

A drier,
more vulnerable future

Child on a hammock in Maripá, at the Resex Tapajós-Arapiuns. The uncertain future leads many young people to leave the hinterland of the Amazon to make a new life in urban areas.

“Community members are interested in cutting back on fire and they would like to have a better understanding of agroforestry and agricultural systems with no burning, but find themselves trapped in the situation they’re in”, explains Joice Ferreira. “Talking about banning fire is not feasible, because changing this practice depends on tools they don’t have”, adds the researcher.

In places in the Amazon where machinery is provided by the government, small farmers have to rent them by the hour, pay for their fuel and, in some cases, also cover the expenses of fertilizer. Fire, on the other hand, is cheap and easy to employ. “From an environmental and risk reduction perspective, it’s important to put an end to the use of fire, but when you think that the use of fire in agricultural practices is ancient, we need to understand, together with the farmers, how they would adapt to a regime change in climate”, says the scientist.

One of the main goals of the project, titled Sem Flama (“No Flame”), is to build a fire warning and prediction system based on the data collected at the meetings. The system will improve the visualization of fire outbreaks and prevent or accelerate fire response in the extractive reserve and the national forest. Coordinated by the National Center for Natural Disaster Monitoring and Alerts (CEMADEN), the system will contain information on the locations of communities in the region, the population density of each, where most cultivated lands are and which locales are closer to roads or deforested areas. “The rapid drop in humidity will feed the system and generate alerts in certain regions. Both the ICMBio (Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation) and community members will have access to the information and be able to respond quickly to the event, with external fire prevention brigades and people from the community trained in firefighting”, explains Ferreira.

The degradation route

Near Santarém, the BR-163 highway separates the Flona Tapajós from a recently deforested area cleared out to make way for new pastures.

Livestock farms
encroaching the forest

Livestock farming, one of the main causes behind deforestation, can generate long term negative impacts because of the use of fire for clearing pasture.

Livestock farms
encroaching the forest

On the way to the Uru-eu-wau-wau Indigenous Land, in the State of Rondônia, where isolated tribes live, traces of an out-of-control fire on a cattle ranch.

Impacts of other fires

Because of real estate speculation, deforested areas are not always promptly set on fire: many are acquired illegally by land grabbers, who cut down trees with the intention of obtaining and legalizing land ownership after receiving amnesty from the government. “Though not every hotspot is associated with deforestation”, says Liana Anderson, a researcher from Cemaden, “an area that is deforested will surely be burned at some point, because fire is the tool used to eliminate biomass.”

An effective way to combat fire, therefore, would be to dramatically reduce deforestation. “If there is no source of ignition, there is no way for the fire to escape to the standing forest”, explains Erika Berenguer. According to a report from MapBiomas (The Brazilian Annual Land Use and Land Cover Mapping Project, developed by a network of experts), 99% of the deforestation that took place in Brazil last year was illegal, that is, it occurred without prior authorization from the competent environmental agencies, whether municipal, state or federal, such as IBAMA (the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources).

To combat deforestation and illegality, the federal government must invest in supervision, technical staff, research and the development of technology. Systems capable of differentiating types of fire in real time can guide the creation of new policies. “We need to know where the fires are, what’s burning, who the agents involved are and what municipal and state governments need to be involved. This way, it is possible to create incentives and command and control mechanisms to avoid this same type of situation in the future”, says Paulo Brando, a researcher from IPAM.

“We get our sustenance from the land and the river. If you wipe out the forest and burn it down, what will you do next? There will be no fruit, no hunting, no more forest”, says Seu Pedrinho. His elemental wisdom, carved from the fields and the river, is in no way inconsistent with the demands made on Brazil from the global market. Last June, managers of foreign investment funds, valued at USD $ 4 trillion, called on the Bolsonaro administration to end the deforestation, and the Dutch Parliament rejected the trade agreement between Mercosur and the European Union for the same reason. Like fire and deforestation in the Amazon, the future of the most biodiverse forest on the planet and that of humanity are tied to one another. And this is a reality that no smokescreen can conceal.