The Burning Amazon: Wildfires Pose a Dire Threat to Climate-Crucial Environmental Progress


Uncontrolled wildfires are threatening environmental gains in Brazilian Amazonia, a region of high biological and cultural diversity. A letter published in Nature Ecology & Evolution highlights the alarm in a study co-authored by researchers at the University of East Anglia (UEA) and the University of South Alabama.

The study highlights that climate change has led to a rise in drought and extreme heat, priming forests to burn more often. Deforestation and the expansion of agriculture have damaged the integrity of the region’s forests and weakened their resilience to drought, making wildfires more common than they would be in a normally functioning rainforest.

Previous spikes in fire counts were associated with widespread deforestation, a primary source of fire and a strong predictor of burned areas. Deforestation rates have been falling in 2023, with alerts 42% lower between January and July than in the same period of 2022. Environmental gains in the region include the closure of major illegal mining operations that threaten the ecosystem and Indigenous communities, particularly in Yanomami territory. Dr. Gabriel de Oliveira at the University of South Alabama suggests that forest fires are decreasing due to deforestation, with only 19% of fires in January-June 2023 being related to recent deforestation, while the 2023 El Niño may increase fires.

Fire counts in Brazil are being impacted by factors such as deforestation, weak enforcement of environmental laws, and the lag effect of mechanically felled areas. Landholders may be burning pastures earlier in the dry season in anticipation of a fire moratorium later this year, expected under President Lula’s stronger environmental governance.

Dr. Rachel Carmenta, a lecturer in climate change and international development at UEA, emphasizes the importance of effective and equitable fire governance to avoid marginalizing forest-dependent peoples who are most heavily impacted by uncontrolled fires and one-size-fits-all fire policies. Indigenous groups have been using fire in agriculture for millennia but have not experienced mega fires like today.

The current situation is driven by large-scale actors, climate change, and forest fragmentation. Dr. Carmenta argues that small traditional communities are often blamed for the double burden of suffering when invasive fires damage the forest, leaving it without the game, fruits, timber, medicines, and resources it depends on.

Dr. Scott Stark, an assistant professor at Michigan State University, warns that fire incidence is expected to rise due to drier conditions in the coming months. Dr. de Oliveira emphasizes the need for reforestation, forest management, and agroforestry to prevent ‘runaway’ forest fires and degradation. The authors call for coordinated international efforts to tackle this growing threat.

Brazil’s Belém Declaration, a summit of Amazon nations, established an alliance against deforestation, acknowledging fire as a concern, and introducing a scientific body like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to produce evidence-based solutions.

The authors urge Brazil, other Amazon nations, and the international community to cooperate and commit support to advance research and governance for equitable fire-safe land management, curb forest loss, and shift from a commodity-based economic model to a sustainable economy that benefits all Amazonians and nations.

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